By Dennis Dunphy
What’s the one commodity that’s the most precious that we can never get back? Time. It’s the one thing of which the vast majority of people wish they had more. People tell us, as coaches, that they just can’t find the time to work on mobility outside of the sessions spent with us.
Life has a habit of getting in the way. Things come up that take us away from the things that we truly want or should be doing to help us maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Why did I begin this blog talking about time and how we value it but often can’t manage it?
It’s the thing that I often see people wasting when they’re doing “mobility” work. You may ask, “How can someone be wasting time if they’re doing something?” Well, let me set some typical scenarios for you.
A person is in the “functional” training area of the local gym going through the motions of the same old stretches. Most of these folks are going to passively stretch these tissue lines with a lot of compensations that they don’t have the body awareness to realize are taking place. Too often, they just hold a position as they scroll through their social media.
Passive stretching will yield results, but the amount of time that it will require is exponentially more than one would think. The results of how the body molds to prolonged passive posture holds (e.g. sitting over a computer for 8-10 hours) happens over the build up of months and years. We say that the only bad postures are those in which you spend too much time.
Mobility WORK & Active Stretching
What is mobility?
People always tell us that they need to increase their flexibility. Mobility isn’t just flexibility. It’s a combination of strength, flexibility and motor control. This is where the fitness community drops the ball in teaching mobility concepts, not only to the general population but also trainers and coaches. Mobility work should be just that… work.
Passive stretching only puts tension on the connective tissues (tendons/ligaments), whereas active (isometric) stretching integrates the muscle fibers with the connective tissues. The ability to produce force and exhibit strength in your end range of motion(s) is vital to increasing your body’s resilience during movement. Injuries typically don’t occur in mid-range movements, they happen in end range positions. As Dr. Andreo Spina states, “The angle you get injured in, is the angle you regret not training.”
Active vs Passive Stretching
How do you feel or experience the difference between passive and active stretching? You simply apply force either pushing or pulling through the limbs with light isometric intensity.
Let’s use our standing hamstring stretch as an example. Most people do this on the floor laying on their back and pulling the target leg up towards the ceiling using, either their hands or another tool (strap or band).
The biggest issue with this starts with the off-leg externally rotating and allowing you to pull your leg up higher, which isn’t a true read of your hamstring range of motion. The external rotation of the off leg allows you to pull the leg higher. Then the person simply lays there, pulling on the leg, until the connective tissue is lengthened to a point where the body sends feedback to stop increasing the lengthening process.
Your true range of motion comes from being able to keep the off-hip in neutral position while actively (without help from an outside source) lifting your target leg and keeping your knees in extension.
The previous example explains the shortcomings of typical floor-based hamstring stretches and is why we recommend a standing variation.
The standing variation allows the off-hip to stay in a neutral position. Using Training Sticks allows us to add stability to the body, as we go into our hinge pattern by actively pushing the stick into the floor, utilizing approximately 30% of our maximum effort. Dorsiflex the ankle on the target leg, and slide it forward one foot length. The heel of the target leg should be lined up with the toes on the off-leg.
From here, we want to push the stick into the floor while going into the hinge pattern. The client needs to keep the lumbar spine in extension to get the appropriate feedback into the hamstring. Rounding the spine will release the line of pull that we want. Include a couple of reps changing the spine position. This will help the client experience how this feels and reinforce the importance of joint positioning to get the appropriate results.
Now, we want to actively push the heel of the target leg down into the floor. Imagine trying to pull the floor toward you. This is where clients and coaches get that “ah ha” moment that is missing from passive stretching. Once the client gets the response that we’re looking for, add external and internal rotation of the femur to make sure that we address the medial and lateral heads of the hamstrings. At this point, we’re bringing strength and motor control to the hamstring stretch to elicit greater adaptation from the muscles and connective tissue.
When you’re in a particular position or posture, you should be able to breathe comfortably and have the ability to resist and/or exert force. Think of owning your ranges of motion, not just “renting” them. Adding light isometrics and gradually increasing the intensity allows us to accomplish this. Ultimately we can make the desired adaptations faster, thus saving you… time.