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What Is Mobility: The Mobility Myths You Need to Know About

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Photo: alvarez / Getty Images

Mobility is so hot right now—and for good reason. With everybody hitting up HIIT classes, lifting heavy, and running races, there's a lot of hard work going on. Couple that go-getter gym culture with nine-hour desk-job bodies and tech neck, and there's bound to be a tornado of injuries.

The antidote to all that sub-par movement? Mobility work. But what is mobility, really?

"It's the ability for the body to effortlessly access all range of motion (ROM, or full movement potential) without pain or compensation," says physical therapist Ryan Ardoin, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., cofounder of SculptU, a medical fitness training facility in Houston. It's something we all had as kids: "Watching a toddler perform everyday activities is the pinnacle of pure movement," says Ardoin. But you slowly acquire compensations and faulty movement patterns throughout your life that keep you from squatting, crawling, and stretching as easily as when you were 4 years old.

While some joints (such as your lumbar spine/lower back) are meant to be stable, other joints in the body (such as your hips and shoulders) are meant to be more mobile, according to the American Council on Exercise. A lack of adequate mobility in those joints (or too much, for that matter) creates imbalances that'll likely result in compensated movements (using the wrong muscles to get things done) and increased risk for injury. Incorporating mobility work is all about getting that toddler-style movement and full ROM back.

Now that you know the basics, it's time to get some things straight. Here, experts dish on everything you think you know—and why you're probably wrong.

Myth: Stretching and foam rolling will address all of my mobility problems.

Truth: Stretching and soft tissue work (like foam rolling and massage) may seem like the bread and butter of mobility, but there's more to know. "If you have a true mechanical mobility problem, soft tissue work and different stretching techniques are definitely great options," says Ardoin. But you might experience tightness or a loss of motion that doesn't have anything to do with tissue restrictions like tight muscles or joint stiffness.

"In these particular people, they actually have the mobility needed, but their brain doesn't know how to access it," says Ardoin. This sort of muscle-brain disconnect could be because of current pain, previous injuries, or, "sometimes people just forget how to move," he says.

In this case, your muscles are working against each other instead of synergistically—and it's not something stretching or foam rolling will fix. The good news is that there's not actually anything physically wrong. The bad news: This is tough to diagnose on your own. "If you have a loss of motion while you perform the motion yourself but have full ROM when performed passively, then it's safe to assume that you have the ROM available but your brain doesn't know how to access it," says Ardoin.

For example, let's say you have a "tight" shoulder. Make a large, slow circle with your right arm. Then totally relax your arm while someone else rotates your arm in a circle for you. Did it go farther while you let the motion happen passively? Ding, ding! Could be a brain problem, not a muscle problem. Think this might be you? Seeing a trainer or physical therapist to confirm it (and help you work on the issue) can't hurt.

Myth: You can get rid of knots or scar tissue with foam rolling or massage.

Truth: "You probably hear of 'breaking up fascia' and 'breaking up scar tissue,' but the reality is that it literally takes 200 tons to deform scar tissue or cause mechanic changes to the fascia," says Los Angeles–based physical therapist Jen Esquer, D.P.T., creator of the Mobility Method program. So whenever you've been told that someone is "massaging out a knot" in your back, or that foam rolling is "realigning your muscle fibers," it's a load of B.S. (You've probably also heard that foam rolling can get rid of cellulite.)

"Think: If you bump into something super hard, yeah, you might bruise, but you're not actually breaking something in your body or tearing tissue," says Esquer. "So why would we think that lying or rolling around on a foam roller for a while would have that extreme effect?"

You might be thinking, "But it totally helps!" You're not wrong—it does. It just helps for a different reason: "Really, foam rolling and massage work by bombarding the brain with safe, feel-good information, convincing the muscle to relax and let go," says Ardoin. That calming of the nervous system results in the release of tension and tightness that you feel.

And since it's all about relaxation, you should never be trying to create pain in the body, says Esquer: "You don't want to fire anything back up and make it potentially worse. It always comes back to relaxation." (Next up: science-backed reasons you should get a sports massage.)

Myth: You can stretch and/or foam roll your iliotibial (IT) band.

Truth: First things first: your IT band is a thick ligament that stretches from your pelvis and runs along the very outside of your thigh and knee all the way down to your shin. (You may have heard runners complaining about IT band issues.)

"Stretching and rolling the IT band isn't helpful, because it's a thick band of fascia and can't be broken up or elongated," says Ardoin. (See earlier point about it taking 200 tons of force to mechanically affect tissue.) And, really, you shouldn't want to break it up, says Esquer.

However, if you're rolling near your IT band (to release tight quads, for example), that's different, says Esquer. "Your IT band can become adhered to the adjacent quad and hamstring muscles," says Ardoin. "Rolling between the IT band and these muscles can help the tissues slide and glide more easily." (Here's more on why you shouldn't foam roll your IT band.)

Myth: You only need to do mobility work if you're an athlete or if something hurts.

Truth: "Whether you're pro athlete, weekend warrior, or parent being active with their kids, the mobility requirement for fundamental movements (running, squatting, etc.) stays the same," says Ardoin. "We always need adequate mobility in the same key areas, such as the ankles, hips, thoracic spine (upper back), shoulders." He says everyone should be able to meet the following mobility baselines:

  • Touch your chin to your chest without opening your mouth.

  • Look up toward the ceiling with your face becoming parallel to the floor.

  • Rotate your head to each side until your chin reaches mid collarbone.

  • Touch your toes with straight legs.

  • Lower into a deep squat without your heels coming up or toes rotating out.

"If you don't have access to the necessary mobility, your body will find a way to get it by compensating elsewhere, which could lead to injuries down the road," he says.

But the injuries might be in unexpected places: Your first thought might be to deal with the area that hurts—but, often, that's not the true source of the problem. "Often times the issue causing lower-back pain isn't the lower back, but an issue with hip mobility," says Esquer. An elbow issue might actually be due to a lack of wrist mobility, and upper-back pain might be due to tightness in the front of the chest and shoulders.

"A lot of times we don't notice movement restrictions until we're in pain," says Esquer. Maintaining your natural mobility day in and day out (kind of like brushing your teeth to prevent cavities) will help prevent surprise injuries from popping up. (Having a pro assess your personal mobility needs is best—but, in the meantime, you can try this mobility workout to help stay injury-free.)

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