Jump to content

Limbering, mobility, and stretching: what do these terms mean? How to best use?

Recommended Posts

I have had a large number of enquiries coincidently last week and this week to do with these three topics. Accordingly I have decided to post a few thoughts here and I'm hoping that other people who know more will jump in and add to this.

The interesting thing to me is that I have written about the distinction between limbering and stretching in all of my books yet there seems to be more confusion on this topic than any other so I want to elaborate here. It could just mean of course I don't write very well!

And mobility is not something that I have seriously considered before the last year or two simply because it wasn't relevant directly in any of the activities that I am currently pursuing or was a built-in part that was not distinguished. However since I met Coach Sommer and Steve Maxwell and worked with both of them I realise that I need to rethink my position on mobility and try to make this aspect among the three terms clearer.

Limbering is simply taking joints muscles and fascia through yesterday's ordinary ranges of movement. Limbering can be formal or informal. Formal: I went to "limbering" classes held in a dance studio before work for a couple of years when I was an athlete and of course I was the stiffest person there by far. I learned something very important in those classes: what is stretching for one person can be limbering for someone else. Limbering doesn't hurt; it simply gets your ordinary or your normal movement back following sleep, or some other physical activity, or preparation for another. And in our system (ST) the critical distinction between limbering and stretching is that the latter involves the Contract-Relax approach.

So now let me talk about stretching briefly and perhaps this fundamental distinction will become a bit clearer. In Stretch Therapy, I have defined stretching in as an activity that takes a limb and its associated muscles, nerves, and fascia into new ranges of movement. I think that much of the confusion about stretching hinges on this critical point. When most people think that they're stretching they are really limbering, on this definition. When you are stretching in this sense the sensations in your body will range from mild to strong. The more flexible you are on any absolute scale, the less strong the sensations from stretching will be, generally. And the fact that successful stretching takes a limb into a new range of movement means that there will be soreness in the days following. You actually want that soreness, perhaps surprisingly: if it is not there in the days following stretching, then you know that you can push a bit harder the next time. More: if there is no soreness at all, it is unlikely that you will become more flexible. Of course, there are always exceptions. Once that soreness is experienced, that is the time to do some gentle limbering. You will find that your range of movement is reduced simply because the structures involved are sore. "Sore" in this muscular sense always means that the part that you have work has simply not yet recovered fully.

To make sense of this discussion it is absolutely essential to understand where you are on some notional flexibility scale. The closer your existing range of movement to the demands that you try placing yourself in everyday life the better, assuming you have the strength to support the end positions. What I am trying to say here is that if all of your required ranges of movement are able to be explored without effort then you have no need to become more flexible, so no stretching will be necessary. Limbering and mobility will be quite sufficient. The key point here is that stretching is designed to take you into new ranges of movement. It is an intense activity that requires considerable recovery.

So if you are like many athletes and lower on the flexibility scale but want to become more flexible for some reason, then you have to engage in activities to move you more to the looser end. This will involve a mixture of both stretching, possibly mobilising, and limbering. Now a crucial new piece of information, almost impossible to quantify, is required: Whether you decide to stretch hard or to limber (or do some other activity) depends completely on how you feel that day. A further consideration is how long ago did you do a hard stretching session? Experience has shown that following the acquisition of a new range of movement (even if only momentarily) full recovery takes at least four days.

Now what about mobility? This may not be a standard definition, but recently I wrote that mobility is strength and flexibility in action. Part of understanding why this is depends crucially on understanding that there are two separate types of proprioceptors in the muscles, ligaments, tendons, joint receptors, and skin. One of these types of proprioceptors is position dependent; the other is time and position dependent. The significance is that both have to be trained. I have seen people who can sit in perfect side splits but who do side kicks very poorly. What would be considered warming up and ordinary martial arts drills are a perfect example of mobility work: in these drills you are exploring balance, action, movement, flexibility, strength, and even power. Usually the drill begins slowly with an emphasis on the pattern or skill being practised and then its speed increases. You can become sufficiently flexible for any activity by doing the activity itself—if you are gifted physically. I have seen it with my own eyes. But for most people, restrictions will be located in the body as you progress (and in the case of many sports, created by the activities themselves); when this happens, stretching can be very useful (as can specific neural re-patterning and strengthening techniques).

And in the last five years, mobility drills by themselves have become more popular and an analysis of the material shows that they are, exactly, strength and flexibility in action. Control of any position is emphasised. Very rarely is any position held in statically; instead the requirement for flexibility is momentary and moved through, dynamically. This approach especially targets adaptation of the time and position dependent proprioceptors. Some of this spills over to the position dependent ones.

So what does this all mean? It depends on where you are on that flexibility map I mentioned above, and what kind of flexibility you need (fast, or slow/static). If you want to get closer to the loose end, that goal best be served by doing one, or possibly two, strong stretching sessions a week, concentrating on your tightest parts which, of course, no one wants to work on! But if you can overcome the ego's massive resistance to working on your tight parts and your less able functions, you can transform yourself remarkably in a six month period. In a year, you can be a different person.

