Mobility Vs. Stability—Why Stretching Is Only Part Of The Equation

Almost daily I receive messages or get asked, “My knee hurts, can you give me some good stretches for it?” or “How do I stretch my IT band?” or, “I’ve been stretching my piriformis every day and it doesn’t seem to help.”

Sound familiar to you? Have you been in those shoes?

The “if it hurts, just stretch it” philosophy is basically equivalent to staring at a roadmap trying to reach your destination (pretend it’s the 90s and we’re still using roadmaps) and realizing half of it is missing. It’s literally only a piece of the equation, and here’s why.

Oftentimes, the site of pain is NOT where the pain is actually coming from. Our bodies are compensating MACHINES and will often manifest pain in one area, when the actual problem may be coming from further up- or down-stream. So stretching only where it hurts often does not address the root issue.

Mobility gets talked about A LOT. What doesn’t get talked about as much but is equally important is STABILITY. Mobility and stability go together like PB&J, and for optimal function, you can’t have one without the other. Mobility is your body’s ability to move a joint effectively through its range, and stability is your capacity to maintain control of that joint movement or position by coordinating surrounding tissues and the neuromuscular system. If we’re missing half of this puzzle—either mobility or stability—we start to see compensatory patterns and breakdowns in our biomechanics.

Oftentimes tight areas, or “knots” (more technically known as trigger points) are formed in response to this compensation. Our brains/bodies can actually generate these trigger points, or areas of tightness, in an effort to create stability. Makes sense, right? If an area is too loosey goosey, laying down some trigger points helps to combat this and make it more stable. This is what I like to call “protective tension”. For example, our hamstrings can commonly become tight or stiff in an effort to compensate for lack of stability at the glute/hip. Our bodies are actually amazing for doing this and for protecting us in this way. But have you ever gotten a deep tissue massage or had a muscle released only to feel worse afterwards? If we release these areas of protective tension without actually addressing the root cause (i.e., lack of stability up or down the kinetic chain), then we take away that area’s only source of stability, and that can sometimes cause flare-ups in pain or decrease in function.

Areas that truly lack mobility usually need more than just static stretching. It is often more effective to perform dynamic mobility drills that involve active, controlled motion through that joint’s range. Simply holding a stretch statically does not require this control and is therefore not as functional. For example, rather than just leaning your foot up against a wall to stretch your calf, try some eccentric calf raises or even some foot activation drills. Things like Active Release Technique, dry needling, and adjustments/joint manipulations are also great ways to address mobility concerns and provide a window of opportunity to re-educate that particular area of the body through exercise. But I will always preach doing both together and not just working out knots and hoping for a long-term fix.

Everyone is different and everyone’s bodies are different. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to pain or injuries. This is why it’s incredibly important to be thoroughly evaluated by your local chiro or PT to come up with a treatment plan tailored to you if you’re experiencing pain that isn’t going away on its own. I’m here to help, friends. If you have any questions or comments, please visit the contact tab and reach out. I’d love to chat.

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