Mobility – Where Did it Go?
I didn’t write an article last week as I become a little busy as my wife brought into this world the most precious gift I have ever received: my daughter, Adelaide Grace Burtch. There’s nothing I’d rather do right now than hang out with my family; in fact I’d pretty content just to watch little Adelaide sleep.
“Alex, this is a sports blog”. Don’t worry, I am aware.
As I watch Adelaide sleep, I can see that she has no problem pulling her knees up to her armpits and even in that position, she can extend her legs fully. I’ve watched her fall asleep with her shoulder fully flexed (that is, elbow raised and behind her head) and her hand chicken winged behind her head. I feel like I’m watching Gumby sleep.
It’s pretty obvious why she can do this: her bones are soft, the tendons and ligaments are rather loose and she has and rather low percentage muscle mass for her body (she’s got some pretty adorable fat rolls). So why can’t I expect her to grow up maintaining this mobility and becoming a phenomenal athlete? Well, probably the same reason most of us aren’t world class athletes: we’ve lost mobility in our journey from infancy to adulthood.
I am a believer that mobility is at it’s highest when you are an infant and, if left alone, it has no choice but to decline from there. You see, as we age our bones and muscles grow often times at accelerated rates during growth spurts or if we’re in a ‘bulking season’. The ligaments and tendons have the capacity to adapt to periods of rapid growth but they are usually left in the dust. It takes significantly more time for these systems to adapt whereas bones and muscles breakdown and reform continuously in the body.
This is probably why most of us, at 7 years old can squat our butts to the ground but 10 years later after 24 inches of growth and 100 lbs of weight gain, it just ain’t happening.
I am also a firm believer in what I am calling ‘The Preservation Principle’ in sports. When I was a swimmer, it was once explained to me that the person who wins the race is the person who slowed down the least. That might seem silly but there’s some truth to it. Think of a 50m freestyle. Isn’t the fastest point of the race the dive into the water? Therefore, if we’re the fastest we’ll ever be 1 second into the race, whoever slows down the least will win, right?
So, let’s take The Preservation Principle and apply it to mobility. The person that can gain the most strength and/or muscle hypertrophy while preserving the most mobility should be an excellent weightlifter. Notice, I don’t say athlete here because there’s so much skill and mental variability that I can’t say a super strong and mobile body is going to always be an excellent at lacrosse, tennis, golf, swimming, etc.
I want to push pause for a second and clarify that I’m talking about enough mobility and not hypermobility. You see, the latter of these two creates joint laxity, as my daughter can exhibit, and laxity leads to injuries. We’re after possessing enough mobility to perform your sport and to condition/lift.
I love the way Kelly Starrett puts it in his book ‘Becoming a Supple Leopard’: “By consistently and systematically exposing athletes to the rigors of full-range movements and optimal human motor-control, we’re able to quickly identify force leaks, torque dumps, bad technique, motor inefficiency, poorly integrated movement patterns; holes in strength, speed, and metabolic conditioning; and restrictions in mobility. Best of all, the tool we use to detect and prevent injury is the same tool needed to improve an athlete’s performance.”
Let’s put this into play: Dustin Johnson and JB Holmes finished 1, 5 last year in driving distance on the PGA tour, respectively. Now, if I put both of them on a squat rack and assumed their mobility and technique are sufficient, I bet JB could outwork DJ without a problem because JB simply has more mass. However, take a look at their swings:
DJ averaged 317 yards per drive while JB averaged 310, pretty similar but from the looks of their golf swings, you might not guess that. JB’s shorter right shoulder rotation indicates that he either not mobile enough to get into the position that DJ is in or he becomes too unstable in that position. This is how I know JB’s raw power is higher: he can generate nearly the same distance as DJ with less of an elastic component.
Side note: DJ is recognized as one of the fittest, strongest athletes on the tour so it’s entirely possible that he has monstrous lifting numbers.
No athlete is really perfect and I’d bet most elite athletes still make mechanical compensations during sport to mask their limitations. Yet, they continue to be high level achievers. This is probably why world records are continuously broken. Someone started doing the ‘right things’ earlier in their career and preserved their mobility as they increased strength and size.
Now, I’m pretty young in my coaching career but mobility is something that I am learning to take very seriously. Partnering sports performance with the PT realm is the best way for me to grow soundly and rapidly as a coach.
I hope you all enjoyed this blog. Maybe it was refreshing as I didn’t use any references? Either way, have a great weekend everyone! Thanks,