How’s your joint mobility – and why does it matter? First, are you clear about what joint mobility is? Too often, people use the terms “flexibility” and “mobility” interchangeably, but they’re actually two different but interrelated entities. Let’s see how they differ.
Flexibility vs. Joint Mobility
Flexibility is how much a muscle can stretch or lengthen. A tight muscle without flexibility resists stretching. It’s like a rubber band that’s too tight. You often see people doing static stretches to lengthen the muscle. However, the lengthening of the muscle using this approach is short-lived. But, doing it regularly can still improve muscle flexibility. The actual way stretching improves flexibility is by training the nervous system to be a little more lenient in how much it allows the muscle to lengthen.
What about mobility? You can think of joint mobility as the degree to which a joint can move through its normal range-of-motion without being hindered by the tissue around it, including the ligaments and tendons. For example, your hip joint can flex, extend, abduct, and adduct. If it can move through its maximal range-of-motion in each direction, the joint has good mobility. So, excessively tight tendons and ligaments that are inflexible, reduce joint mobility. But joint mobility is more than simply tight muscles, tendons, and ligaments. It’s a measure of how well a joint moves and that involves all the structures that make up the joint, including the underlying bone.
Yes, You Can Be Too Mobile
You need a certain degree of joint mobility to carry out strength training movements safely and without injury. Of course, there must be a balance. A joint must be stable as well. For example, some people have health conditions that make their joints excessively mobile. These folks are at higher risk of injury too because their joints are TOO mobile and lack the stability that joints need for moving safely. Plus, people with hypermobility often experience chronic pain in their joints due to their inherent instability. So, there’s a mobility “sweet spot” – not too rigid, but not too mobile either.
Some joints are meant to have more mobility while others are designed mainly for stability. The latter naturally have less range-of-motion. For example, the lumbar spine is designed to stabilize while the joints of the hips, ankles, and shoulders are made to be mobile.
Joint mobility matters when you weight train too. If you have good joint mobility you can execute a movement properly because the tissue surrounding your joints, like the ligaments and tendons, don’t restrict you. If your joints lack mobility, you won’t be able to maintain proper form during a movement. Other muscles and joints will be forced to work harder to make up for the joint with poor mobility and your form and alignment will be thrown off. Poor joint mobility can negatively impact your posture too and contribute to back pain, neck pain, and injuries.
Plus, if you have poor joint mobility, you’ll have trouble completing the full range-of-motion and won’t get the complete benefits of the exercise. So, adequate joint mobility puts you in a favorable position when you train in two ways:
· By reducing the risk of injury
· By helping you get the full benefits from an exercise
These are both important, agree? That’s why optimizing joint mobility is so important. Unfortunately, age works against maintaining joint mobility. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 60% of men and women over the age of 64 have chronic joint symptoms that limit mobility with arthritis being the most common.
The degree to which joint mobility declines with age depends on the joint. A 2013 study found that flexibility and mobility in the trunk and shoulders are most impacted by aging while knee and elbow mobility are less affected. Other research shows hip extension is reduced in people age 60+ by 20% compared to people in their 20’s and 30’s and hip flexion declines by 6 to 7 degrees per decade. Ankle dorsiflexion also decreases with age. As mentioned, shoulder mobility, particularly abduction, is reduced by aging as is extension and side flexion of the cervical spine.
Why do these changes happen? The connective tissue that surrounds the joint becomes stiffer with age. Passive and active range-of-motion of the joint decreases and active range-of-motion decreases more than passive. So, we must focus on preserving joint mobility as much as possible with age.
How to Improve Your Mobility
It’s easy to see how important mobility is for certain exercises, especially compound exercises. To do a squat or deadlift with good form, you need hip mobility. For a squat, you also need ankle mobility. So, how can you improve your mobility around the joints that matter most?
First, make sure you’re stretching dynamically before a workout. The type of dynamic stretching you should do varies with the workout you’re doing. If you’re lifting upper body, focus on upper body dynamic stretches, like arm circles, arm crossovers, and shoulder circles. For a lower body workout, perform leg swings and hip circles. Save the static stretching for the end of your workout. Foam rolling may also be beneficial for joints that have limited mobility, although this is controversial.
When you strength train, work on improving the range-of-motion for each exercise you do. For example, go a little deeper into your squats by gradually increasing the depth of your squat over time. There are also a variety of mobility drills you can do for your hips and ankles. For example, fire hydrants, hip flex stretches, and bridges are good mobility exercises for the hips. But, it’s a good idea to do joint mobility exercises a few times a week and focus on those that improve the mobility of the hips, shoulders, thoracic spine, wrists, and ankles.
Just as importantly, make sure you’re not sitting too much throughout the day. Prolonged sitting tightens your hip flexors and reduces hip mobility. Take walking and stretching breaks throughout the day.
· American Council on Exercise. “Joint Mobility and Stability”
· MedicineNet.com. “Hypermobility Syndrome”
· Age (Dordr). 2013 Dec; 35(6): 2399–2407.
· Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Normal Joint Range of Motion Study”
· Ergonomics 49:269-281, 2006.
· J Pathol 211:252-259, 2007.
· Nestle Health Science. “Maintaining Mobility as a Part of Healthy Aging”
Related Articles By Cathe:
Related Cathe Friedrich Workout DVDs: