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More mobility isn’t always good…

Earlier I wrote about why I don’t like the “knees out” cue in the squat (parts 1 and 2 here and here). It often comes down to athletes not understanding which muscles to use, and some being too mobile for their own good. They have trouble finding alignment.

I also mentioned why not everybody needs the same amount of “mobility work” – working on it can actually predispose some to injury. If you have more passive ROM at a joint than you can actively stabilize, you are essentially asking for injury.  Passive range of motion without active control is a disaster waiting to happen.

There is another way you can be hurting yourself or your clients by trying to “mobilize” the joints or muscles. It also has to do with something I mentioned in that same article. It’s something many trainers and mobility devotees don’t think about.

It’s your bone structure.

Bones, in an adult, are not malleable. They don’t “open up”. They don’t flexibly remodel (they do become more dense with repeated loading however). No matter how much stretching or joint distraction work you do, your bone structure will not change without surgery or a traumatic injury.  Developing kids are a different story, but after the skeletal system matures it ain’t changing!

In fact, too much movement and friction at a joint can result in accelerated arthritis and bone spur development over time. It’s the long term result of a natural inflammatory response to sustained friction and wear. It is essentially your body’s way of trying to reduce instability to protect itself.

Unfortunately arthritis and bone spurs are also largely irreversible once present, although bone spurs may be surgically removed. However, it is very important note that because bone spurs are natural reactions to mechanical friction they will grow back unless the underlying cause is fixed.

This means 2 things:

  • If you try to mobilize your clients beyond what their joints will naturally allow, you are actively driving an injury mechanism
  • Unless the actual cause of the friction is fixed, eventual recurrence of bone spurs is almost certain

To repeat: if you keep trying to “mobilize” or stretch someone past what their joint is built to handle, you are hurting them. It also means that if an athlete has poor joint stability and friction that eventually lead to bone spur development, surgery will only delay the onset of more problems unless the underlying cause – poor movement skill, motor control, etc – is changed and the stress reduced.

Don’t Stretch Into Instability

This is another reason why joint laxity is an important thing to understand. For stiff and inflexible people it is easy to understand why stretching past a bony block is ill-advised. Trainers may not pay attention but it “makes sense” intuitively. On the other hand, if an athlete is hypermobile, they “feel fine” stretching. Some might not even be able to feel a stretch when their knee is in their armpit! It’s important to understand that this is a structural issue with joint surfaces and tendon elasticity.

These super flexible athletes are at risk of developing negative changes if they cannot actively stabilize or center the joint in question. Many hypermobile people rely on their joints for passive support rather than actively controlling position with their muscles. Continuing mobility training can actually create joint instability in this population. This is just another way to hurt them. The reason it continues to happen is that many trainers don’t understand what they are dealing with. Results don’t become apparent until much later.

People in this category almost never deal with true tissue tightness. Neural tension is often confused with muscular tightness. It could also be that tissue adhesions – trigger points – are being generated to try to protect what little stability the athlete has left in an area. Removing these will not yield any benefits until the area can be stabilized.

Final Thoughts

Coaches need to avoid making these problems worse. It can happen with both overly stiff people – whose joints won’t physically allow the amount of movement you’re trying to force them to get – and very mobile folks who can move so much they generate joint instability without realizing it.

The point of joint distraction techniques is to make the most of what ROM is available. You do this by trying to re-center, if possible, bony alignments. It doesn’t change what’s there in the first place. If bony structures aren’t holding the athlete back, they don’t need these techniques. Going overboard with mobility techniques can hurt rather than help.

A final note on sports and youth:

The permanence of bones means that kids who develop specific joint adaptations from forces encountered in sports – like humeral retroversion due to pitching, or modified hip structure due to competitive gymnastics – carry these changes for life. These changes aren’t “bad” per se, they just need to be understood!  In fact, I and others would argue that some of these adaptations are actually necessary to compete at an elite level in certain sports. For example, almost all major league pitchers have some degree of humeral retroversion, which allows greater pitching velocity.

It is essential that coaches understand how to work with a person’s natural structure instead of against them. You cannot change it, and trying usually leads to injury as well as sub par training results.

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