The Basics of Mobility Training – Part 1

Nobody should bend like that….

I’m not talking about what you see at right, that’s hypermobility (women are far more likely to be too mobile), but most people suffer from (especially dudes) is hypo-mobility, or a lack of mobility.

Having too much (at right) and having too little can both wreak havoc on the body.

Mobility training is really about finding optimal movement patterns for the individual.

I want to take some attention away from the traditional approach of merely stretching to improve flexibility and focus on the concept of mobility.

Stretching by itself is an incomplete model, especially passive forms of it.

Chances are you think improving flexibility, means doing the splits, or touching your toes or looking contorted, but there is so much more to it than that…

Flexibility = The range of motion at a joint.

Mobility = The ability to move efficiently/effectively.

Which do you think is more important overall?

Like nutrition, mobility is better improved by thinking about the whole of the various components, rather than the sum of the individual components — to which flexibility is really only one component, like protein is to nutrition.

There seems to be optimal ranges of flexibility that often lead to optimal mobility but I just can’t list them all here.

In fact I often take about an hour, or more, to go through mobility assessments with some of my clients.

We test strength, endurance, explosive power, energy systems and other stuff too, but mobility is a foundation point for almost all of your training.

You have to be able to get into the best possible positions for each movement, in order to maximize it’s effectiveness, AND you have to make it individual to your ability/needs.

It’s amazing how frequently good flexibility at a joint does not translate to good mobility when muscles need to co-activate around multiple joints during movement.

Mobility balances strength in combination and opposition to flexibility.

The integrated patterns used to train for mobility lead to a better squat, lunge, deadlift, jumping, pushing, pulling and pretty much any kind of athletic performance.

Quality movement patterns, translate into better training sessions, reduced injuries and consequently better results.

Mobility Training Problem Areas

1) Calves

Not just stretching but mobilizing the entire ankle joint from multiple positions.

2) Hips

Kind of a generalization but hips is an especially important area to address for men.

Internal Rotation (Men mostly), External RotationRectus Femoris (a hip flexor), sometimes Psoas (another hip flexor, though typically I find strength here is more an issue) and the adductors (long and short).

Women should probably place more emphasis on the Hip Flexors (used as a general term, but particularly Rectus Femoris), particularly and perhaps External Rotation.

Testing is really required for this joint to get more specific to the individual.

3) T-Spine

Notice I left out lumbar spine, a joint we typically want to get more stability at.

There are essentially 3 regions to the spine the lower (Lumbar – The Lower 5), the mid (Thoracic – Where the 12 ribs are also located) and the Upper (Cervical – The Upper 7).

The Thoracic Spine is where was want rotation and extension to occur (particularly in rotation power sports like tennis, golf or hockey), not the lumbar spine which are not particularly equipped to be mobile (less than 2 degrees of rotation ability to T-Spine’s 7-9 degrees).

Lack of flexibility through the t-spine in my experience is perhaps the most note-worthy association with upper body injuries and pain.

It also drives nearly all shoulder movements.

4) Shoulders

Sometimes what more people lack at the shoulder girdle is stability, without an assessment it’s difficult to know for sure.

The Rotator Cuff can be an issue but as my colleague Eric Cressey has pointed out; total range of motion (rotation) imbalance between the two arms is probably an even bigger deal.

Meaning if you have a 15 degree difference in total rotation, you are much more likely to be injured.

I find that generally people lack range of motion in Pec Major and Minor (chest) and the Lats.

We want people to be able to get their arms above their head in an efficient matter (parallel to the ears), but also move effectively through the many shoulder movements, in particular the ability to protract, retract, elevate and depress their shoulders.

**As an aside: I’ve worked with many people over the years who do not have the range of motion through the shoulders to press anything overhead.

A lack of good mobility and proper stability of the shoulder can lead to shoulder pain with overhead pressing.

Not everyone is really capable of just going to the gym and banging out some military press, especially desk jockey’s with a forward head posture and poor thoracic extension. 

It is something you should be aware of if you do press overhead, that getting yourself looked at might be a good idea, or at least start with Dumbbells instead of a Barbell and keep your elbows in, perpendicular to the floor.

Mobility Training Problems

Sometimes the flexibility at a joint is not linked to just stretching or getting massage treatments.

Sometimes you lack flexibility at a joint because of something completely different.

For instance, many people feel that their hamstrings are tight, when in fact their hip flexors are tight, pulling their pelvis into an anterior tilt position that pulls on the hamstring too.

In that case, the hip flexors are the real problem, not the hamstrings and no matter how much you stretch your hamstrings, they won’t feel any better.

