“The First and Greatest Victory is to Conquer Yourself”
You, as a human animal, move and function relatively similar to other humans. Collectively, given all things equal in age, gender, race and ethnicity, joint for joint, there is a very small disparity between individual’s potential movement capacities. But this disparity can mean a difference between getting your personal record time in a sprint event, preventing a hamstring strain, or being able to pick up a heavy barbell off the floor. Let us close this movement gap between where you are now and your TRUE human potential, and it starts with mobility.
What does it mean to be “mobile”? Are there scientific concepts, principles and theories in mobility? What is the basic biological concept of human mobility and more importantly how can we apply to where we can create a scientifically robust exercise program that can be help improve performance, prevent injury and speed up recovery form injury.
Let’s start by differentiating mobility to flexibility. Flexibility as defined is the capability of being bent, usually without breaking, it is susceptible to modification or adaptation. It is also defined as the ability to passively achieve a range of motion. In sports and in life, this passive characteristic of flexibility has little value because it is range of motion for which a person has no control, this to me is “useless range” and is not FUNCTIONAL.
Mobility comes from the Latin word “Movere”, which means to move. It is defined as capable of MOVING or being moved freely and easily. It describes “moveableness” or the ability to move physically. To go deeper, there is also what we in the sports medicine field call “Functional Mobility”, which is the ability to ACTIVELY achieve range of motion. We can also describe it as MOBILITY = FLEXIBILITY + STRENGTH/CONTROL. This then requires training in an attempt to capture passive ROM (range of motion) and make it Active (usable). The table below represents the amount of active ROM relative to the passive ROM.
There are four scientific concepts that helps explain mobility for humans. This are the Dynamic Systems Theory (Bernstein 1967), Principle of Progressive Adaptation (Spina 2017), Principles of Specificity (Hawley 2002) and last Sherrington’s Law of Irradiation (Sherrington 1906).
First, the Dynamic Systems Theory is “Repetitions without Repetition” which is shorthand for saying that several attempts at the same task ALWAYS leads to a different pattern of performance. This is very apparent with high level athletes, where they invest thousands of hours to relatively similar sports specific movement patterns for mastery of the subtle VARIABILTY of the said movement, which is the hallmark of skilled motor performance. The figure below will describe all the factors involved on developing competent movement pattern.
Second, the Principle of Progressive Adaptation, it states that incremental loads imparted on the tissue results in adaptation of said tissue such that the load absorption capacity improves. This means that the biological changes that happen in the body to achieve optimal mobility is predicated by the stress we place on it. In more practical terms, when you feel stuck in you mobility, appropriate load and time is necessary to go past your current threshold. And this load does not need to be external as in weights, the voluntary contraction of your OWN muscles can achieve the same effect. The figure below can describe the relationship of load and time to improving mobility.
Third, the Principle of Specificity, it states that adaptation to increase mobility is specific to the stimuli provided. This is particularly useful in terms of choosing a modality for exercise as well as loading parameters. Your body’s mobility will only change proportional to the stimuli you provide it.
Last, Sherrington’s Law of Irradiation, it describes that a muscle working hard recruits the neighboring muscles, and if they are already part of the action, it amplifies the strength the neural impulses emitted by the contracting muscle and “turn them on” as how an electric current starts a motor. There’s a high degree of central nervous system involvement in improving mobility because through active movement, more players are in play in your body. The figure below will describe how irradiation works.
Now we know the science, let’s take a look at our body. Notice when you bend your elbow, is it really just the elbow joint moving? The movement of the elbow joint WILL move layers upon layers of muscle fibers, fascia, ligaments, tendons, blood vessels, lymphatic vessels, nerves, fat and skin on top of the joint formed by your humerus and radius bone. Below is an illustration of an elbow so you can appreciate everything that is moving besides the joint.
In the figure, you will notice that the all the different parts are well defined and organized. The organization of these parts are facilitated by your connective tissue, where its function is to connect, support, bind, or separate other tissue or organs typically having relatively few cells embedded in an amorphous matrix often with collagen or others fibers such as cartilage fatty or elastic tissue.
Our connective tissue was found to be organized in “in –series” model. That is, rather than there are separate moving parts of muscle, fat, nerves, and tendon, it is all one part, like connected cars in a train. It was also observed that due to this relationship, that when in tension, the mechanoreceptor (receptor in the body that detect changes in tension) from one body part to the other, allows transmission of forces/signals in ALL POSITIONS. Note on the figure below on how it’s organized.
This is very important information because to achieve optimum mobility, we need to appreciate how our connective tissue is organized and how its integrity will affect the outcomes of our mobility program.
Now that we know how mobility is achieved, let’s talk about why it’s important. For most of the exercising public, it is not very popular to work on mobility compared to flexibility (yoga) and strength (weight lifting), but when applied, mobility is a great precursor to the following applications.
You see, Injury is when tissue damage occurs when applied load or stress exceeds the load bearing capacity of the tissue. So for rehabilitation, imparting progressive internal loads and stress into damaged tissue with the appropriate time induces beneficial tissue adaptation or also known as healing. For injury prevention, when the tissue is healed, the rehabilitation process increases the load bearing capacity of the tissue. The equation below will summarize the statement.
In summary, mobility allows you freedom to achieve your movement and performance goals because when you invest the effort and time to own your range of motion, you can bulletproof your body from injury and express your optimum human potential fearlessly.