Mobility work - we have discussed its importance on tribalfitness.com before, and we find it so critical that we have even dedicated the first 15 minutes of every session to working on mobility, but what is mobility work?  Isn’t it just another word for stretching?

The short answer is “no”, stretching and mobility are not synonymous.  The longer answer is “not exactly”, there are differences of opinion among many experts in the physical therapy, health and fitness worlds.  There are some common points of agreement between experts, however, and what is clear is that although stretching (and flexibility) may be considered by some as one aspect of mobility work, it is certainly not the same thing as mobility work itself.

Steve Maxwell, one of the world’s top experts on healthy living and functional fitness (and a past guest of Tribal Fitness) defines mobility as the ability to move a limb through its full range of motion with control (i.e. under your own strength); mobility is based on voluntary movement and control (strength) while flexibility is dependent on external forces (such as gravity, body weight, or bands).  More precisely, flexibility is focused on individual muscles or groups of muscles, while mobility is focused on joints, all of their associated tissues, and their range of motion.

Steve Maxwell (next to Dani) training at Tribal Fitness.

Steve Maxwell (next to Dani) training at Tribal Fitness.

It is possible to be very mobile and not particularly flexible, and it is possible to be not particularly mobile but very flexible.  Of the two, mobility and flexibility, mobility is of greater importance to your health and fitness as it makes your body much more durable and injury-resistant.  Immobile joints have a cascading effect throughout your body, creating stress in other joints.  We have to look no further than skiers and hockey players for a perfect example of the cascading effects of joint immobility.  Many top skiers and hockey players likely have great mobility, but their sport requires their ankles to be essentially locked in place by hockey skates and ski boots.  The result:  a disproportionately high level of knee injuries in hockey players and skiers.  The forced immobility of their ankle has caused excessive stress on the knee joint.  Impacts of a single immobile joint can extend much further than just one joint, causing problems throughout your body, including back pain.

Dr. Kelly Starrett (check out his great book “Becoming a Supple Leopard” in our library) provides a more holistic interpretation of mobility work, describing it as work that addresses all the elements that limit movement, including three major components:

  1. Soft Tissue work – officially known as myo-fascial release, this is commonly achieved by “rolling out” the body using such tools as tennis balls and foam rollers.  Fascia is a thin, soft tissue that surrounds our muscles and can become restricted due to overuse or inactivity.  Myo-fascial release promotes circulation and blood flow to these areas by loosening the fascia.
  2. Stretching – Dr. Starrett includes stretching and flexibility as a component of mobility and mobility work.  Stretching attempts to lengthen short, tight muscles over time through static holds in a lengthened position, or through repeated stretching and contracting of a muscle.
  3. Mobilization – patterns of joint movement that break up joint adhesions and/or stretch the joint capsule itself (soft, non-muscle tissue that surrounds a joint), allowing for an increased range of joint mobility.

Overall, the experts agree, joint mobility is of critical importance to your health.  Joints, unlike muscles, have no direct blood supply and rely on a plasma called Synovial Fluid to reduce friction and wash away waste products such as calcium deposits and adhesions (fibrous tissue that can develop in joints and soft tissue as a result of injuries, surgery, overuse or underuse – think of it as an internal scar) which limit your mobility.  Mobility work, which in the strictest sense is achieved by gentle, high-repetition movement patterns through a joint’s range of motion, stimulates and circulates Synovial Fluid through a joint and will eventually give you greater joint mobility, a key step in returning you to your true health.

Now that you are equipped with the science behind mobility work, be sure to get to your Tribal sessions for those first 15 minutes of mobility work.  We have a recommended mobility routine on the board that focuses on myo-fascial release and joint mobility, as well as activation work, helping to loosen the fascia, promoting blood circulation to your muscles, washing away the waste in your joints with Synovial Fluid, adding stability to mobilized joints, and removing imbalances in weakened opposing tissues (ex: chest and upper back).  It may just be the best spent 15 minutes of your day.