This is a revised version of a brief post that first appeared on the Forums in 2013, with the same title.
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 few years 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 from something else. However, “mobility” has become a very popular term in the (for want of a better word) fitness world, and I realise that I need to rethink my position on mobility and try to both position this term with respect to our work, and make this aspect among the three terms clearer.
Limbering is simply taking joints, muscles, and fascia through yesterday's ordinary ranges of movement. Everyone knows that the body seems a bit “stuck” on awakening, and we all have our own ways of ‘waking up’: that’s limbering, too.
Limbering can be formal or informal. Formal: I went to "limber" 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 in the room 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 is an extended preparation for another activity. In the case of the ballet school I mentioned above, the students were all full-time, and would spend the rest of the day studying the formal and technical aspects of the different types of dance they were studying. In our system (Stretch Therapy) the critical distinction between limbering and stretching is that the latter involves the Contract–Relax approach, and other explicit manipulations of the neural system.
So now let me talk about stretching briefly and perhaps this fundamental distinction will become a bit clearer. In ST, I have defined stretching 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, used in this sense, the sensations in your body will range from mild to strong. Paradoxically, 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 than you are presently. 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. The soreness feels identical to the “DOMS” (delayed onset muscle soreness) written about so frequently with respect to strength training. Some people never experience this; some people experience it after every session of resistance training. The soreness following effective stretching is experientially identical to this, in my experience.
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 is to the demands that you try placing yourself in 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 that move you more to the looser end of this notional scale. 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. Can you feel how you feel? 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. The Cossack squat is my personal favourite. 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, these restrictions can be 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 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 of the map, that goal will 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, especially if you have pursued our recommended relaxation exercises in parallel with the stretching and limbering (in truth, these literally blend into each other, in time: being able to relax while experiencing strong sensation is the fast track to flexibility and mobility).
Returning to an earlier thought: if when you get up and had a coffee and have woken up fully, but you feel too 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 when I first get up. 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, depending on the sensations in the body, 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, because they require more of the strength element. 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. No day goes by without me doing and holding a full squat, for example, and moving around in that position, including going up on my toes and lowering each knee to the floor in turn. This takes about a minute. And one or twice a week, without fail, I do a series of Cossack squats; nowadays, these are closer to the strength end of the spectrum.
In the posts on the Forums, [DW] wrote, “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.” That is a better definition than mine, so in true ST tradition, I will use this from now on, with acknowledgement!