Master Mobility by Learning the Distinctions Between Flexibility, Inflexibility and Fascial Restrictions Part 3 – Flexibility or Mobility Issue?

This is Part 3 in a 3-Part series. Click here for Part 1 and click here for Part 2.

When is “inflexibility” a fascial restriction or mobility issue, and when is it true inflexibility?

That’s the topic of Part 3, the last in this series.

Fascial restriction can APPEAR to impact flexibility, and this is a really important distinction to understand because if we try to target what seems inflexible rather than going after the cause of immobility, we could injure ourselves or make things a lot worse.

I will not be covering every possible example of this or we’d be here all day, but I do want to give you the ones I see the most in my private practice.

Got tight hamstrings? Are you SURE?

The most common example of this is when the hamstrings appear tight or inflexible when what is really going on is a low back pain pattern (even if you don’t have low back pain).

If you’re in a fascial restriction pattern that is endangering your spine, your brain will step in to PROTECT you by limiting your range of motion.

In the case of low back pain patterns it is my opinion that the brain recruits the GLUTES and hamstrings to tighten up neurologically to keep you from injuring your spine.

The real CAUSE of distress in the low back is going to be somewhere in the quads and quad hip flexors, the IT Bands or adductors.

Most often it is actually the glutes that are the “tightest” (neurologically speaking, NOT from overuse) and if the glutes are in lock down there’s no way you’re going to be able to reach down and touch your toes. (Your body is PROTECTING you). But the problem is NOT hamstring inflexibility. I see a LOT of people attempting to stretch their hamstrings in an attempt to relieve low back pain and posterior chain tightness and I always cringe!

And…some people just have inflexible hamstrings, plain and simple.

The key to mastering your mobility is to learn how to know the difference.

Other examples:

  • An upper body example might be overused pecs or subscaps leading to fascial restrictions in those muscle groups, which can cause the shoulders to appear to be inflexible. Release the fascia and suddenly flexibility, or more accurately – MOBILITY, is restored.
  • Calf fascia restricting ankle “flexibility.” This is also a MOBILITY issue, not a flexibility issue.
  • Scar tissue anywhere in the body will often appear to affect “flexibility” when it has nothing to do with muscle fibers, it’s all about the fascia.
  • Knee joint flexibility can be seriously impacted by hips that are restricted due to a back pain pattern.
  • Not being able to put an arm behind your back due to fascial restrictions in the anterior arm, deltoid and pecs.
  • These are, of course, just a few examples but certainly the most common ones I see in my practice.

The takeaway:

I believe it’s always best to rule out a fascial restriction or pain pattern issue BEFORE attempting any kind of flexibility training.

If you’re still confused about how to tell the difference, go back to Part II. Click here for that post.

Once you’ve used fascial release to address any mobility issues and learned your possible pain patterns and you STILL feel inflexible and/or simply want to increase your bendyness…then by all means, stretch away! AND, please do so in a safe and healthy way. For me that means NO or limited static stretching. Use dynamic warm-ups and PNF stretching instead. I have blog posts and videos coming out on those in the next few weeks so stay tuned, or use google.

When increasing flexibility is a good idea for injury prevention:

I can use myself for an example of this, with my overused overtight quads. My quads developed rapidly as a child gymnast and since then they always want to work overtime. They’ve inhibited my hamstrings big time, to the point where nearly all acute hamstring contractions cause my hamstrings to want to cramp.

The PROBLEM is NOT in my hamstrings however (they are INCREDIBLY flexible!) The problem is in my QUADS, which are by comparison NOT as flexible and are inhibiting the hamstrings due to reciprocal inhibition.

There is some fascial restriction overlap here too, because the grapefruit sized lumps of tight fascia in my quads (if I’m not diligent about self care) CAN contribute to the hamstring cramping. So priority #1 would be to eliminate or greatly reduce those fascial adhesions (which I’m doing).

Then, I could try using PNF stretching to lengthen those quad and quad hip flexor muscle fibers, which will allow me a greater range of motion when contracting my hamstrings.

Obviously, if you’re a gymnast, dancer, cirque de solei professional or someone who relies on extreme flexibility during movement on a daily basis, then being super flexible is a necessity. For the rest of us however, it is not. So I don’t advoccate “flexibility routines” and I NEVER recommend static stretching.

The opposite could be true for some of you rare birds that actually have very inflexible hamstrings: if you’re working out in a way that requires you to use knee extension and/or hip flexion (such as kicking a soccer ball or doing leg extensions on a gym machine), your hamstrings are required to lengthen for that quad to contract, and it may not want to.

