Mobility basics: keep it moving

The term "mobility " is widely used, but poorly understood for most athletes. For this reason, it is often ignored, under-utilized, or mis-guided.  Here I will discuss a few basic principles.

The 2 areas of focus

1) Joint mobility - Joint mobilization strategies are employed by physical, therapists, chiropractors, athletic trainers, and sometimes physicians. The goal is to increase range of motion (ROM) for a given joint or group of joints to allow for normal movement patterns. Joint mobility is achieved through graded mobilizations, manipulations, some stretching strategies, and movement exercises. Since a joint is a bone-to-bone connection, there is no change happening at the bone or cartilage. Think of the ligaments as cables and the joint capsule as a balloon surrounding the joint. After surgery, other trauma, or long-term abnormal positioning, these structures can limit the ROM of the joint. Through small, and often aggressive movements, the ROM of the joint can be increased. This is often short-term benefit to allow adequate stretching of the soft tissues.

2) Tissue mobility - Massage, stretching, myofascial release (foam rolling and lacrosse ball), and exercise are strategies targeted at improving soft tissue mobility. Humans are upright, and thus, our bodies are built to work against gravity. Most of our day is not spent playing sports or running, so most of the work our muscles are doing is low intensity and postural. Over time, we lose elasticity of soft tissue structures including: muscles, tendon, and other connective tissues (fascia).


Some basic principles:

Movement - All forms of mobility should be performed in varied positions and with movement. Movement through the range of motion is critical for all types of mobility.

Static Stretching - Static stretching is the old "stretch and hold". If the goal is to increase muscle length, stretch cold.  Do not push past a mild-moderately uncomfortable stretch and hold for at least 30 seconds. Evidence has shown that this does not necessarily reduce injury risk if performed before activity. That does not mean it is unimportant - it is!

Joint mobility - Moving through the full range of motion is your best option without professional assistance. Deep squats are a good example. This must be performed with stretching and strengthening to achieve maximal benefit.

Myofascial release - The goal is to break adhesions and allow tissues to glide along one another without catching. This is best done before stretching.

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Dr. Dave Gerbarg

Dr. Dave Gerbarg is the President and Physical Therapist at One Nine Sports Medicine and Physical Therapy in Solana Beach. He specializes in sports medicine for teenage and adolescent athletes.