What About Stability?

This is Part 2 of a 2-part blog discussing flexibility, mobility, and stability.
If you missed Part 1 be sure to catch up here before continuing.

by Isabelle Barter

Last time we explored the differences between flexibility, mobility, and hypermobility (or it’s proper term, joint laxity). We ended with the importance of “owning” your range of motion, or being able to muscularly control moving in and out of a pose or shape. In this blog we’ll discover how to assess your control over your range of motion and how to increase your stability.

Behold! The passive stretch! Walk into any group fitness studio or class anywhere and you’ll find people passively stretching while chatting about how they’re not flexible, or as flexible as they used to be. There’s also the super bendy person in the corner and everyone is marveling at how their knee is touching their nose. What is a passive stretch exactly? A passive range of motion does not require any voluntary muscle activity in the target area to get into the position or stretch. We use an external force like a strap, partner, or gravity to assist us. Take for example the classic strap-assisted hamstring stretch (see above). You loop one foot into the strap, pull and pull, one hip moves into flexion and at some point we expect to feel a stretch or sensation of tightness in the hamstrings which tells us to stop pulling.

If we repeat this movement again and again over a long period of time, we could improve range of motion by increasing our tolerance to the stretch sensation. We may still feel tight as we move, but we become used to the sensation and can therefore increase our range. We might think that our muscle is getting longer, but the increased range of motion has more to do with our nervous system’s perception than changing the resting length of the muscle. (See Jules Mitchell’s excellent posts here and here to learn more).

However, if we passively overstretch day in and day out in order to achieve what we might perceive as the perfect pose or range of motion, we risk dulling our proprioception (the ability to sense our body position). Jill Miller, founder of Yoga Tune Up® and The Roll Model® Method explains that before she knew better, she abandoned strength work and overstretched her way into hypermobility.

Jill could get into every bendy shape imaginable, but describes feeling like a “jellyfish on the inside” as her flexibility robbed her of feeling tension at her end range of motion. We have special sensory structures in our muscles and fascia that send information to our brain regarding how much tension or stretch is occurring in those areas – this is how your brain decides you’ve “gone too far” in a stretch. But if you constantly put yourself in these extreme ranges of motion, your brain starts to override those cautionary signals, which over time inhibits your ability to “listen to your body.” Jill has long retired the above pose.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think all passive stretches are bad! I perform them often. They feel good, can relax your nervous system, and help you explore new movement. However, based on everything we discussed about ligaments last time, I think we should strive to control our passive range of motion, and learn to feel when enough is enough – which brings us to our main subject: stability and motor control.

I am a big fan of Gray Cook’s definition of stability: stability occurs when “…muscle adjusts itself to reduce motion in the presence of motion somewhere else…” and it is this “coordination and timing that creates integrity around a joint.” Essentially, stability is the ability to reflexively and instantaneously initiate and control movement – using your muscles! Unlike passive ranges of motion, active range requires voluntary muscle actions. An active range of motion is what you are doing every day, like picking up socks from the floor, or reaching for a plate stored on a high shelf. It combines the elements of flexibility and mobility, while using timing and control. Let’s look at our hamstring stretch again and consider how it might be different if we performed the movement without using the strap. Could you still bring the hip into flexion to the same position, keeping the knee extended, all by your muscular self?! Can you perform that movement smoothly and with control?

Get down on the ground and give it a try! See if you can do the movement without momentum and try pausing at any point along the way up or down. You might discover that your core muscles reflexively activate to limit movement elsewhere in the body. There’s a subconscious symphony of muscle action taking place in that brief moment. In this picture above, it is clear that my active range of motion without the strap is less than my passive range. Meaning, I only have muscular control to about 90 degrees of hip flexion; anything beyond that is difficult for me to control and therefore difficult for me to stabilize.

What happens to range of motion and stability if we change our orientation to gravity and in doing so, increase the load? If you stand up and try to move one hip into flexion do you still have the same range and control?

I know I don’t! Look at how hard I have to concentrate! Notice the decreased range of motion compared to the other versions of this pose. And just like that I’ve discovered something I need to work on!

What about changing the orientation to gravity again and doing a version of a Warrior III yoga pose or tippy bird pose?

In this pose, imagine moving as if the spine, hip, and leg were fused together. Only go as far as you can keep head, shoulders, spine, hip, leg, and foot all in one line, without letting the hips rotate. What happens to range of motion and motor control now? We’ve loaded the hamstrings of the standing leg that is also in a stretch, and in doing so are asking them to get stronger at their end range of motion. So while you may think that the very first version of stretching with a strap is the only way to become more flexible, this variation is actually stretching the hamstrings, making them stronger at this range AND helping you find stability all at the same time! Efficiency and efficacy!

If you’ve been overstretching for a long time and have blown out your ability to feel your body in space, the guidance of a well-trained movement professional can help you to finally sense your end range again and get stronger there, instead of reinforcing old habits.

So to sum things up, any range you can achieve passively, you can work to achieve actively. Passive flexibility isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I would argue that being mobile, strong, and in control is more useful in your day-to-day life.

If you’d like to learn more and get a chance to embody these concepts under the supervision of trained eyes, join me February 13th for the Flexibility? Mobility? What about Stability? Workshop at Kinesphere from 1:00- 2:30pm

And, I’ll leave you with this… check out Jean Claude van Damme’s ability to display the ultimate expression of range of motion under complete control.

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