Joint mobility is the degree at which a conjunction of two bones can move before being restricted by the surrounding tissues. This is perhaps the most important and yet underappreciated aspect to enhancing athletic performance, and even one of the most important aspects to living a long healthy life. The rest of the article will illustrate why proper joint mobility allows for injury prevention and even more speed and power. I will also mention how to increase joint mobility, and why it is so important to continue this training as a lifelong pursuit.
To begin with, numerous studies have illustrated that athletes with proper joint mobility have a reduced risk of injuries. Athletes with tighter hips tend to have a higher instance of pulled hamstrings and hip flexors when competing in sports. This is because as the hip joint moves through its range of motion to run faster, it is impeded more by the tighter antagonist muscles around it and they break down before the full stride has been achieved. I have experienced this first hand as I have had tight hip flexors during track and would constantly pull them in races.
Another area where we see immobility leading to injuries is tight front deltoids. Athletes in tennis, baseball and swimming use their shoulders--this tends to be quite a common occurrence. Many times they will have to limit their play during the season to work on alleviating some of the tension and the tendonitis that develops from it, and in severe cases can also lead to a rotator cuff tear. All this pain discomfort could easily be reduced by proper stretching and ensuring the shoulder joint has the correct mobility.
However, proper mobility must be carefully defined, as both hyper or hypo mobility. You've seen instances in which hypo mobility has been detrimental, but there are many instances where hypermobility is also detrimental. Female athletes, especially in soccer, tend to have higher degrees of mobility in their hamstrings than they do in their quadriceps. This imbalance creates a hypermobility in the hamstring which stresses the ACL, MCL, and meniscus tendons leading to a 10 times higher likelihood of knee injury in college female soccer players than their male counterparts!
Ensuring proper joint mobility is crucial for increasing speed and power during competition as well. Athletes who have sufficient joint mobility are able to travel through their motion with less resistance from the muscles around it. Since they're not fighting against their own muscles in order to go through the full range of motion, their movement is more fluid and all of the force is being used for the task at hand--not to fight against yourself. For example, once I began to really focus on stretching my hip flexors, not only did I pull them less, but I also increased my stride length and decreased my times!
Another great example of the science behind Andy Roddick’s and his serve. Andy roddick has a high degree of external rotation in his shoulder as he winds up for the serve; whereas other players do not have as much. Because they're not going to the full range of motion and they are fighting against their own muscles, they have both less time to develop force and more force necessary to complete the range of motion, and in turn, reducing the power of their serve. It is noted in this episode that for every degree of external rotation you can achieve easily you gain at least a mile per hour on your serve or pitch.
So how do we train proper joint mobility. There are many ways to do this and the most common one is stretching or yoga. Stretching and yoga work on lengthening the muscles freeing up the resistance those muscles provide against the joint movement. These ways give the added benefit of enhancing recovery as these supply blood flow to the muscles that have been worked. (It is best for joint mobility and injury prevention to do stretching or yoga after the workout)
Another way to enhance joint mobility is when doing your strength training, do not stop your range of motion to increase weight but instead, go through the full range even if the weight needs to be dropped. This will make you stronger and more effective when it comes to playing sports and make the joint used to going through its full range of motion. Lastly, diversifying your sports (i.e., being a multi-sport athlete) and workout activities have been shown to have a positive effect on joint mobility.
Now I know that most of you are athletes, but regardless, I'm sure there's people you know who are not sporting enthusiasts and say something along the lines of “well I don't need these things as I don't play sports.” But joint mobility transcends the sports world and is central to the proper function of the human body. Joint mobility allows us to do activities without resistance. If you do not maintain joint mobility throughout your life, the body naturally loses its elasticity and you will have a tough time doing activities of daily living like changing a light bulb or picking items up off the ground. Being immobile can also lead to an injury or a fall that could be detrimental to your well-being.
Joint mobility should be a main focus of any athlete or person who values their ability to move. It keeps you injury-free and moving smoothly and training it can be easy, fun and freeing… literally!