How to Optimize Your Mobility Work to Increase Performance

How to Optimize Your Mobility Work to Increase Performance

Editor's Note: This article by Nick Smoot originally appeared at Machine Muscle.

Whether you are a strength athlete, soccer player, gymnast, or a stay-at-home mom, having good mobility is a must. Efficient movement allows for the ability to perform normal activities, provides the environment for optimal athletic performance and is the kryptonite to nagging pain and injuries. Unfortunately, most people's mobility resembles that of three-legged tortoise.

Let's do a quick test. Stand up and place your feet about shoulder width apart. Squeeze your glutes, brace your abs and turn your toes out about 5-15 degrees. Spread the floor with your feet (create torque without actually moving your feet), put your hands out in front of you, and shoot your hips back and down while shoving your knees out.

Descend as far as you can without breaking a neutral spine, letting your heels come off the ground, your knees cave in, or your feet sprawl out like a duck. Try to keep your shins vertical and rise back to the starting position.

Did your hips drop below parallel or did your legs bend slightly before you felt like you were going to fall over backwards? This is a proper squat form; a fundamental movement pattern that the majority of the population cannot do.

Now there are many suspects in your inability to squat properly, but their crimes are not limited to that one movement pattern. If you are missing key ankle flexibility or external rotation in your hips that causes you to compromise knee and low back integrity in the squat, how much stress will be placed on your joints and tissues when you run three miles? How about when you take 10,000 steps per day?

A properly designed mobility program is the key to making you faster, stronger, more energy efficient and preventing injuries.
Flexibility is the range of motion at a specific joint, and mobility as the ability to MOVE a joint through a specific range of motion.

Mobility is NOT Flexibility

Ask the majority of people the difference between flexibility and mobility and they will give you a look reserved for an obnoxious sexual joke made in the midst of an important business meeting. I view flexibility as the range of motion at a specific joint, and mobility as the ability to MOVE a joint through a specific range of motion.

Both are important, but I feel that working on increasing flexibility without working on mobility is pointless. Being able to bend down and touch your toes is great, but that hamstring flexibility is worthless if it cannot be expressed with movement (think picking something up off the ground with a neutral spine, deadlifting, etc.).

At the same time, the majority of problems are not due to a lack of muscle extensibility. Lack of motor control, joint capsule restrictions, and sliding surface problems are all potential causes of movement limitations and pain.

The majority of the time, resolving these issues fixes 90% of the problem before someone ever performs a traditional stretch. Mobility work focuses on the big picture and addresses every factor in an individual's tissue and movement dysfunction. Increase mobility and flexibility will increase simultaneously.

Torture Tools to Improve Mobility

So, I have good news and bad news. The good news is that you can use inexpensive and readily available items to address your mobility issues. The bad news is that all of them have the ability to reduce you to tears in a matter of minutes.

An important thing to remember is that working on damaged tissues is uncomfortable, but it should not be so painful that you want to vomit (unless you are smashing your psoas with a lacrosse ball in which case vomiting is a common reaction). If you feel like you are doing more harm than good, it is probably wise to stop, readjust and be a little gentler.

Essential tools in your mobility arsenal:

Recover RollerResistance Bands. Used for joint distractions (pulling two surfaces apart and allowing the joint to reset into the proper position) and for increasing the effectiveness of all other mobilizations.

Lacrosse Ball or Tennis Ball. Used for soft tissue work.

Foam Roller Used for soft tissue work and a select few mobilizations.

Voodoo Floss Bands. A compression based mobilization that addresses joint capsule restrictions, sliding surface problems and muscle dynamics simultaneously

Designing an Optimal Mobility Blueprint

So now that you have your tools and have gathered the mental strength to engage in tissue warfare, how exactly do you design an optimal mobility program? The first area to address should be motor control.

It does not matter what other factors are limiting an individual's mobility if he does not even know how to perform the movement pattern. Once a person knows how to properly perform the movement, but is still restricted, focus should be placed on joint capsule restrictions.

The most effective way to do this is to use a band to pull the joint surfaces apart, and move in and out of end range of the desired movement. Doing so will allow the joint to reset into the proper position and clear any impingements.

From there, the focus shifts to soft tissue work. A dense layer of connective tissue called fascia surrounds all of the internal structures of the body. The fascia, muscles, and skin should slide past one another smoothly and efficiently.

Engagement in physical activity, improper movement, lack of movement, injury, and poor posture can cause these tissues to stick together. When they "glue down" and form trigger points or adhesions, they restrict movement at surrounding joints, place more stress on surrounding structures, cause nagging pain, increase susceptibility to injury, and the list goes on. A lacrosse ball, foam roller, or barbells are great tools that can be used to break apart adhesions and unglue those damaged tissues.

The final area to focus on is muscle dynamics and extensibility. Focus on a movement that you are struggling with, get into end range of the position and add tension to relax the tissues and restore function.

Key point to consider:
  • Motor control > joint capsule restriction > soft tissue work > muscle dynamics.
  • Mobility work can be done (and should be done) as part of a warm-up before a workout, cool-down or any time throughout the day.
  • Pick 3 muscle groups or mobilizations per session.
  • Work on a tissue or position for a minimum of two minutes. Two minutes is the minimum amount of time to affect change in a tissue. However, a more effective way to determine the time spent in a mobilization is to base it on change. Until you notice change, keep going.
  • If you feel like you are injuring yourself, STOP!
  • Pay attention to posture AT ALL TIMES!
An example of a mobility session to increase squat depth:
  1. Quad smash with a foam roller or barbell (2-10 minutes each leg)
  2. Wall calf mobilization (2 min each leg)
  3. Hip external rotation with flexion mobilization (2 min each leg)
  4. Banded Olympic wall squat mobilization for adductors (2-5 min)

Mobility Work Wrap Up

I will leave you with a quote that I heard recently from Eric Cressey:

"It is much easier to do a little bit of work each day to maintain range of motion than it is to lose it and try to get it back."

Learn to PREVENT your problems, not react to them after the damage has been done.
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