In today’s episode of the PT on ICE Daily Show, Fitness Athlete division leader Alan Fredendall discusses the efficacy of mobility programs to produce meaningful, function change in range of motion for patients & athletes.
Take a listen to the episode or read the episode transcription below.
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01:32 ALAN FREDENDALL
Good morning everybody, welcome to the PT on ICE Daily Show. Happy Friday morning, I hope your day is off to a great start. My name is Alan, happy to be your host today. Currently have the pleasure of serving as the Chief Operating Officer here at ICE and lead faculty here in our fitness athlete division. It is Fitness Athlete Friday, we would argue it’s the best start day of the week. We talk all things CrossFit, functional fitness, powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, endurance athletes, runners, bikers, swimmers, everything related to the person who’s regulationally active here on Fridays. Before we get started with today’s topic, we’re going to be tackling mobility. We’re going to define mobility versus flexibility. We’re going to discuss a recently published paper showing the effects of long term stretching on mobility changes and address concerns related to that paper. Before we get started, let’s talk about a couple of announcements. It is the CrossFit Games individual and team competitions began yesterday. Age group and adaptive athletes began Tuesday. We have a day competition all week long. You can catch it on ESPN. You can catch it on YouTube. Our very own Kelly Benfee here from the fitness athlete division will be competing with her team. Plus 64 CrossFit Army end game in the team division. So you can check her out. She had a couple of events yesterday and she’s got events every day the rest of the weekend. Speaking of fitness festivals, the I Got Your Six Fitness Festival will be June 21st and 23rd down in Charleston, South Carolina with our friends at Warrior WOD. We had the virtual competition this year, but next year it’s going to be in person. So it’s a ways away, but look forward to that calendar if you want to come down to Charleston and join us for a weekend of approachable fitness courses coming away from us here in the fitness athlete division. Your next chance to catch our live course will be September 9th and 10th. That will be in Bismarck, North Dakota with Mitch Babcock or the end of September, September 30th and October 1st. You can catch Zach Long out on the West Coast. He’ll be in Newark, California. That’s in the Bay Area. Our online courses, Clinical Management Fitness Athlete Essential Foundations, our eight week entry level online course begins again September 11th and Fitness Athlete Advanced Concepts, our level two online course begins September 17th. So mobility, let’s talk about it. How much can we really move the needle? My goal today is to define mobility as it’s often talked about in kind of common terms with athletes in the gym, patients in the clinic when they talk about mobility, defining mobility versus defining flexibility. Talking about a paper that was published a couple of weeks ago, looking at the effects of long term stretching specifically at ankle mobility, which is a joint we’re always after to improve the range of motion within and then really how to approach mobility from a practical clinical standpoint.
2:01 EFINING MOBILITY VS. FLEXIBILITY
So let’s start first with defining mobility versus flexibility because they’re often used interchangeably and that’s not the correct way to use them. Then when we talk about flexibility, we’re talking about the capacity of soft tissues of muscles, tendons, ligaments to be passively stretched, whether me as the therapist stretches you the patient or whether you stretch yourself using your own body, using stretch straps, things like that. The ability to passively stretch muscle tissue at a specific joint. Now mobility is different. Mobility is the ability of a joint to actively move through a range of motion. And of course, we’re always chasing a full range of motion. So the ability, for example, of the need to advance across the toes in active closed chain dorsiflexion, the ability of the hip to externally rotate or flex sitting down into a squat, that would be an assessment of mobility, actively moving the joint through the range of motion. And you, the patient or athlete moving yourself through the range of motion, aka how much motion can you actually access? Because we see some folks have a big difference between their flexibility and their mobility. We may be able to passively move their ankle, passively move their leg into a normal or above average range of motion. But when that person stands up, they re-encounter gravity and they try to actively move that joint. We can sometimes see a big difference between mobility and flexibility. And that brings us to a really important point that a lot of what we see in marketing, in programs, in our own home programs for athletes and patients is that we say we’re prescribing mobility. But really, what we are giving for the most part is flexibility, that a lot of passive stretching is what is given out, which can improve flexibility. Yes, but may not always result in any sort of functional change in mobility. We see a ton of programs all over social media, especially in the fitness athlete space, that are marketed at improving mobility. But when we actually look at the content of those programs, things like ROMWOD, things like GOWOD, things like whatever WOD, that we actually see a lot of passive stretching, a lot of flexibility. And so it’s no wonder that folks come in and have been doing one of these programs for weeks, months, years, and have not seen any sort of beneficial improvements. In their mobility, their ability to actively move joints through a range of motion, because they have not been doing any sort of mobility work, they have been doing a lot of flexibility work. And we know those two things don’t always translate. We don’t always see a bunch of flexibility work translate into any sort of improvements in actual meaningful functional mobility.
