Before we begin, let’s define flexibility and mobility.
Flexibility – A muscle’s ability to elongate (passively)
Mobility – The ability of a joint or joint complex (such as the low back, it has many joints) to actively move through a range of motion (ROM)
Now let’s dive deeper into these meanings.
When you think flexibility, I am willing to bet the first thing you think about is putting your feet together and bending down to touch your toes with a slight bend in your knees. And that is exactly what flexibility is. You are elongating your hamstring muscles in a passive manner. Passive means you are using your body’s weight or another external force to get into that position.
Same hamstring stretch with an external force (passive stretching)
This stretch allows a brief increase in range of motion. And when you do this a few times for 30 seconds each, you continue to increase that range of motion. This can be good, but for our purpose (CrossFit), it may not be the best solution to your “tight” muscles (tight muscles is another blog post).
Why is this not so good?
If you are going to stretch for a back squat, you may think of performing a stretch like the butterfly to loosen your hip adductors. You would assume the position and push down on our legs thus passively stretching your hips. Now you have elongated the hip adductors. Great, now you feel much looser and when you do your warm up air squats, you can get a bit lower than normal or maybe you can even push our knees out a bit wider…all in all you find you have better range of motion! This is a good thing right? Well stay with me…
Now what happens when you go to put weight on the barbell for our back squat? Our joints have never been in this range of motion, especially with 100lbs+ on our back. If our joints are in a new position, then they have never developed strength in that position and will therefore have no stability in that position. This is what leads to injury. Ah, now it all makes sense!
Let’s step back and take a look at mobility.
As the definition stated, you want to actively move through a range of motion. If you drop down in an air squat right now, that is how you actively move through your full range of motion for an air squat. Now you want to increase that range of motion for a better back squat. Let’s drop down into that butterfly stretch again, except this time let’s approach it a bit differently.
You now know if you passively stretch your hips by pushing down on your knees, you’re not strengthening your hips in that range of motion, they are just temporarily elongating. The way to strengthen them is by doing end range isometrics.
In the butterfly position you will first push (not with your hands, use those muscles!) our knees down toward the floor as hard as you can for 10 seconds. As low as your knees go is our end range of motion, and you are actively pushing for further range. At that lowest position you will then lift our knees, but use are elbows to block them from raising for another 10 seconds (and repeat).
What are you doing here? Please read this slowly…. The active contraction at this end range of motion increases your ability to activate those muscles at this end range of motion, which leads to increased strength at the end range of motion. This will inherently increase your flexibility, mobility and stability.
Now when you get into that heavy back squat and you are a bit lower and you can push your knees out wider, you are not just more mobile, but you are also more stable in this new range of motion and therefore safer.
This is just one example. Most of the stretches you already know can be upgraded to be done actively. If you go back to the first example of stretching the hammy… throw your leg up on a box, slightly bend the knee, lean forward until you feel the stretch and push your heel down into that box. Now you’re not just passively stretching, but actively strengthening your end range of motion.
I challenge you to think of ways in which you can turn passive stretching into active mobility! Or there are plenty of resources like ROMWOD, Movement Vault, and Mobility WOD to help guide you.
P.S. Stretching is not all bad. I recommend stretching at the end of the workout and mobilizing before. Stretching at the end of a work out will help to realign the micro-tears in the muscle fibers you create while getting your pump on!