“I stretch everyday and my flexibility/mobility still doesn’t get any better”
“I feel stiff all of the time”
Those are two of the biggest things I hear and see everyday. Understanding this will change the way you look at movement, mobility and flexibility forever…
Your brain and more specifically your central nervous system are the reason you have poor mobility and you feel stiff all of the time. Not because your muscles are physically shortened.
Why is this?
Throughout your entire body are sensory receptors such as mechanoreceptors (detect movement), thermoreceptors (detect changes in temperature) and nociceptors (detect damaging or potentially damaging stimuli). Think of these receptors as messengers. These messengers are constantly sending information up to your CNS where it is assessed and processed. Your CNS is ultimately trying to keep you safe from harm.
The problem arises when your CNS isn’t happy with the information it is receiving from these messengers, which in 99% of cases is due to a perceived lack of stability that is deemed threatening to your body’s safety. This may be as a result of an old injury creating compensatory movement patterns, or your body moving into a range of motion that is unfamiliar with (and lacks stability/control over).
In addition to this, your central nervous system may perceive a threat in reaction to other stressors, these may be physical (ie. movement & previous injuries – as described above, training loads), emotional (ie. relationships, work) or lifestyle (ie. sleep, diet).
All of these potential stressors add up the level of threat your CNS perceives and ultimately how safe it feels. If these stressors spill over a level that your CNS is comfortable it may respond by reducing your mobility and creating a feeling of tightness – think of this like a neurological safeguard. This is essentially a protective mechanism to increase the level of stability your CNS perceives to keep you safe from injury and trauma.
So how do you achieve long lasting improvements in your mobility?
- Consider your training loads – keep an eye out for excessive spikes in load.
- Sleep – aim for 7-8 hours sleep per night, create a night time routine and include some breathing work to improve your sleep quality.
Now for the fun part, what mobility exercises to work on…
Remember, your mobility is determined by the level of stability perceived by your CNS.
So by all means, work on mobility exercises, but change your focus to developing stability throughout your body. Start challenging your body to move and spend time at the end of it’s range of motion. The only way to create stability in a new range of motion is to spend time in it and own it!
Use isometric holds, controlled hovers & rotations or weighted mobility exercises to reassure your nervous system it is safe to remove those neurological safeguards and expand your usable range of motion.
About the Author
Alex Morrell (MSc, BSc (Hons), MCSP) is a Sports Physiotherapist working in international and professional rugby alongside private practice. He has a keen interest in all things training & performance from his sports science/S&C background. (@theonlinephysiocoach)