What is a mobility practice? And why is it important for every human to have a consistent mobility practice? You will want to read til the end where I share some great hip mobility videos with you.
“The biggest pattern of movement dysfunction we see in our runners and athletes in general is poor movement, a lack of stability & mobility motor control, resulting in repetitive motion injuries”- Dr. Matt Fontaine
What the above statement simply implies is…
- Do you have full range? Yes or No? AND,
- Can you control and stabilize that full range of motion under load and at speed during movement or sport?
We have learned so much in the past decade about the human body, that our current knowledge far surpasses the last 100 years of our understanding of human movement. A great book by Daniel Lieberman, The Story of the Human Body provides much of what we currently know about the human body.
Daniel E. Lieberman gives us a lucid and engaging account of how the human body evolved over millions of years. He illuminates the major transformations that contributed to key adaptations to the body: the rise of bipedalism; the shift to a non-fruit-based diet; the advent of hunting and gathering; and how cultural changes like the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions have impacted us physically. (excerpted from Amazon description of The Story of the Human Body.
How well our body moves and how well we can perform movements during sport and recreation determines how well we can handle load across our muscles, tendons, ligaments, fascia and joints. It is all about how your body handles and distributes load, tension and compression along its suspension system (the musculoskeletal system) of rods (bones) and slings (muscles/tendons, FASCIA/ ligaments).
Buckminster Fuller coined the “tensegrity model” and stated that the integrity of the structure derived from the balance of tension members, not the compression struts. In the human body, the tension members consist of the muscle and the fascial system and the struts are the bones of the skeleton. Bones are “islands of tension floating in a sea of tension”.
Fascial continuity throughout the body results in a system of “adjustable tensegrity” around the skeletal frame. The muscles and fascia are continuously pulling inward tension on the skeleton to create a stabile structure. What is amazing is that this “fascial system” is widely innervated with nerve receptors, including muscle spindles. These receptors recognize changes in tension and send feedback to the brain about our position in space, as well as the length tension relationships between myofascial planes.
So why do we care so much about the fascia?
Learn more about What soft tissue injury is and How it occurs, here.
Much of what we know about fascia has been published and presented by the International Fascia Research Congress (FRC) . The fourth FRC was held near Washington D.C in September 2015. The fascia is not just a structural component of the human frame. It is actually part of our nervous system. That is because the myofascial system actually houses a system of electrical circuits, nerve receptors (muscle spindles, proprioceptors, Golgi tendon organs) that communicates directly with the spinal cord and brain to monitor and coordinate human movement.
Our posture over time yields our individual “loading history”. Overtime we tend to develop a sustained posture and movement patterns that we have “habitually patterned”. The nervous system will learn movements and tasks as we repeat them day in and day out, whether those movements or tasks are biomechanically correct or incorrect.
Great posture costs money in the form of energy and our nervous system is lazy. Dating back millions of years of evolution, we still have our primitive nervous system that controls much of our movement and it has been hardwired to conserve energy. Our nervous system has learned that these ‘slouched ‘ postures are more comfortable and cost less energy, at least in the short term. Our primitive brain, especially our amygdala (our brain’s center for emotion and radar for threat) and basal ganglia, cannot appreciate potential threats in the future. It is hardwired to deal with immediate threats. It is not designed to deal with the future potential health hazards or any future threat to our survival.
Daniel Goleman in his book Focus states “our brain’s attention mechanisms evolved over thousands of years to survive in a fang-and-claw jungle where threats approached our ancestors within a specific range and set of threats-somewhere around the lunge of a snake and the speed of a leaping tiger. Those of our ancestors whose amygdala was quick enough to help us dodge that snake and evade that tiger passed on their neural design to us.”
The task of logic, reasoning and understanding future threats falls on the neocortex, in particular, the prefrontal cortex. Simply put, the more we practice these postures, the more our basal ganglia takes over and defaults to these postures.
