Let’s start with the burning question, what is range of motion? The range of motion of a joint is how capable it is to move through its full spectrum of movement. In other words, how far you can move a joint in each intended direction. Good range of motion means the joint feels comfortable in a range of directions and moves easily. The older we get or the more strain we put our bodies through, the more we are prone to stiffness, resulting in poor range of motion meaning pain is caused when moving a body part. There are two types of range of motion – active and passive. An active range of motion is the movement a joint can perform on its own without any extra force. Consider bending your elbow – the muscles of the upper arm work in opposition to contract and relax to move the joint. This is your active range. The passive range, which is usually greater, is aided by external force. This could be a physiotherapist manipulating the joint or a strap being used to support in a yoga pose. This passive range of motion is usually the maximum that a joint can move but it would not be able to perform this on its own.

Before we get to the crux of why range of motion is important, let’s look at why our range of motion possibly isn’t as great as it once was. There are a few different factors that can be at play. First it could be a mechanical issue, this includes a muscle, ligament or tendon injury or just general pain. This would put pressure on a joint and you may be making compensations to allow for the injury.

Secondly, it could be a neurological issue – an injury within the nervous system, brain damage or proprioception. This would affect the messages the brain is sending to the part within the body. The nervous system could actually be protecting you against a perceived threat based on a previous injury.

Another cause for a decrease in range of motion is an infection. There could be swelling, pain or you could be diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. 

Finally, a cause that will get all of us unless we keep our bodies moving to combat it, is the ageing process. As we age, our joints stiffen meaning they cannot move as well as they once did. This is found to be true in the active range but not necessarily in the passive range. This mixed with our ever increasing sedentary lifestyle means more and more of us have limited mobility as we get older and some even resulting in needing joint replacements.

Not only will a good range of motion in our joints help us to keep mobile as we age, it will also benefit our fitness ability in other disciplines. Imagine a weightlifter with bulging biceps, they can curl a heavy weight but avoids fully extending in the eccentric phase of the movement (lowering the dumbbell). This is usually due to a lack of strength in this position. To work this end range will greatly improve the overall joint health as well as protecting the joint from risk of injury if the arm extends too much one day and is not used to it. Working this end range of motion will ensure our weightlifter is completing a full movement maximising their joint’s range of motion. This does not just apply to weightlifters. Consider a sport or movement that you practise regularly, do you have a limited range at any point?

We now know the benefits to maintaining and improving our range of motion so what can we do to ensure we have the maximum amount of movement possible? Mobility drills such as controlled articular rotations (CARs) can help to maximise the range of movement you have in each joint. These are planned within yoga classes at Strength Power Yoga to ensure joints are mobilised before demanding strength work from them. With continued practice, this joint range of motion will improve to ensure that you continue to be mobile for many years to come.

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