There has been a lot of hullabaloo regarding the concept of mobility. Although virtually all sports and sporting movements require an element of flexibility, the idea of being highly “mobile” has been taken severely out of context. This in turn has led to a lot of training time being spent focused on contorting arms and legs in every direction and not on the critical factors to athletic success, such as strength and power. Let’s simplify these concepts down to useable terms and discuss their implications for training and athletic development.
Flexibility is a non-specific evaluation of the range of motion about a given joint or muscle action. The goal of flexibility training is to increase the terminal range of motion for that given joint or muscle action. Therefore the greater the range of motion, the more flexible one is. This can be evaluated both bilaterally and unilaterally using gross or fine movements.
Mobility is a task-specific assessment consisting of two major elements:
The range of motion required to perform the task with good technique
The ability to generate forces needed for athletic performance within that full range of motion, including its terminal ends
For one to be mobile, they not only require the necessary flexibility to perform the task, but they must also effectively control their body by generating sufficient forces within that full range of motion.
For example, someone who practices yoga can achieve incredible ranges of motion and by our previous definition, this would make them highly flexible. The task of yoga, however, does not require the individual to generate large forces throughout those ranges of motion, but mostly just hold them isometrically.
A gymnast is also highly flexible. However, their training requires that they be able to move their body and generate large forces and rates of force development throughout the entirety of that range of motion. Based on our previous definitions, this would make the gymnast not only highly flexible, but highly mobile as well, whereas the yogi would possibly be only flexible, and not mobile.
So how do we develop mobility in athletes? Mobility can be achieved through three main practices:
Flexibility training (static and dynamic stretching, foam rolling, vibration, etc..)
Highly-associated full range of motion weight training (Full high bar squats, SLDLs, DB or cambered bench presses, etc…)
Practicing the sport movement (golf swing, snatch, wrestling, sprinting, etc…)
As we can see, flexibility training and mobility training can and should be done concurrently.
However, one major misconception in training for sport is that of developing high degrees of flexibility for the sake of being flexible. Although flexibility training might seem harmless, perpetually increasing joint range of motion is not inherently good. In fact, in some cases, developing unnecessarily high degrees of flexibility can lead to increased joint laxity, decreased soft tissue stiffness, and possibly limit stretch shortening cycle force contributions. Although static and dynamic stretching tend to receive a lot of attention, vibration is also an excellent tool for developing acute flexibility. Although the jury is still out, over time there also appears to be a chronic effect from vibration on improving flexibility.
So if we have determined our athlete lacks the appropriate mobility to be successful in their sport tasks, our approach starts by including all three of our mobility practices. Remember, the key is not only developing flexibility, but also the strength to manage that newly achieved flexibility. Over time, the athlete likely will start gaining the necessary range of motion for the sport task, though still may lack the strength to effectively compete with their new technique. Once the necessary range of motion is achieved, flexibility training can be removed, and the emphasis should lie on the associated weight training movements and sport practice. It should be noted that if the athlete is unable to perform their sport tasks throughout a full range of motion, they will also likely have trouble achieving a full range of motion in weight training. This means that you will likely need to continually encourage them to squat deeper, pull further, and press more completely on a daily basis.
So what might this look like in practice? Let’s say we have a rugby player who cannot crouch and keep a tight back in the scrum at appropriate depths. Our intervention might include things like:
Sit and reach stretching
Vibration sessions used pre-training
Dynamic warm-ups before training and practice
Weight training movements including SLDLs, good mornings, back extensions, and bent over rows (as part of a comprehensive strength and conditioning plan)
Practicing getting set properly in the scrum during practice or during sled training
Once they are able to crouch to an appropriate depth and keep a tight back, we can likely remove the stretching component of their training as well as the vibration, while simultaneously encouraging them to increase ROM on weight training movements such as doing SLDLs and bent rows from the floor or a deficit, or setting the good morning pins down one level.
Once flexibility has been achieved, the emphasis should shift to mobility and improving the athlete’s strength throughout that newfound ROM. Once they have achieved the appropriate levels of mobility to function within the task, maintenance can be achieved from simply from practicing the sport task, and though the use of good periodization practices.
Remember that in the context of sport mobility, training for flexibility for its own sake is not necessarily a good practice. Rather, we want to use flexibility training for the indirect purpose of improving mobility. Mobility dictates that we not only improve range of motion, but also our force producing capabilities throughout that range of motion.
Once you’ve established good mobility in a sport movement with the help of dedicated flexibility training, just engaging in full ROM weight training and practicing that sport movement maintains that new level of mobility in most cases. To get good mobility and keep it, you don’t have to live in a yoga studio forever after.
Dr. James Hoffmann grew up in Chicago IL and is now working as an Assistant Professor for the department of Kinesiology at Temple University in Philadelphia PA. He earned his PhD from East Tennessee State University in Sport Physiology and has an M.S. in Applied Exercise Physiology and a B.S. in Biochemistry from the University of Illinois at Chicago. James has experience working as a strength coach/sport scientist in Division I Men’s Basketball, Tennis, Golf, as well as collegiate and men’s Rugby , and high school Basketball. He has a strong athletic background in Wrestling, Rugby, and American Football. James is also a sports performance consultant for Renaissance Periodization.