Range of Motion

If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it!

What exactly is range of motion? And why is it important? This is a topic that has been puzzling people for years. Every time I evaluate a person’s movement, and examine their range of motion, I usually have them tell me something along the lines of: “well I’m pretty flexible”, yet they can’t perform a proper squat. Well how is it that a person can be flexible and not be able to perform a squat correctly?

I bet a lot of people reading this, would probably say that they stretch multiple times a week. And I would be willing to bet that those people likely have less than ideal range of motion performing basic fundamental movements. The point being here, that there is a significant difference between static stretching, and active range of motion. I know from experience that many of you reading this know a lot of the benefits of stretching. Firstly, because I see a lot of people stretching, and secondly, I know most of you tell me you stretch semi-regularly (3-5x/week.) This leads to the conundrum of why I see such poor movement quality from most people in the gym.

Let’s start by digging in a little further here……..

Let’s first talk about static stretching. Static stretching is the temporary lengthening of a muscle. This is done by holding a muscle in a lengthened position for a period of time. This is the type of stretching that most people perform either before a workout, after a workout, or both. If you see people either laying on the floor or standing in an awkward looking position without moving for a period of time, more than likely, they are attempting their best version of a static stretch.

Next, let’s go over what exactly active range of motion is. Think of active range of motion as movement. When you wish to perform any physical movement, your muscles contract and act on bones which move about a joint which then produce mechanical movement and that’s what allows us to move.

Lastly, let’s quickly go over what fundamental movements are. Fundamental movements are movements that involve multiple body parts and are the basis of physical literacy. The example I will be using moving forward will be a squat.

So, if we think about those three concepts for a second; why is it that lots of people, in their own opinion, have great flexibility and yet can’t perform a squat correctly?

Essentially, these people have trained their body to not be able to perform a squat. Babies have some of the best squat form you’ll ever see. Go to Google and type in “Squatting baby” and look at images. Babies have picture perfect squat form. Just look at when they bend down to pick something off of the floor, the drop right into a perfect squat. They utilize a full range of motion in their hips, knees, and ankles to achieve the movement.

Obviously, many things change from infancy to adulthood in a human body. However, the fact remains that babies can squat perfectly, and adults, for the most part cannot. What happens is over time, we train our bodies into a restricted range of motion. Babies, when they’re first exploring the world, explore what’s closest to them first, the floor. As we get older and our bodies and brains develop, we become more efficient and don’t spend as much time on or near the floor. We begin sitting on couches, chairs, benches, and beds that don’t allow us to explore the end ranges of motion of our lower body joints.

Let’s take a hypothetical example that I know is accurate for a lot of people. Jill lives in Uxbridge and works in Downtown Toronto. She has a 90 minute commute to work and then spends 7 hours a day sitting at a desk. Conservatively, that’s 10 hours out of her day that she is sitting down. Presumably, she is sitting at about a 90 degree angle for those 10 hours. When Jill gets to the gym she does a few sets of back squats and can only squat to 90 degrees.

Now to look at this situation, let’s assume that Jill is not using a weight that is too heavy for her to lift, why is she not performing a full squat? The answer is simple; Jill has trained her body into a reduced range of motion from all the sitting she does. Unless Jill has suffered a lower body injury at some point in time, her body should be able to achieve a full squat, and yet, she appears as though she can’t.

By training your body into a reduced range of motion, you’re putting limitations on your body that may one day end in serious injury. If you’re body is trained to only be strong in a specific range of motion, instead of its full range, if there is ever a time when your body must tap into its full range to prevent you from falling, your body will not be strong enough to protect you from the fall. This could result in a torn muscle, torn tendon and/or ligament, or a broken bone.

Good quality movement with emphasis placed on full range of motion should always be the foundation of any training program.

If you wish to learn more about the benefits of good quality movement and how you can integrate it into your training, please join us this fall for a special presentation.  (Date TBA.)

About the Author:  Eric Noyes BHSc (Kin), CSEP-CPT

Eric is  Kinesiology Graduate from The University of Ontario and holds his Training Certification with the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology.  He has been training general population and sport specific clients at Body Fit since 2013 and is currently the Lead Trainer.  He can be reached at eric@bodyfit.ca for advice and consultation.