By Chris Doenlen
I recently came across a great definition of “mobility”:
“The potential for motion and the ability to produce that motion, within a given joint system.”
Mobility is about improving quality of movement by addressing any issues in the tissues and/or joints that limit that freedom. These limitations can be attributed to short and tight muscles, damaged soft tissues, dysfunctional joint capsules, and joint range of motion restrictions.
By improving the quality of our movements, we unlock our potential for greater performance while reducing the risk of injury. Our bodies are designed to go through millions of movement cycles throughout our lifespans. But we can easily wear out our rig without some simple, regular maintenance. According to mobility expert Kelly Starrett, waiting for an injury to occur before we realize we have faulty mechanics due to tight tissues is analogous to waiting for your car engine to blow up before you realize you need to add oil – with mobility, you need to take a proactive approach.
Practices to restore and improve mobility fall into one of three categories: soft tissue work, stretching, and joint mobilization.
Soft Tissue Work
Soft tissue work can include a number of modalities – however, the most common form is self-myofascial release (SMFR), which is more or less a fancy word for self-massage. Fasciae (plural of “fascia”) are sheets or bands of connective tissue beneath the skin that attach, stabilize, enclose, and separate muscles and other internal organs. Through stress, trauma, or overuse, our various layers of fascia can tear, and when they don’t health properly, they can adhere in certain spots causing pain or discomfort, reduce blood flow, and cause additional muscle soreness. The good news is that we can break up these adhesions and restore the fascia back to optimal performance quality again. SMFR-ers can employ a number of tools to work out these gunky spots, such as foam rollers, lacrosse balls, massage sticks, and your buddy with a strong set of hands.
To start, pick a body part and start rolling on the foam roller or lacrosse ball until you find a hot spot – you’ll know when you’ve found it. Then simply stay on that spot for 10 to 20 seconds, letting the pressure smooth out the fascia. Make sure to avoid your bones and joints, and just focus on the muscles. You can do this before or after your workouts, or while you’re catching up on your favorite shows in the evening. Personally, I like to dedicate part of my Sunday evening to working out the damage I’ve created the week before.
Stretching can fall into one of two categories – static stretching and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching (or “PNF stretching” for short). Static stretching is what comes to mind for most of us when we think of stretching and involves holding the target muscle in a lengthened position for at least 30 seconds. Contrary to popular belief, this type of stretching is best left for after the workout, and can actually decrease performance if done right before training. Try to dedicate at least 10 to 15 minutes after your workout for static stretching.
PNF stretching, on the other hand, is much more dynamic, and is essentially performed by stretching the tight muscle, contracting for a few seconds, then release and repeat, with the goal of increasing that range just a little more each time. The goal here is to increase range of motion as well as warm up the muscles. This contract-and-relax stretching can be done before workouts – focus on the muscles that you’ll be using during your session. For example, if you’re squatting and you know you have tight hips, it might be a good idea to use PNF stretching to open up that area.
Lastly, joint mobilization address dysfunctional mechanics in the joint capsule that can (and will) affect the musculature, as well. The joint capsule is composed of thick and fibrous tissue that connects bones and cartilages at a joint in order to create stability and prevent the joint from overstretching. Again, through wear and tear, or simply being in bad positions for prolonged periods of time (like sitting at a desk), joint capsules can get tight or acquire adhesions like the fascia. Thus, we may use a number of mobilization techniques aimed at resetting the joint through use of bands, manual manipulation, or compression. Like self-myofascial release, practitioners should dedicate some mobilization time before workouts or multiple times throughout the day or week as needed.
Resources & References
Becoming a Supple Leopard, Dr. Kelly Starrett. 2013.
Juggernaut Training Systems: 5 Mobility Rules of Thumb – Part 1 (http://www.jtsstrength.com/articles/2015/01/14/5-mobility-rules-thumb-part-1/)
Wikipedia: Fascia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fascia)
Wikipedia: PNF Stretching (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PNF_stretching)