Trying to Stretch Away the Pain? Flexibility, Mobility and Stability Explained

“Hey Mike! I’ve got a pain in my (fill in the blank) - can you show me a good stretch?”

I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve gotten this question.

It’s understandable to think that if you feel “pain” or “tightness”, that stretching will help alleviate it.

For some, the short-term benefits of a nice stretch can be significant - but for most, there is absolutely no long-term change.

Most people have a difficult time believing they can have muscular pain if they have “good flexibility.”

Others think that the feeling of muscle “tightness” is solely caused by strength imbalances, so they foam roll constantly or get massages to relieve tension that never seems to fully improve.

All too often, those with lower back pain think that the worst thing they can do is lift anything from the floor - likely because a misinformed health professional told them it was.

There is no clear cut answer as to why people may feel discomfort in a given area, because the answer usually lies within three possible issues: Flexibility, Mobility and Stability.

Although they are often used interchangeably, they are very different concepts that require different courses of action, often in conjunction with each other.

The What:

First of all - what exactly is the difference between flexibility, mobility and stability?

Flexibility is the measurable range of motion (ROM) that a joint can achieve, and the length that associated muscles can reach. For example, touching your toes requires good hamstrings flexibility.

Mobility is the degree to which the joint is allowed to move before being restricted by involved muscles, tendons and ligaments. For example, doing a full ROM squat requires adequate mobility of the hips and ankles.

Stability is the control of movement or body position by coordinating action of surrounding muscles, connective tissue and nervous system. For example, walking lunges are more difficult than split squats because of the additional knee/hip stability required.

People often struggle with integrating all three elements into their routines, but It’s important to understand the relationship between them and how they can drastically impact your long-term results.

Being strong doesn’t necessarily mean you have stability.

Being mobile doesn’t necessarily mean you move well.

Being flexible honestly doesn’t mean anything at all!

The body doesn’t work in isolation, it functions as a single unit.

Dysfunction in one area will affect another area, so it’s important to understand how they affect one another so you can better understand why you may be feeling the way you are.

The Why:

The image below illustrates the different requirements for each of the major areas of the human body - the neck and shoulders, the spine, the hips, the knees and the feet/ankles.

The first thing you may notice is the intricate relationship with one another, in that they alternate between the need for stability and mobility.

The simplest explanation for this is that when one area doesn’t move well enough, associated areas often have to compensate by moving more - sometimes excessively.

This excessive movement could lead to pain, discomfort or injury.

This is known as the “smoke and fire” analogy - people may feel pain in one area, and wonder why stretching and massage doesn’t result in a long-term change.

The pain you feel is the “smoke” - but we must understand where it is coming from in order to put out the fire.

The best place to start looking is at the foundation of the body - the feet!

The body works from the ground up, and if the feet and ankles aren’t functioning properly, everything that lies above it will have to compensate somehow in order to keep moving.

The unfortunate thing is that we have been made to believe that the expensive shoes and sneakers that offer “arch support” will help, when in actuality, they are the root of the problem.

The inability to spread our toes and use our feet the way they naturally should be used is a MAJOR cause of pain in the entire body.

Weak feet not only result in issues like plantar fasciitis, shin splints or cramping, they increase the amount of force placed on the knees during activity.

When people experience knee pain, they are much more hesitant to perform lower body exercises to a full range of motion.

Once the knees become accustomed to bearing the brunt of movement, it can have a major impact due to their close relationship with the hip joint - which requires mobility and stability.

When the hip joint lacks mobility and/or stability, it doesn’t move the way it should, and the associated muscles can become weak and inhibited.

For some, this can lead to back and hip pain that can become so debilitating that it leads to extended recovery time and likely, long periods of non-movement.

Non-movement can lead to reduced thoracic mobility - the inability to extend and rotate the upper back - usually leads to compensation by the lower back and neck, which can cause - you guessed it - pain.

What is the point of all of this?

To illustrate how the body functions as a unit, and how complicated the source of pain and discomfort can be to identify.

Since muscular strength tends to be the biggest indicator of future injury, it's crucial to emphasize how important it is to implement stability, mobility and flexibility into your fitness routine.

The How:

Having an effective warmup and cool-down protocol can help immensely with remaining active and pain-free, but that’s a road I’ll venture down in a future post.

In the meantime, adding exercises that provide more “bang for your buck” are a great way to start.

Addressing common problem areas such as shoulder stability, thoracic mobility and hip mobility/stability is the best way to help improve movement quality, decrease recovery time and improve subjective feelings of discomfort.

Not only that, you will stronger in the process!

Here are just a few example of exercises we offer with MAC Fitness:

1. High Plank w/ Alternating Shin Tap

Benefits - Improved Shoulder/Core/Hip Stability, Thoracic Mobility (Extension), Posterior Leg Flexibility (Hamstrings/Lower Leg)

How to Perform:

  • Start with the body in high plank position

  • Hands should be shoulder-width apart directly below the chest

  • Feet should be hip-width apart

  • Initiative movement by hinging from the hips, sticking the butt directly into the air

  • With the right hand, reach across the body, lightly tapping the opposite knee/shin/foot

  • Return to start position and alternate sides

  • Repeat 5-10 Repetitions per side

2. Sprinter Stretch w/ Banded Thoracic Opener

Benefits - Improved Shoulder/Core/Hip Stability, Thoracic Mobility (Rotation), Anterior Leg Flexibility (Hip Flexors/Quadriceps)

How to Perform:

  • Start with the body in the half-kneeling position

  • Gently stretch the hip, driving up on the toes of the rear leg

  • Hands should be shoulder-width apart with moderate tension on resistance band

  • Feet should be hip-width apart

  • Initiative movement by rotating from the upper back, maintaining knee and hip position

  • Keeping eyes on the hand, rotate as far as comfortably possible, resisting tension from the band using core and upper back

  • Return to start position and repeat

  • Complete 5-10 Repetitions per side

3. Loop Band Deadbug Pullover

Benefits - Improved Shoulder/Core/Hip Stability, Thoracic Mobility (Extension)

How to Perform:

  • Start with the dead bug position - lying face up with knees/hips bent to 90 degrees and hands directly above the shoulders

  • For additional tension, add loop bands to feet and/or wrists (shown here)

  • Initiate movement of the lower body by bracing the core and extending one foot against the band and resisting with the other

  • Initiate upper body movement by maintaining "outward" tension on the band while raising arms directly above the crown of the head

  • Do both simultaneously while alternating lower body movement

  • Complete 5-10 Repetitions per side

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