Goleman also states “people attribute what happened to them to events close in time and space, when in reality it’s the result of the dynamics of the larger system within which they are embedded”. Many of the repetitive motion injuries that people sustain are the result of years, even decades of cumulative stress to our structural frame and myofascial system. They are most often not the result of a sudden trauma, or a bad lift in the gym or the last run you completed.
Making the Invisible Palpable
Activities like meditation and box breathing and turning our full attention to our sense can quiet our primitive brain and calm the amygdala. Think savasana in yoga practice. This is exactly what is occurring during this activity, we are quieting the mind. Practices like this can train us to have better “open awareness”- a state where there are no emotional hijacks-just a sense of calm in the moment.
Our brain consumes about 60 % of the glucose of the body. And unlike muscle which stores sugar in the form of glycogen, the brain has no sugar storage reserves. So it will do what it can to put activities like motor control on auto pilot. Intense focus and concentration, anxiety and worry all create an energy demand on the brain. Again, activities like meditation and savasana can greatly help reduce anxiety and quiet the mind.
Overtime, the effects of poor posture and repetitive motion contribute to muscle imbalances and poor movement. We then attempt to base a normal and regular workout session on top of this faulty system. This is very frequently why injuries occur while working out; we are increasing our body demands either through speed to improve stamina and aerobic capacity or through resistance exercises to improve muscle tone, strength, size or anaerobic capacity.
Our body overtime exhausts it’s capacity to introduce compensations to prevent the tissue injury or inflammation and the symptoms finally surface on a more dramatic note.
Dispelling some common myths about stretching
- Stretching can actually lengthen muscle. I just need to stretch more to get more flexible. MYTH
It is near impossible to elongate muscle sarcomeres. Stretching in essence attempts to increase the distance between the muscle origin and insertion. What the research actually shows us is that what stretching can actually do is increase stretch tolerance (ability to withstand more stretching force), not an actual increase in extensibility (increased muscle length).
Dynamic movement practices, like yoga, actually work your body in a series of synergistic and antagonistic muscle activation, with some muscles lengthening into a position while many others are contracting to create stability. The “training effects” of a consistent movement practice like this is a reduction in passive stiffness of the joints and tissues and overall better movement.
Stretching a muscle with a knot or adhesion simply will not release the tightness. If you pull on each end of the string, the knot just gets tighter.
- My hamstrings are short and tight and that is why I can’t bend over and touch my toes: Maybe, but likely a MYTH
More often than not, it is due to one of two common issues. The first of which is an entrapped sciatic nerve in the hip rotator muscles that creates neural tension during forward bending. Nerves do not stretch, but need to slide. Entrapped nerves do not slide and therefore during forward bending, the tension on the nerve is the limiting factor in the movement. The sciatic nerve exits the pelvis and runs between these small muscles in the back of the hip. With all our activity, especially sitting, these muscles get tight and can “pinch” the sciatic nerve.
The other issue is a weakness of the core muscles and poor muscle integration. If the core muscles are not well conditioned and activated, the brain will shut down forward bending to prevent undue loading of the lumbar spine.
- Muscles and fascia house a network of nerve receptors that monitor tension and length. TRUE.
These are called muscle spindles and they monitor tension and length of a muscle.
- Flexibility and strength. Use it or lose it. TRUE
One of the benefits to practices like yoga and strength training is that when practiced through as full of range of motion as possible, these activities actually help to reinforce normal movement.
- The nervous system controls our muscles and movement. TRUE
Understanding the neural arc: Our muscles and tendons have receptors called muscle spindles and Golgi tendon organs that monitor changes in tension and length. When the muscle/tendon is stretched quickly, a signal is sent to the spinal cord to signal the brain in real time what is happening. The brain then signals the muscle via a feedback loop that can generate more muscle contraction to prevent overstretching. Think about when a doctor taps your knee to elicit a reflex, known as the knee jerk reflex. He or she is testing the integrity of this neural arc.
- We can isolate muscles in stretching and strength training. MYTH
The truth is our body is a system of tensegrity. A coordinated effort of muscles in symphony are responsible for body movement. The body is in a constant state of tension, and constant flux of transferring load and stress across long bones, joints, muscle and fascia, tendons and ligaments.
- You should always stretch an injury. MYTH
Most repetitive motion injuries involve some degree of sprain or elongation/tearing of ligaments. Ligaments undergo what is called “plastic deformation” in which the ligament stretches like plastic, never to return to its original length. Once a ligament gets torn, it takes about 8 weeks for a minor grade I micro tear and up to a full year for more serious grade II tears. A full grade III tears usually require surgical repair.
- My muscles always feel “looser” after stretching and I seem to move easier. TRUE…BUT
Movement may be easier for the short term. Muscles are viscoelastic. The more elastic, the more it can stretch. Foam rolling before stretching heats fascia, making it slightly more pliable, for the short term. But after exercise and the body cools, the elastic properties revert the muscle to its original length once the tensile forces are removed. Because muscles are 90 % water, they have viscous properties. The muscles respond to tensile load either in compression or stretching over time. Typically within 20 minutes of stretching the muscles return to their original length. Neural stretch tolerance increases with activities like Yoga. This represents an actual learning of the nervous system to allow these new movements and greater ranges. We call these “training effects” and they develop over time with a consistent movement practice.
- Foam rolling is helpful. TRUE
There are those who state that foam rolling before exercise can hinder performance. That goes against basic physiology. Warm tissue are more pliable, even if only for the short term. By rolling, you are heating up the fascia, and that neural network comes alive and becomes more sensitive to movement, better enabling you to engrain movement patterns. That is why it is so important to use good practice when doing movement and mobility exercises. You want to be sure you engrain good movement patterns.
- What is Down-regulation and How does it occur?
We know that massage, meditation and similar activities cause our body’s parasympathetic nervous system to activate. That system is responsible for “down-regulating” certain body systems. Parasympathetic activity results in decreased heart rate, increased digestion, and aids in slowing down the body for rest and recovery. Foam rolling can have similar effects via parasympathetic stimulation. With that said, keep soft tissue work prior to exercise to a minimum. Foam rolling is best focused on problem areas where you know your body s tight. Keep it simple, do some rolling and mashing and then some movement based dynamics. It is best to save soft tissue work for after the workout and at the end of the day due to its “down-regulating” effects it has on our body. That is to say it can stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system and helps to calm our body down from the heightened levels of the day.
Some key Take Home Points and Do’s & Don’ts
- Stretching does not reduce the occurrence of or prevent injuries
- Overstretching prior to exercise can cause some inhibition of muscle activation, leading to decreased strength, power and performance.
- Mobility Practice Tip # 1:Dynamic movements that train movement patterns are much better for warm up. They prepare the nervous system for movement.
- When assessing human movement, the simple question is do you have full range of motion? YES or NO?
- What we can focus on is Pain & Function. We can resolve pain by restoring function.
- Mobility Practice Tip # 2: Many times we restore function by fixing Structure. That means improving joint movement through manipulation and mobilization. Improving soft tissue quality with manual therapies such as Active Release Techniques.
- Mobility Practice Tip # 3: Do have a mobility practice in which you work with foam rollers and lacrosse balls to work out tight and restricted tissues
- Mobility Practice Tip # 4: Do have a long term relationship with a sports chiropractic physician or physical therapist who specializes in manual therapy of the soft tissues and joints. Establishing and keeping up with this relationship allows you to learn the best processes for a good mobility practice. An expert can serve as a “Dr. Fix It” to keep you performing optimally, help prevent injury and also mentor you and guide you in your personal mobility practice. Find an ART provider here: Activerelease.com
- Mobility Practice Tip # 5: Foam rolling is a great way to heat up the fascia, and prepare the myofascial tissues for exercise.
- Mobility Practice Tip # 6: Focus soft tissue work pre-exercise only on restricted areas.
- Mobility Practice Tip # 7: Save most soft tissue work for after the workout or at the end of the day to help the body down-regulate.