There is debate today as to whether stretching has any benefit to our overall health and athletic performance.
Current research studies come to mixed conclusions. World-class Kenyan distance runners never stretch, and many elite distance running coaches feel that stretching causes more injuries than it prevents.
Yet stretching persists in the warm ups of most sports practices and workout programs, with many physical therapists strongly advocating for its benefits.
So what gives?
Perhaps the answer lies in understanding the difference between two similar terms - flexibility and mobility.
Flexibility measures your passive range of motion, meaning how far a muscle can stretch without bearing weight or being under tension. Lying on your back and pulling your leg up (or having someone else push your leg into stretch) is a simple example.
Mobility measures your ability to lengthen muscles and associated soft tissue while under tension. So in reality, mobility is a combination of end-range strength and flexibility.
And it is mobility that seems to be most beneficial in preventing injuries and enhancing athletic performance.
Non-contact injuries almost always occur at the end ranges of motion. In these positions control can be lost, leading to awkward movements that cause strains of ligaments and tendons.
True athletic movement not only allows you to get into extreme positions, but it allows you to demonstrate control, commonly known as coordination, in those end ranges. And by being in control, your body is prepared to adapt to slight changes in circumstances.
Think of the soccer player who gets bumped just a bit while making a cut, or the adult who drops their car keys while holding bags in their hands. Both are performing basic movements, yet they have to make slight adaptations in how they achieve them. Those who control their movement fluidly will likely not even notice their success, but those without the mobility to handle either situation can easily wind up injured and suffering the consequences of this one moment for years to come.
So how is mobility developed?
First, I'd recommend finding out your limitations. Some ways to do this are:
- Complete a Functional Movement Screen. This is what we currently use with our clients.
- Get evaluated by a quality physical therapist. They typically have more detailed movement assessments.
- Complete a Functional Range Assessment or some other high quality screen that may be offered by a trainer near you.
The reason you want to be evaluated first is because there are just so many potential pathways to clearing up your mobility deficits that you want to find the right one. It's like looking for a single tree in a giant forest, if you don't have some clues as to how to find the right one it's going to take you forever to accomplish your goal.
Then, train your mobility limitations. There are a few ways to accomplish this:
- Through strength training, done under control, with an emphasis on gently expanding your range of motion.
- Yoga, which really is the same idea but uses bodyweight instead of external resistance.
- Through more advanced training concepts, like Functional Range Conditioning or something similar.
The key here is to be detail-oriented in your training, and be persistent. Just like going to school for one day here and there (or attending but not really paying attention) won't make you a successful student, the same concepts apply to physical training.
Although passive flexibility and mobility training may seem like the same thing at first, current research suggests they lead to wildly different outcomes. One tends to leave you as the same old person, while the other can transform your ability to move athletically while remaining injury-free.