Why Range-of-Motion Matters, Especially for Athletes and Weekend Warriors
By: Brian Schulz, MD
The term “range-of-motion” is often used interchangeably with the word “flexibility” when describing any athletic movement. Specifically, range of motion refers to the degree of movement of an individual joint in the body (your hip, knee, or shoulder, for example) to its fullest potential. Flexibility, on the other hand, is used to describe a person’s overall ability to stretch. A person’s flexibility can impact their range of motion. Why does either of these terms matter? Well, especially for athletes and weekend warriors, the better your range of motion and flexibility, the less likely it is that you will sustain an orthopedic injury. So let’s dive deeper into this topic.
Medical professionals assess range of motion as either passive or active. While explanations for each may get a little technical, it is important you understand the meaning for each.
Passive range of motion is the movement of a joint when moved by another. For example, a doctor examining a patient and moving the shoulder around. Active range of motion refers to a person’s ability to move the joint themselves. For example, a person raising their arm above their head. Most body movements performed regularly are considered active range of motion – meaning the person initiates the action of a particular joint themselves. Passive motion is more common in a medical or training setting when a medical expert or athletic trainer examines or is treating a specific joint– for example, a trainer stretching an athlete.
There are normal ranges of motion for each joint from a medical perspective, but, as one can imagine, there can be quite a bit of variability between individuals. Range of motion can decline with age, especially in people who aren’t regularly active, and men can have smaller ranges of motion in specific joints than their female counterparts. Additionally, an injury to or around the joint can reduce its range of motion (i.e., fracture, muscle injury, or contusion). Other conditions such as arthritis, frozen shoulder, ankylosing spondylitis, skeletal abnormalities and more, can also affect specific joints. When a person experiences a decrease in their range of motion, it tends to be most noticeable in joints with more extensive ranges of motion such as your hips, shoulders and knees or joints that are frequently moving like your fingers, wrists, and elbows.
Although each joint in the body has a normal range of motion degree, each person or athlete can have a different ability to achieve that normal range. As one can imagine, joints that receive regular use and are cared for with stretching exercises maintain a balanced range of motion. A focus on stretching exercises for range of motion maintenance for 10 minutes, three or four times per week can help improve a person’s range of motion. Especially for very active adults – weekend warriors and athletes – I recommend daily stretching of the hip flexors, hamstrings, and iliotibial (IT) band. Tightness or a reduced range of motion in these specific areas can often be the culprit in various orthopedic injuries, especially for highly active people. So, it is good practice to stretch these areas daily, no matter how “athletic” you are.
How can a person tell if they have a good or “normal” range of motion in a specific joint? One self-test to consider that all joints should have symmetric range of motion. This means that the right knee and left knee (or elbow, shoulder, hip) should have the similar ability and ease to move smoothly. So, if you think the motion of a joint is less flexible or stiffer on one side, do a few stretching exercises and compare it to the other side. If you notice a difference, focus more intently on stretching exercises to bring the deficient side in line with the side that seems to have a greater range of motion. An imbalance in range of motion can lead to overcompensation of one joint and body misalignment – the critical ingredients in the recipe for injury.
Doing a self-assessment can help you stay in tune with your body and help you avoid getting hurt. Whether you play professional sports or are a weekend warrior, incorporating range of motion exercises and flexibility training into your daily workout routine is good for your body, both now and well into the future.