You might try a flossing technique like this though, or simply stretching your hip flexors.

Some people lack shoulder mobility due to a lack of T-Spine Mobility, while others lack calf mobility due to hip tightness.

Joints can play an integral role in the mobility of another joint, particular the joint above or below or the joint 2 joints above or below.

This explains why knee pain is often caused by something happening at the hips or calves and very rarely is a problem at the knee.

I’ve worked with clients where fixing a seemingly unrelated shoulder mobility problem apparently deals with their low back pain quite effectively.

Other problems are actually related to strength.

Lack of strength in the front of the calf can actually lead to a lack of good mobility in the back of the calf, even if you passively stretch your calf all the time, your active range of motion never improves because you don’t have enough strength in Tibalis Anterior (muscle in the shin) to counterbalance the muscles in the back of the calf.

A similar problem can happen when the quadricep muscles and hip flexor muscles are tight and the glutes and hamstrings are weak (a common positive test).

More problems still are entirely related to the soft-tissue quality in a muscle.

Neural adhesions — most people know them as knots, others as trigger points — can create the sensation of a shortened muscle.

No amount of stretching helps release that muscle into a better, more relaxed position, without the presence of some kind of massage technique combined with an opposing strengthening or stabilizing action.

Mike Boyle likens this to pulling an elastic band with a knot in it, the more you stretch it, the tighter the knot gets.

If you stretching something and it doesn’t feel looser over time, it probably doesn’t need to be stretched. You need to add more muscular control and manage the nervous system tension.

There are perhaps hundreds of examples of where strength, soft-tissue quality and flexibility are integrally related, this is why a focus on mobility is far more important than merely stretching.

Using a multi-faceted approach becomes ideal so we’re going to touch on some of these modalities now.

With all that in mind, the best time to really get your static stretching work done is at night before bed (3 hours post-workout):

  • Have a hot shower, bath, jacuzzi tub, whatever
  • Foam Roll and target specific tissues with a lacrosse ball
  • Stretch selected muscle groups that elicit tightness (focus on fascial/muscular stretching and not capsular)

Or 20 minutes in the morning/lunchtime for dynamic mobility work:

  • Foam Roll and do some specific lacrosse ball work
  • Choose 5-10 dynamic mobilizations that address areas you have difficulty with

Static stretching is done best about 3 hours post-workout.

However, I realize this schedule is not exactly practical for many people so with many of my clients, we employ a lot of these strategies during the warmup and cool-down, which is also perfectly O.K.

The more frequently you can work on mobility, the faster results you get (obviously…) and unlike strength training you can do it every day with little problem.

Warm Ups

I put the majority of my mobility work for clients in the warm up. Starting with:

a) Soft-Tissue Work

AKA: Self-Myofascial Release AKA: Foam Rolling and other soft-tissue work (Peanut Rollers, The Stick, Lacrosse Balls, among other things…)

b) Mobilizations

Active Stretching Patterns for key areas and optimizing common movement patterns like squats, lunges, etc… (traction, distraction, flossing, tacking and other strategies may or may not be used…)

c) Activations

Turning on select muscle groups that may be lagging a bit in development or can assist the workout greater through a little activation warm-up.

This can often mean the lagging opposite muscle of a tight muscle (that would otherwise balance it out, otherwise called the Antagonist muscle to the tight muscle).

These 3 things take roughly 5 minutes each or less when you get in tune with your body for a roughly 10-15 minute warm-up.

They can be done daily due to low threshold too, which means they make a wonderful 15 minute daily routine if you’re up for it.

The Cool-Down

I’ll then help people cool down (or if I know they will do it later, as I indicated above, static stretching before bed, as the optimal time for that kind of work is more towards 3 hours post-workout) with a little static stretching on key areas we assessed as tight, this is to keep the neural tension down into the next day.

I also encourage them to stretch these muscles using some of the strategies in the warm-up, and above on their off-days when they are not at the gym, or do not see me. With favouritism towards active forms of stretching or ‘mobility drills.’

I also sometimes recommend static stretching before bed because it increases parasympathetic nervous system town (relaxation response) and helps people sleep better.

Optimally, I like to have a hot shower and/or foam roll a little to loosen the tissues up before static stretching for best results.

Note: I highly recommend the use of assessment from a skilled coach to get the specifics of your lack of mobility or excessive mobility dialed in.

This is far more effective than guessing for yourself or simply relying on yoga or pilates (or one other type of treatment alone) to get you the flexibility where you actually need it.

However, as a good reference point you can check out Assess and Correct (a self-assessment DVD) or Mobility WOD (both of which are not affiliate links).

I’ve always wanted to say this:

To Be Continued…