Part 2: What’s the Difference Between Mobility and Stretching?

In part 1 of this series, we looked at how mobility is different from stretching. We also looked at some of the torture-like devices used to address sore joints, tight muscles, injuries, and other pains. If you don’t know what mobility is, check out part 1 here.

In this post, we’ll look at the mobility methods used in Dr Kelly Starrett’s book Becoming a Supple Leopard. I’ll also go over a few example mobilization exercises you can use to work on some common issues.

Quick Recap

Stretching on its own is not enough to fix tight muscles, pain, and restricted range of motion. Instead, you need a movement-based system that hits three key areas of the body:

  1. Joint mechanics
  2. Sliding surface dysfunction
  3. Muscle dynamics

Remember: you need to first address the movement error that led to pain or postural issues. If sitting is locking up your hips and giving you back pain, the fix is obvious—get off your ass! Convert to a standing desk as well as doing mobility work. Otherwise you’re wasting your time.

Let’s take a look at the methods used in Becoming a Supple Leopard to work on each of these areas. For the most part, these are low-tech methods you can do at home with some basic tools.

Joint Distraction Methods

Joint distraction methods use resistance bands, weights, or other tools to create a force that separates the joint surfaces from one another. It sounds painful, but it’s the best stretch ever! The separation creates more space within the joint. And it’s the first priority on Starrett’s mobility checklist:

If I can set the joint in a good position, a lot of the problems (like soft tissue restriction and sliding surface dysfunction) automatically go away.

Let’s look at the methods we can use to distract the joint.

Banded Distractions

You can hook a band around your joints to set them in a good position. It works like this: place the band around your hip, shoulder, ankle, or wrist. Attach the other end of the band to an anchor point. Pull the joint into a good position. Move in and out of end ranges using mobility exercises from Becoming a Supple Leopard or MobilityWOD.

Here’s an example of a banded distraction to open up your hips. This one helps undo the damage from sitting.

Shoulder Capsule Mobilization

You can use a weight to reset a joint into a good position. It works like this: floor-press a heavy kettlebell whilst actively pulling your shoulder to the back of the socket. This will help reset your shoulder in a good position.

Many of us have hunched-forward shoulders from computer use. The floor-press can help with this. Here’s what it looks like:

Flexion Gapping

You can also treat a stiff or painful joint by creating a gapping or compression force around it. This method is used only at the elbow and knee joints. It works like this: you roll up a towel and jam it between your knee or elbow. Then you create compression force at the joint. Here’s an example that can help with knee pain:

Sliding Surface Dysfunction Methods

After Starrett addresses joint mechanics, he looks at sliding surface dysfunction. To restore sliding surfaces, you create large shearing forces across the muscle. This is done by working on tissues with a foam roller, lacrosse ball, VooDoo Floss Bands, or other tools.

Methods used to address sliding surface dysfunction are pressure wave, smash and floss, and ball whack. Don’t let the funny names fool you. You won’t be laughing when you try these. Let’s look at each one.

Pressure Wave

The pressure wave is a method for working through the deeper layers of muscle and connective tissue. It’s great for addressing trigger points. It works like this: get your weight over a ball or foam roller and slowly roll across the grain of the muscle from side to side. You’re trying to create a pressure wave across knotted up areas. Here’s an example of the method used for tight hamstrings:

Smash and Floss

Tissue flossing? Yep, it’s a thing. And this method is as painful and effective as it sounds. It allows you to ‘tack’ down and apply pressure to an area of painfully knotted tissue. It works like this: find a tight area and get maximal pressure over a ball, foam roller, barbell, etc. Then move your limb through as much range of motion as possible whilst keeping weight on the tight area. The movement of the limb is the ‘flossing’ part. Here’s an example for tight hamstrings:

Ball Whack

No, this isn’t a kick to the crown jewels. The ball whack restores sliding surfaces to the skin over bony areas and tendons of your foot. It works like this: pin a lacrosse ball on the inside or outside of your ankle bone and around the heel chord and whack it. Yep, it’s a technical method. Here’s what it looks like:

Muscle Dynamic Methods

Muscle dynamics are changed using an active stretching model—contracting and relaxing at end range to lengthen the tissue. This is done using movements that take the same (or similar) shape as the position you’re trying to improve (e.g., squat).

One of the main ways to address muscle dynamics is using the contract and relax method.

Contract and Relax

The contract and relax method is based on a flexibility technique that involves stretching and contraction of the muscle. It can be used to improve mobility or restore normal range of motion to shortened muscles. It works like this: put the target muscle (e.g., hamstring) into a stretched position so it’s under tension. Then engage the muscle by contracting against the resistance—use a partner or create your own—for 5 seconds. Release the tension and then move into a new range for 10 seconds. Repeat for a few cycles.

Here’s an example of the contract and relax method used on the hamstrings. The method can be used with or without a band.

VooDoo Floss Band Compression

You don’t need a freaky looking doll and pins for this one, but you do need a magic band. A VooDoo Floss Band is a stretch band designed to be wrapped around a joint to apply compression. It’s magic because experts aren’t quite sure what it’s doing. But it works wonders for sore elbows and other issues.

VooDoo flossing is a powerful mobilization method that encompasses all the mobility systems simultaneously. It works like this:

You wrap a band around the joint or restricted tissue—creating a large compression force a few inches below and a few inches above the area—move your limb in every direction for two to three minutes, then remove the band. It’s typically applied with 75% stretch across the area being worked on and 50% around the remaining area.

Here’s what VooDoo flossing looks like when used for elbow pain:

Overlap Between Systems and Methods

It’s important to realise that there’s overlap between the three mobility systems and methods used for each one. Your body is an interconnected system. So, if you correct a tight joint capsule, the soft tissue surrounding it will likely be positively affected too. For example, using a method like contract and relax can address muscle dynamics and sliding surfaces. The point is to use different methods to address your specific brand of tightness.

Summing Up - Key Takeaways

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this two-part series. Here are the key points:

  • Mobility is a movement-based, full-body approach that takes into account all the elements that limit movement and performance.
  • You need to first address the movement error that led to pain or postural issues, then work on mobilizing.
  • There are three mobility systems: joint mechanics, sliding surface dysfunction, and muscle dynamics.
  • Joint mechanics help restore function to a joint. Methods used are banded distractions, force the joint into a stable position, and flexion gapping.
  • The sliding surface system improves the interplay between skin, nerves, muscle, and tendons. Methods include foam rolling and lacrosse ball smashing.
  • The muscle dynamics system lengthens tissue to end range. Contract and relax is one method used.
  • All methods should be used to address different components of restriction.

Do Something—Anything!

Don’t just consume information. If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you find this post useful. You’ve now got two choices: 1) close the screen and think ‘that’s nice’ and move on with your day. Or 2) look up one mobility exercise here to address an injury or pain (or use one of the above). Start out with an easy exercise you can do at home. Make it short so you have no excuses. And as Nike says, just do it! Decision creates action. Action creates results.

I Need Your Help

I’ve also got a huge favour to ask of you. No, I don’t want your money. But will happily accept it! I’m trying to get this blog off the ground and I can’t do it without your help. Simply sharing this post on social media (you’re so close to the share buttons—look down below) or emailing it to a friend makes a HUGE difference in my life. In return, I promise we can be best mates and you can reach out anytime. Seriously. If you need help with any health, fitness, or Jedi Knight goals you can contact me here.

You can also share some love by adding a comment below. Let me know what your favourite stretching exercise or mobility method is.

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