7:32 THE RESEARCH ON STRETCHING
So what does the research say? There’s a bunch of research on passive stretching. There’s a bunch of research on the benefits specifically of eccentric loading to improve range of motion, to improve active mobility. And we’ve always kind of wondered the question of what is the dose response relationship with flexibility training, with stretching? We have a great paper that came out last month in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research by Wernicke and colleagues. I’ll post the link on Instagram and in the show notes on the podcast that sought to answer that question. So this was a study that sought to look at the effects on maximal voluntary muscular contraction, flexibility and muscle thickness of the ankle plantar flexors. Now, the experimental group had a lot of stretching prescribed. Specifically, they stretched six times a day for 10 minutes each session for six weeks. So about 42 total hours of stretching through the calf complex, an hour per day for 42 days. They perform the stretching with a night splint type orthotic of a boot that prepositions the foot into ankle dorsiflexion with the addition of a strap assist to pull their ankle into additional dorsiflexion if able. So essentially stretching the gastric complex 10 minutes, six times a day for six weeks. Now, what did the results show? The results did show an improvement in range of motion of when they remeasured ankle dorsiflexion. There were improvements that reached statistical significance. But really, when we look at the results, when we look at the actual data itself and not the summary of data in the discussion, we look at the raw data. What do we think about the results? We think that the functional improvement here is probably questionable. Then we actually look at the ranges of motion increases experienced by these subjects that most folks experience the change of about 0.25 to 0.5 centimeters or about one tenth to two tenths of an inch of an improvement in ankle dorsiflexion. Now, when we measure functional ankle dorsiflexion in the clinic, we use the closed chain half kneeling knee to wall task to measure the ability of the knee to advance over the toes with a planted heel. We show this assessment in our online essential foundations course, and we show this in our live seminar as well. And what we’d like to see there is that an athlete with the heel flat can advance their knee over their toes about four inches. That ideally they would contact the wall. We know if they can contact the wall, they have about four inches of motion there or possibly more. But that is enough motion, for example, to be able to advance the knees over the toes and sit down into a nice full depth squat. And so when we look at changes of 0.1 inches in a test where we’re looking to see four full inches of range of motion, we realize that’s not really that much of a functional improvement of yes, the results did reach statistical significance. But the practical application here is very, very, very minimal of that person. If we improve their ankle dorsiflexion and it was, for example, zero inches, somebody like me, somebody with a very stiff ankle, particularly my right ankle that has about zero inches of closed chain dorsiflexion. What good really is 0.1 to 0.2 inches of closed chain dorsiflexion improvement? The answer is not. It’s not right. It’s not a functional improvement. It’s not a meaningful improvement. Yes, it was a statistically significant improvement, but in real life, it would not help that person move any better. It would not improve that person’s mobility, even though their flexibility, yes, has technically changed. So we need to be mindful of how to actually interpret results of studies like this. We also need to now talk about what is the practical application of a study like this to practice, because this study came out and a lot of social media posts were made, a lot of podcasts were made that said, look, you’re just not stretching enough. If you stretch an hour a day for six weeks, you can see an improvement in joint range of motion. And yes, again, while true, not functional.
