The recent trends for movement culture, natural movement, and functional fitness have the fitness culture obsessing about mobility and alignment more than ever before. While an obsession with movement quality, mobility, and flexibility are steps along the path toward optimal movement, most need to expand their thinking and their practice outside their typical gym routine.
Improving joint mobility and regaining proper alignment requires a three-pronged approach that much be used in unison. Optimal results come from the symbiotic benefits of all three aspects.
Aspect 1: Soft Tissue Work
Soft tissue work is the most important aspect of improving mobility and alignment. Without it, all other aspects are moot.
This is the most known and most practiced form of improving alignment. Perhaps this is the most intuitive approach or perhaps we like it because it can be largely passive and we’re mostly a lazy bunch. Whichever the case, unless you are extremely new to your fitness journey, you probably understand that to improve the way your body moves you to release tight, shortened, or hypertonic tissue (residual or resting muscle tension).
Fortunately, tissue responds quite readily when you ask it to appropriately. Our bodies adapt to the specific demands that we put on them. Want a bit more flexibility in a specific range, spend ample time pushing toward that end range and it shall be yours. Want to release a problem tight spot or muscle group? Perform enough myofascial release through any or all of the myriad of techniques and the tissue will respond.
I am over-simplifying for discussion’s sake, but this process is well understood. When too severe or challenging it can largely be outsourced to many types of body-work practitioners.
Aspect 2: Waking Up the Opposing Muscle Groups
Strengthening the opposite side is the most important aspect of improving mobility and alignment. Without it, all other aspects are moot.
Now that we have discussed soft tissue release to remove the “stops,” we can focus on building the strength the hold the improved alignment.
Typically, in any case of poor or improper alignment, one group of tissue is shortened, tight, or over-active while the opposing tissue is lax, weak, or does not properly engage. A classic example is with hyper-kyphosis—the classic desk-worker posture of a rounded upper back, shoulders rolled forward, and head and neck jutting forward.
The time spent in this position typically results in a shortening or tightening of all the tissue in the chest, front of the shoulders, and front of the neck. Inversely, the tissue in the upper back, and posterior shoulders become disengaged and weak. Imagine if the north-facing half of a tree truck went soft while the south-facing half shortened in contraction. It’s easy to imagine the outcome, a bent and severely compromised tree.
The goal with this second aspect is to strengthen the weak half. For our hyper-kyphosis example, this means strengthening all of the rear postural support muscles in the upper back and posterior shoulders.
Aspect 3: Habit Change
Habit change is the most important aspect of improving mobility and alignment. Without it, all other aspects are moot.
None of the work to undo tension and strengthen the opposing muscles will last if you do not ensure that you maintain this new improved alignment. This is the most unpopular aspect of improving your alignment and mobility, because all of the diligent work you do on the other two aspects amounts to nothing if you do not maintain it in all other aspects of your life. To change yourself you need to change your environment, your habits, and ways that you move and hold yourself.
Imagine a piece of clay that a sculptor works carefully molds and refines into a beautiful statue only to press it into a fixed mold of another shape before allowing it to harden—all the sculptor's work is for not.
Remember that you need to be honest about what you’re asking for from your body because your tissue will obey. If you work on the other two aspects of your mobility or alignment for an hour each day but then leave the gym and the assume the same working and life patterns that you always have, what is your body to think? That hour of work will seem like a novelty compared to the rest of your life. Your body will have little demand to adapt.
There are two ways to adjust your positions and patterns throughout the day. The first approach is to use intention by simply paying attention to how you are sitting, standing, walking, and moving. The second way is to change your environment by adjusting your desk height, seat angles, standing position, sitting position, and any other locales or postures that you spend a significant amount of time in. You can also set reminders to leave the desk and move (or at least shift positions) at regular intervals.
There are many ways to adjust your positions and break long bouts in the same posture. The greatest take-away to understand is that you must make lifestyle changes and increase your awareness to see meaningful physical change.
Collective Benefit for Optimal Results
No one aspect in isolation can ever give the results that you desire. Making significant and sustainable improvements to your alignment takes all three aspects. Releasing unwanted tension will not fix the issue if you do not simultaneously strengthen the neglected muscle groups and change the way that you live outside the gym.