As a Doctor of Physical Therapy and movement NERD, I define mobility as having the biomechanics (range of motion) AND motor control to attain a particular position. I consider mobility related to the demands of a specific position or shape we are trying to express with our body. For example, a squat: do we have enough ankle dorsiflexion, knee flexion, hip flexion to get our butt below parallel, and do we have the motor control to maintain our trunk alignment and OWN holding this position. If mobility is limited due to a lack of range of motion or poor motor control, our bodies will eventually develop compensations. Our bodies are excellent problem solvers, and they will find the path of least resistance to compensate for a limited range of motion or poor control, which is often when we begin to experience pain.
Revisiting the squat: if we have limited ankle dorsiflexion, we tend to compensate by externally rotating at our hip, collapsing over the arch of our foot, causing our knee to crash in and eventually leading to inner knee pain.
What is normal range of motion: We have researched and established normative values of the typical range of motion each joint should express (examples: ankle dorsiflexion 20-30 degrees, hip flexion 120-135 degrees, shoulder flexion 180 degrees). However, individual structural/anatomical differences may lead to slight variations within these ranges. Most functioning humans should aim to fall within the normative ranges. How much range of motion do you need: Enough to complete your sport, recreation, work activities without compensation. How do we improve mobility: Two groups of interventions can help improve mobility. I typically classify these as mobility drills and corrective exercises.
Mobility drills are interventions that influence ROM; these include hands-on work in physical therapy/massage/acupuncture (joint mobilization, scraping, cupping, soft tissue massage, trigger point release, etc.). Mobility drills also include self joint mobilization, foam rolling, dynamic stretching, prolonged hold stretching, etc. Corrective exercises aim to restore a movement skill (the motor control related to a position/activity). They can look like muscle activation, resistance band training, strength training, sport-specific training, etc. How should we approach improving mobility: Suppose you can sense limited motion or control within a particular movement or activity. In that case, you should aim to spend 10 minutes per day addressing a portion of that movement or activity. Think of your body in the start position and end position of the movement:
With the squat:
Start: full standing, end: butt below parallel.
If you feel restricted in either position (likely the end), try to assess if your limitation is due to the range of motion in your hips, ankles, or knees or due to lack of control in your trunk or core.
Pick one area to target and spend 10 minutes integrating soft tissue and joint work, followed by a repetition of the squat to notice improvements.
Repeat this sequence with other areas of restriction.
Need help addressing your mobility for your lifestyle? Or ideas for improving range of motion and motor control? Reach out; we are here to help. Happy mobilizing,
Nicole Todisco MacDonald
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