10:14 APPLYING RESEARCH TO PRACTICE
We also have to step back and really analyze the methodology of this paper and also analyze things like the inclusion and exclusion criteria of this paper. We’re probably unlikely to find an actual real person, a patient or athlete who’s going to do six hours a week, an hour per day, seven days a week for many, many weeks of flexibility training, essentially, right? We hear time is the biggest barrier to exercise. We hear time is the biggest barrier to home exercise program compliance. So it doesn’t really make sense that if we can’t get somebody to perform a 12 minute remom for the home exercise program, what’s the likelihood that they’re going to do an hour a day of home exercise program on top of maybe also trying to exercise an hour or more per day? The answer is unlikely. Right. We know that if we if we dose that out to somebody, there are very few patients who are going to come back and say, yep, I did. I did six sessions a day, 10 minutes per session, and I did it every day, seven days a week, just like you prescribed, doctor. That’s a very unlikely result. So we need to be mindful of that when we’re talking about applying this to real actual people. We also really need to dig into the inclusion criteria and look at the baseline assessments in a study like this, because this study would portray that some of these folks were stiff and saw improvements. Some of these folks had OK mobility and saw improvements. But really, when we look at the baseline assessments, the quote unquote stiffest person in the study still had three point four inches of closed chain dorsal flexion, right? More than enough ankle mobility to be able to squat to depth, assuming nothing was wrong mobility wise in that person’s hip or knee. That person would have all the dorsal flexion needed to be able to, for example, functionally squat to depth. So we have to ask ourselves, is this actually representative of the populations that we treat? Is it representative of somebody who might come to us and say they need help with their mobility? What’s the likelihood that they’re actually going to do an hour a day of this type of training? And also, this is not the person that’s going to present in our clinic, right? Of the person who can close chain dorsal flex at least three point four inches. You’re not even going to consider that their ankle is stiff and maybe even prescribe some mobility stuff for their ankle to them, because they already possess all the range of motion needed to squat. On the high end in these subjects, they were beyond three point four inches, right? There were people with four, five, six, some folks close to seven inches of closed chain dorsal flexion. Way above average mobility. And so we need to recognize and ask the question of why are we studying the effects of flexibility and mobility on people who already have adequate, above average, perfect or excellent mobility, right? We see this a lot in medical research of we study the effects of, for example, resistance training on bone loading in older adults, and we exclude people with osteoporosis and osteopenia and folks who have any sort of issue that might throw an extra variable into the study. And what we find ourselves is studying interventions on people who don’t need the intervention, right? And this study is exactly that case of we are studying the effects of flexibility training on the mobility of people who don’t need any help with their flexibility or mobility. So again, can we generalize studies like this to the general population? Probably not. And for a lot of reasons, the ones we’ve already discussed here. And what we need to realize when we look at this data and look at a big picture is when we look at the results of studies like this, when we look at all the data aggregated, yes, but also unaggregated on those data tables, what are we looking at? That we tend to find that folks fall into buckets, that we can classify them. We know that, for example, with low back pain, we can find people who are flexion intolerant, extension intolerant, shear intolerant. We know they may or may not respond to directional preference type exercises, but people tend to fall in classification buckets based on what’s going on. And we need to recognize that mobility is no different. Even looking at this study, looking at the baseline measurements of folks, we have folks who appear to have great mobility, who improved with intervention. We have folks who have great mobility, who did not improve with interventions. We had folks with poor mobility, who improved with intervention. And then we had the most unfortunate group of all, folks with poor mobility, who did not seem to improve with intervention. So we need to recognize that the person we’re working with in the clinic, in the gym, probably fits into one of those buckets. If they are somebody who is interested in working on the mobility, even if we may not need it, right? We have that person who can hinge all the way to the floor with a perfectly flat back and locked out knees and touch their palms to the floor. A very bendy, flexible individual who is asking you for help on their mobility, right? That person does not need mobility help. They do not need flexibility help. But yet they are maybe seeking some extra mobility programming. We have folks with poor mobility, who need mobility training, who we know will not work on it anyways, especially an hour a day. So we see that our patients and athletes fall into these buckets, and we need to recognize which bucket they may fall into. We may not know early on how they’re going to respond to interventions, especially