These are just two examples of what’s possible throughout the body where opposite muscles inhibit one another.

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  • YES! Releasing the quads will eventually feel good. It might take some time though. Usually fascial release goes through 4 phases:

    Sucks a LOT (when it’s unhealthiest).
    Sucks a lot less (when it’s healthier but still restricted)
    Feels good! (when it’s mostly healthy but still in need of work), and…
    Feels like nothing (this is fascia at optimal – you will feel almost NO sensation, good OR bad)

    Hope this helps!

  • Alexei says:

    Thanks Elisha!
    I’d love to have a skype session one day. Unfortunately it’s not possible for me at the moment..
    I just wanted to know if releasing fascia in the quads can ever feel nice, like a massage? 🙂
    Thank you!
    p.s. both sides of legs.. hamstring and groin, but the left leg is more dominant, so it gets a “bonus” squat pain 🙂

  • Alexei says:

    Hi Elisha! I’ve been following your Mobility Monday sessions. Some of the things I managed to apply to good/some effect and some I have questions about..
    For example, the double-legged roller calf release helped me not to cramp up playing touch rugby! Even using a hard pumped rugby ball instead of a foam roller 🙂
    I have a question about the pain.. whenever I had a pain and knots along the ridge of my scapulae, I would lie on my back, put a tennis/golf ball on that spot and move my arm around. I did it instinctively before I saw your magnificent series, and it felt really good during and after. It felt right.
    When I try to release the fascia in my quads (ITB, don’t even go there :), I get to the clanky bits, even a double clank, but it never feels good during. Sometimes it almost feels like a nerve pain. My question is how often do you find it’s effective to release quad fascia. I also tried hamstring ball release as I now realize maybe too soon after the strain..
    The issue:
    I tried a PNF stretch on my hamstrings a few months ago and must have overdid it.. Since then
    1. I have a pain bending over with straight legs
    2. it hurts in the ligament underneath my left knee when I’m in the full squat (still hamstring?)
    3. my groin hurts as well
    4. hip flexors started to hurt during a ballet class (lasted for a week resting)
    What I tried to do:
    Fascia release on the opposite muscle.. is IT band the opposite of groin? .. are glutes opposite of hip flexors? you mentioned that you rarely needed to work glutes..
    Slight relief after, but the issue is not going away.. It feels looser after a half an hour of running, so I do it 1-2 times a week (touch rugby)

    Anyway thank you for your site and the time you found to read these questions!

    • Hi Alexei –

      Thanks for following on Mondays! I would LOVE to help you, and I believe I can. However, based on so much information it’s difficult without knowing even more (like, is the hamstring and knee the same leg, is the groin also the same side?) For a groin strain, it COULD be your IT band or it could be your lower quad fascia…that one’s not always the opposite (when I do these videos I have to be generic or they would go on forever!) It does sound to me like you overstretched an already overstretched hamstring, and now it’s irritated. Also sounds like overused quad hip flexors, rather than strained due to glute overuse (which would be really rare). Have you considered a Skype session with me? People typically get really great results from them. You have so much going on I fear I won’t be much help without talking directly. Let me know if you want more info on that!

  • Sarah says:

    My question is how long lasting is the effect of releasing the fascia from a muscle? It seems that the Graston tool was really effective for breaking down my fascia and knots in my calves. However, when I use a ball on the sole of my foot to release my hamstrings, it is only temporary. (I rub my foot on a spiky ball or any small ball for two minutes, and my leg will go higher to the front). This technique helps my ballet students too but it really just proves a point but is not enduring. Any tips would be greatly appreciated!
    Thanks and love your series!

    • Hi Sarah – There is no one factor that determines how long the effect is of releasing the fascia. A lot of this is dependent on your body, your nervous system and stress levels, activities you do that may contribute to some of the fascial restrictions etc. Self help fascial release is always going to be less effective than say working with me, because you simply can’t get as much weight or compression (I sometimes have my full body weight on people!) One thing to consider is if you’re getting a good result but the pain just keeps coming back (for example using the ball on your feet), perhaps you’re not targeting the true cause of whatever restriction you’re attempting to address. It sounds like you’re trying to increase flexibility, and for that to last you definitely have to permanently change the muscle fibers through something like PNF stretching with a long hold at the end. Next week’s video is about PNF stretching. This is a highly complex subject so it’s difficult to answer your question with a simple answer! Good luck and thanks for watching/reading!

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