Thinking about Movement: Flexibility & Mobility

“I want to be more flexible.”

If you have a limited range of motion, meaning your movements are not as big as you want them to be, it may seem to follow that you are not flexible. It may be true, but it’s not the only explanation. Flexibility is a property of muscle tissue – the ability for the muscle to elongate when relaxed. But it is not the only factor that reduces range of motion, and the other relevant factors can be addressed more easily than flexibility.

OnBackSay you are lying on your back and then you try to hug your knees. The muscles in the front of you body contract to bring your legs, head, and arms closer together. The muscles along your back and the back of your legs, arms, and neck must elongate to allow this movement. If they do not elongate, you feel resistance and the movement ends.

What can be done? If we can figure out why the muscles are not elongating, and fix that, then they will elongate and your apparent flexibility will increase – in fact your flexibility does not increase, but your mobility (ability to move) increases. So why don’t they elongate?

Support in the gravitational field: Even lying on your back, your body needs to support itself to keep some parts off of the floor. When you hug your knees, your head and maybe pelvis come off of the floor – even if they don’t at first, they will have to as the movement gets bigger. Then more of your weight must be supported from the connection of your back to the floor. Creating a good skeletal support for your head and pelvis from your middle back can be difficult at first – you will become more like a bow with the base of support in the middle.  This is an extension of the previous post – if your weight is supported by your bones, then fewer muscles are engaged and are available for the movement. Those muscles that need to engage can engage as needed, and the muscles that need to elongate can relax.

Differentiation of nervous excitation: When we initiate a movement, we don’t necessarily have fine control over which muscle we engage and wish we don’t. Especially for muscles whose nerves are close together in the brain, we engage more muscles than we intend. If some of the muscles we engage actually need to elongate, we will be fighting ourselves. We need to differentiate our control – meaning learning to be more selective about our muscular engagement so that we don’t create extra work unintentionally. If you give yourself time to learn this, by going slowly and without unnecessary efforts, you will learn to do the movement without engaging the muscles that need to elongate. 

Reduction of static holding: Often we hold on to our muscles when in static postures, for example, holding in our stomachs while standing. The reasons for these kinds of holding are often psychological or social – we want to feel a certain way, thinking our bodies should feel hard when resting, or certain parts should be bigger, smaller, etc. Any of this kind of holding is engaging muscles that can interfere with movement. Undoing these holdings can be very difficult, as we are often only subconsciously aware that we are doing anything at all, or sometimes the engagement is so connected to how we feel about ourselves that letting go initiates a flood of emotions. Breaking down these habitual actions is on of the strengths of the Feldenkrais Method – we have many ways of bringing these to attention and giving the space and tools to address them in a constructive way.

Use the whole body: Imagine that you tried to hug your knees while keeping your pelvis on the floor. The movement of your legs is dependent on the flexibility of your hips and the their limit is the end of the entire movement. However, if you let your pelvis come off the ground, the burden of flexibility on your hips is reduced because some of the curve can be done in your spine. The same is true of any joint – when you bring adjacent joints into action it can reduce the burden on the joint that has reached its limit and the movement can continue.

All of these elements of mobility are generalizable – they are true for every movement that we do. Improving mobility reduces the need for one to be flexible in order to have a satisfying range of motion.

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