if they haven’t tried anything previously, but we’ll know very quickly across the plan of care of their physical therapy if they’re going to be somebody who responds to interventions like these. So what do we actually do with that person in front of us? Well, I think what we don’t do enough is ask people a few simple questions of I see that you have some mobility things you could work on. How much time do you actually have for this? I don’t think we ask that question enough. I think we give people what we want to see them do, what we hope they will do, and then we’re often disappointed when they don’t do it because we haven’t asked first of all how much time they’re willing to dedicate to it. I appreciate over the years how I’ve started to ask this question, and people have been very honest of I’m never going to do this at home. I’m only going to do this when I come here to physical therapy. Well, I appreciate that honesty, right? Because I’m not going to waste my time writing out a really detailed program that you’re not going to do. So I think starting with that, excuse me, that question is very, very important. And then also recognizing and being really, really thorough and methodical in your reassessments along the way so you know if this person appears to be somebody who’s going to respond to mobility type interventions. This study in particular has a lot of issues with the methodology, only including people who already possess a lot of nice functional mobility. It did a lot of long-term passive stretching, and we also need to recognize that primarily due to the way the intervention was done in this study, they primarily stretched the gastroc but assessed mobility and range of motion by the closed chain dorsiflexion test, which really looks at soleus muscle flexibility more so than gastroc. So we’re stretching the gastroc, but assessing the ability of the knee to advance over the toes in a kneeling position, which is really looking at the soleus muscle complex. So we need to recognize the limitations of this study, and in our own practice of actually making sure we’re giving the right mobility to the right person based on the deficits that we’re finding in their assessment. We hear often, what are some great shoulder stretches? Well, it depends on what is limiting your shoulder mobility. If I give you a bunch of lat stretches and you seem to be really limited in external rotation because of maybe something going on in your subscap or your internal rotators not related to your lat, if you pass all of the screens we see for the lat, then giving you a bunch of lat stretching, a bunch of shoulder stretching, it’s really not going to benefit and improve the mobility we need to work on. So we need to be sure we’re working in the right area and addressing the right area with our exercises as well. So mobility, how much can we move the needle? Well, it really depends. It seems to be maybe a genetic component. It seems to be a combination of how well people respond to this type of training, and we also need to recognize that it appears to take a lot of time, possibly more time than the patient or athlete in front of us actually has. So understand the difference between flexibility and mobility. Flexibility, the ability for us to stretch muscles passively or a patient or athlete to stretch themselves passively versus mobility, the ability of the person to actively move their joints through a range of motion under gravity, functional movements, things like a squat, a lot of close chain type movements. We have research that looks at long-term stretching, but we know the quality of the research is not that great and the practical application of the research itself is not that great. Yes, we can reference the study and say if you’re willing to stretch six hours a week, you might see changes in your ankle mobility, but again, we don’t know that for sure. In practice, we know that our athletes and patients tend to fall in buckets. We need to be able to recognize those folks where they lie in our assessment. And again, always ask the question of how much do you really want to work on this? How much time do you really have to work on this? Somebody who says I have an extra hour a day before bed at night. Okay, that’s a person who maybe could try out an hour of flexibility training before bed. Whether you give them a program, whether they sign up for something like ROM WOD, GO WOD, Mobility WOD, whatever WOD, Stretch WOD, the millions of programs out there. Or somebody who goes I’m not going to do this at all. I know myself, I’m not going to do this at night before bed. I’m not going to do it in the morning. I’m not going to do it before I work out and I’m not going to do it after I work out. Okay, that is a person that we probably should not spend our time on trying to give a bunch of mobility homework already knowing that they’re pretty intentional and honest that they’re not going to do it. So mobility, can we move the needle? Maybe. Jury’s still out. We still need to see more research, of course, more impactful research, more functional research, and more practical research. Research that actually looks at what sort of changes can we expect to make in maybe 12 to 15 minutes a day? The range of time that we’re probably prescribing to most of our patients and athletes. So I hope this was helpful. I hope you have a fantastic Friday. Hope you have a great weekend. If you’re going to be at a live course, enjoy yourself. Enjoy the CrossFit Games. Watch Kelly Benfee and Ruth Huron. Have a great Friday. Have a great weekend. Bye everybody.
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