Does Your Athlete Have Stiff Joints?
We all complain about how tight and stiff we are; some people can’t remember a time they could sit with their legs crossed. However, it’s very important to understand the difference between tight and stiff hips. Reducing stiffness can help you avoid a much larger problem in the future and can be the difference between a season of fun or an injury-plagued career.
Flexibility vs. Mobility
Let’s start by defining terms:
Flexibility is a characteristic of muscle fibers referring to the ability to be stretch. Elasticity is the muscle’s ability to return to its original state. Together, they help determine the quality of muscle movement that we have (muscle contraction).
Mobility refers to the quality (range of motion) and ease of movement. In the performance field, we are primarily concerned with joint mobility of the ankle, the hips and the shoulders. Other joints around them are designed to be stable, such as your knees or low back. Together, we have a base of support that allows us to maneuver while maintaining the integrity of our body. In other words, it allows us to move without falling apart or hurting ourselves.
Flexibility involves muscles, which connect our joint actions together. You don’t have to fully stretch a muscle to move any joint. Mobility can be aided by flexibility and hindered by tightness. However, only stiffness truly limits joint mobility.
Tightness vs. Stiffness
Being tight is very different from being stiff. Stiffness is the body’s method of protection. A loud noise behind you will naturally cause you to duck your head and stiffen up. With that in mind, we can fully understand our body’s reaction to structural stress. Perhaps we are lacking mobility and/or stability. The body will redistribute as much stress as it can, protecting us from reaching that range of motion so we don’t hurt ourselves.
Tight Hips vs. Stiff Hips
Tight muscles aren’t ready for that range of motion. However, you can still be actively or passively stretched into that range of motion. Stiffness, however, is a protective measure. You will not be able to go into the dangerous range of motion. Your body will physically stop you from continuing.
Try touching your toes. Tightness is what slows you down at the end of the motion. A slight push will enable you to move further. It will feel uncomfortable but you would still be able to move. If you are stiff, even if I assist you in your movement your body will not allow you to move further.
Tightness means your quality of stretch is poor. To fix tightness, all you have to do is increase the frequency and quality of stretch. However, if you are stiff your body is at risk for injury because there is a pattern in your body that may lead you to it. We have to figure out where this stress is coming from and what is causing it. The longer this pattern lasts, the harder it will be to reverse and the greater the stress on your body.
To protect yourself or your athlete, visit a performance professional and get screened.