Returning to an earlier thought: if when you get up and had a coffee and have woken up fully, but you feel to sore to do any stretching, then make your limbering very gentle and consider it to be part of your active recovery. Personally I have done very little stretching first thing in the morning (except on meditation retreats; I can explain if anyone's interested) because my body doesn't feel like doing that kind of thing. But, again, there are no hard and fast rules here: plenty of people have made stretching a part of their morning routine very effectively. Just be completely clear in your mind as to whether you're are limbering or stretching, and follow the protocols accordingly.

Mobility drills can be fitted in on a daily basis as well, or as required (lower frequency). It should be clear from the foregoing discussion that doing mobility drills trumps doing limbering drills. I would select between mobility and limbering according to how my body was feeling on any given day: if more towards the sore end, then I would do just limbering which is holding very gentle end stretch positions and using no contractions. If not so sore, I will try mobility drills and see how they feel in the body and remember that even though mobility drills are usually done dynamically they can be paused at any point, and thus become limbering drills instead.

I hope this starts the discussion; please weigh in.

  • Like 4

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Very interesting. I use all of the above methods, and others, in my goals. For myself, I like the definition of mobility 'consciously controlling a range of motion with strength' - so very similar, if not identical to what you mentioned above. I do some mobility and movement patterning stuff every single day.

Stretching (neuro-muscular stretching with contract-relax and hold-relax techniques) I use the ST stretching techniques plus a few creations of my own, and use the definition above.

I do once or twice a week as a designated session for 'flexibility training' aka filling in/expanding my body map; working on specific restrictions and soft tissue re-modelling.

I approach it the same way I would for a strength and conditioning workout, but the attribute worked upon is flexibility - more specifically a permanent increase in flexibility (new range of flexibility). Like Kit said, I leave about 4 - 8 days between these sessions very often.

Limbering is what I do in the morning (along with joint mobility); Contract-relax based stretching I find unpleasant, and more importantly not optimal, in the morning. I know some people love doing like a vinyasa style flow-stretch with holds and the like, in the morning.. I haven't played around with that too much in the morning. I love joint mobility in the morning too - especially rolling, rocking and ground based mobility work.

The difference for my mind between joint mobility and limbering is partially vectorial. When I do Joint Mobility the patterns are almost exclusively circles; figure '8's' (and infinity symbols) and clover leaves.

When I do limbering it is more linear; or beginning in a standard linear stretch - then I add a 'squirm factor' to this, or add spiral movements to the standard pose...like wringing out a towel. It's more organic and explorative - with a broken rhythm.

Joint Mobility, for me, is always a constant movement (whether circle or infinity or whatever.. it can be very slow, but it's always moving).

In limbering I will also sometimes stop completely, and working with adding breathing enhancers to the stretch position (which can be done in neuro-muscular stretching too, obviously).

Another difference is the Intent and body awareness in the exercise. In joint mobility I focus on sensation from joint and bone moving in a smooth, flowing motion (focus doesn't mean it is flowing..sometimes it is crunchy and unco; but you've got to start somewhere! The goal is smooth, flowing motion).

In limbering I focus on the soft tissue (fascia and muscle), and try to keep tension in larges sheets/channels/strips of tissue as I move either (or both) ends of the channel, or, add in other vectors to enhance the wringing effect. Both limbering and joint mobility have a kind of moderate and restorative quality about them, where as the flexibility/re-modelling work can be quite intense (though it doesn't have to be) and has more of a structural re-working intent and feel.

In stretching too, there are lots of sub-sets. Thomas Kurz - Stretching Scientifically and Mel Siff's - Supertraining both go into these in depth. Dynamic stretching; static active; static passive; etc..

Cool. Let's see what others come up with.


  • Like 1

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

I should say too, that the vectors mentioned (circles, figure '8's', etc.) are only really for basic joint mobility. More advanced joint mobility exercises are full bodyweight (or weighted) exercises and movement patterns, in and of themselves.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

I hope the people here will not be annoyed from my writting in old topics.

For me stretching is what both K and D said. But I don't separate mobility and limbering. If it isn't a new ROM I just start with some light movement (limbering) and after that (if I want) explore a bit more strengthening exercises in this ROM (which for me means mobility). But if I'm not sore I could start right away with the tougher exercises. Just doesn't see any benefit to add one more term here- stretching and limbering, I think are quite enough.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Nick, I agree completely, and this is what I used in all my books (stretching vs. limbering, with the definitions I restated above). But mostly due to the fitness world's input, "mobility" has largely replaced "limbering", which had a specialised meaning in the dance world, and a generally understood meaning in the larger world. I still find the distinction, and the two terms, to be perfectly sufficient. And as Dave points out, there are plenty of exploration points where these intersect.

  • Like 1

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Create New...