Let me tell you about my client Joel. After working more than 40 years in the finance field he retired and realized that he had to move more. Not only more, but move better. The first time he came to the gym, we talked about what he enjoys, what his background is, and about his fitness goals. We completed the Functional Movement Screen; his score was a 9, and I showed him several appropriate variations of a squat, push-up, and row. Let’s just say that Joel left plenty of room for improving his movement quality.
We tend to use the terms flexibility, mobility, and range of motion interchangeably, and so today I’ll focus on the phrase “movement quality.”
Joel began training with the short term goal of improving his movement quality, and the long term goal of “graduating” from personal training. We’re providing him with the experience and skill set to make informed decisions about exercise selection; it’s as much about education as it is exercise prescription.
Joel is making some incredible progress, and I only have one problem with him: He tells everybody that we stretch. This picture is appropriate for two reasons:
If I had asked Joel to “stretch” with me, he would have reacted like the Tin Man in a yoga class, and if he asked to stretch, that would have been my reaction.
Stretching, in common discussion, refers to static stretching; bring a muscle to the end of a range of motion and then pushing against it in the hopes of gaining additional range of motion. In most circumstances, this is like pushing against a brick wall and hoping that it will move. On a long enough timeline…
Rather than stretch, we focused on movement quality. First we address mobility, then we reinforce it with stability. Start with hip and shoulder mobility, then stabilize that new range of motion. Easy, breezey, beautiful, cover girl.
Most “flexibility” issues that people present with aren’t actually short muscles, but their build-in defense system preventing them from being in potentially dangerous positions. Our body is very good at protecting itself, and that’s exactly what it’s doing. It doesn’t want you there, so it keeps you out. Body, Y U No let me go there?
What Joel and I worked on wasn’t anything magical; we simply used exercises that let him develop stability and strength throughout his available range of motion. When your body feels comfortable in its current range of motion, it will give you more.
Let’s look at a simple combination that may be used for somebody who’s addressing shoulder mobility issues. This isn’t a combination that I’ve used with Joel, but I’m confident you’ll be successful with it on your own.
Let’s start with a foam roller thoracic extension:
That movement is selected to focus on range of motion through the thoracic spine. We’ll follow it with an exercise that reinforces this range of motion; here’s an example of a tripod row:
If we wanted to reinforce that ‘new’ useable range of motion, we’d lock it into place with a stability exercise, such as a waiter’s walk:
That waiter’s walk reminds your brain that, “Hey, it’s okay to be in this position. We’re cool here.” It’s like getting a peck on the cheek from your girlfriend when you meet her family. Rock it, and then keep on going.
Joel’s training process is ongoing, and I like telling his story because he thinks we’re stretching. He’s made noticeable improvements in his range of motion, and throughout the process we’ve reinforced range of motion with appropriate strength exercises.
Stretching isn’t the best thing that you can do for movement quality. Strength training is the best thing you can do for movement quality.
Appropriate training focuses on movement; moving well and moving strong. If you’re relying on stretching but you’re not strengthening that movement, the new range is a transient change. If you like repeating the same things day after day, then stretching is for you. If you like making regular progress, then focus on a simple recipe:
Develop range of motion. Reinforce it. Let’s get stronger.