On Monday I explained the two step system to improving mobility and functionality.
Here's a quick refresher =>
Step 1) we need to assess flexibility. If we are lacking flexibility, we need to improve it through stretching (both active and passive) BEFORE moving on to step 2.
Step 2) we need to assess strength. Assuming that the body is now flexible enough to travel through the range of motion, we can now take a look at the strength. Chances are, if you had some sort of limitation or injury, your strength will be deficient in some capacity.
To regain full function of a joint or particular range of motion, this 2 step protocol is applied. If we don't follow these two steps in order, one of the following will occur - if we try to improve strength without improving flexibility first, we are going to be working the WRONG muscles. Flexibility is required in order to ensure the correct muscles are being used in a movement. If flexibility is missing, it will lead to an overuse injury or a more significant injury if the poor movement pattern puts too much stress on any one muscle or tendon.
If we improve flexibility at a joint or range of motion, but don't work on improving it's strength, then the body will just reverse itself. Strength is the key to keeping mobility for the long term. Now, strength in this scenario doesn't mean lifting hundreds of pounds - it means making sure particular muscle groups are strong enough to perform their intended function. What we typically see in most overuse injuries is some muscle groups are overdeveloped, and some are underdeveloped. Improving strength in this scenario means fixing the imbalance so the muscle groups are evenly balanced, and work properly together.
Let's take a real life example - low back pain. I'll preface this by saying that I am not a physician, chiropractor or physical therapist and I am not giving you medical advice. I will, however, give you my experience in working with a number of low back issues over the years.
When low back pain presents itself, it is rarely an acute instance (meaning it just happened instantaneously). The majority of the time, low back pain comes from a low amount of stress on the back for a long period of time. A healthy back starts to tighten up, and then it starts to get irritated just a little bit, until it is finally in significant pain.
We start with an assessment. We need to look at the body to see what we are dealing with. When assessing the low back, the go-to test is the standard toe touch - can you bend over and touch your toes?
If the answer is no, then that is a very clear indicator that something in the surrounding musculature is not functioning properly. Something is too tight - it could be the muscles in your back, it could be your hip flexors, it could be your piriformis (glutes). What typically happens is, when the body is experiencing pain or irritation, the muscles lock up to prevent us from going into painful range of motion. And intuitively, this makes a lot of sense. But the problem is, we can't fix the issue while we are in that locked-up state. We need the body to relax. We do this through stretching - passive stretching is just putting your body in a position where it opens up the tight muscle groups. Active stretching is typically done in a more professional setting like with a physical therapist - they are going to manipulate your body and push it into specific positions to help loosen it up. Once the body relaxes and loosens, then we can go about fixing the underlying issue.
Let's go back to the original question - can you bend over and touch your toes?
Let's say the answer is yes, maybe you've done enough stretching and mobility work that now you can get your fingers down to your toes, however you still have some back pain and irritation. That means that there is a muscle group that is not pulling its weight. Your low back is hurting because it is compromised - either the spine or a different muscle group is overcompensating for the underdeveloped muscle group. In just about all low back issues, the underdeveloped muscle groups are the glutes (butt cheeks) and the core. Now that we feel like our flexibility is improved to the point where we trust the body, we can get to work strengthening these weak muscles.
After we've done enough work to where the underdeveloped muscle group is now sufficiently balanced, the spine can relax because it is not doing all the work anymore - and we experience a reduction or elimination of pain. This is how a majority of low back issues are resolved.
Now, it's important to understand that this is not a permanent fix. It CAN BE, if you continue to be diligent in making sure that imbalances don't come back. Keep in mind that for some reason, there was a significant weakness in your body. If you just revert back to your old training plan, chances are that the weakness will reappear. Your plan going forward needs to adapt to ensure that it continues addressing the newly balanced muscles and keeps them balanced for the long term.
And, a plan worth it's weight will periodically asses mobility throughout the body, at specific joints, and through various ranges of motion to ensure that muscle groups are balanced and the body is functioning properly.