Mobility Drills – Why, how and when?
Mobility is a very important component when looking after our joints and movement quality. If we want to be lifting / running / performing to the best of our ability for a very long time, it’s vital that we respect our bodies and give them the TLC they deserve.
This being said, just like supplements, how do we know when mobility drills are actually any good for us, or whether doing them just makes us feel better via the placebo effect. Let’s discuss.
Whenever we exert ourselves our main goal is to produce force as a means of achieving a goal. When lifting a weight, you are applying force to a bar so that it moves. When running, we apply force to the ground so we push off it. When fighting, you’re kicking someone in the head with the objective of making a dint in them and not your own shin. In a nutshell, the idea behind this notion is applying more force than that of which you are trying to overcome.
The thing is, the application of force on our body naturally has a compressive effect on our joints. This makes sense really. If you have a squishy, malleable structure made of carbon, such as a foot, and it’s repeatedly pounded against concrete (harder than a foot), it’s safe to say that said foot will eventually feel the effects of this manner of treatment and possibly get squished into a different position. The same applies to every joint in our body; our shoulders when we press objects and our hips and knees when we squat and deadlift.
Ok so tip number one – don’t do anything compressive if we want to maintain our joint integrity.
That wouldn’t be much use to anyone would it now? Our bodies are incredibly designed and it’s important we milk this engineering mastery for everything its worth. You owe it to yourself to be as strong, athletic and agile as possible. It’s just equally important we offset this quest with movements that counteract our most repeatedly executed patterns.
What mobility actually is
As soon as you think of mobility you probably assume foam rolling, stretching and stuff done to a low intensity at the beginning and end of workouts. This is a misconception in my opinion. Mobility actually means (in my terminology) having the strength to take a joint through its full range of motion with complete control at that specific intensity. This is the definition of mobile. Sure people can move through a range of motion and simply “get there”, however, if the movement is passive, i.e. done with appropriate strength and control, this is just exhibiting joint flexibility. Flexibility without strength isn’t all that useful. In fact, in some respects, it’s quite unsafe.
As we go through each joint in the body, the ranges of motion available there will differ. Additionally, the genetic component of joint variability is, in my opinion, greatly overlooked. We are all built in slightly different ways, which gives us all unique ways in which we achieve movement and stability. Therefore, it’s safe to say that there is no one size fits all approach to mobility. In fact, due to changes of joint shape and angle, movements that can be good for some people may have the polar opposite effect on others.
Finally we must consider objectives. This is without doubt the most important factor. If you’re a gymnast who’s main discipline is the rings, having hyper mobile shoulder flexion is going to be a good thing. Conversely, having the same amount of shoulder mobility and trying to bench press a lot isn’t going to end well. Your shoulders won’t be compressed enough to overcome the forces from the bar anywhere near enough to move a lot of weight. This is because the joint has too many movement “options” with no restraints from moving it in that direction. Hence you can see that joint restrictions are a protective mechanism if our brain believes there is no need for us to take a joint outside a specific range. This is a key concept to remember.
Doing mobility drills feels good because we are getting oxygen and blood flow to a joint. If something doesn’t frequently get adequate oxygen, it slowly suffocates which isn’t a nice thought. Therefore simply moving through all our anatomical ranges would be wise. This is very good for self-care, but it doesn’t necessarily mobilise. For mobility to stick, i.e. change a joint structure so it stays like that going forward, there needs to be a significant input from the CNS. The brain must say “wow that was challenging, if I need to do that again, it’d be much more efficient if muscle X was stronger and muscle Y was longer”. When this is the case, the next time we do a task, we are better suited for it and a change has occurred. This is what impacts joint positioning and so therefore leads to an alteration in range of movement capability.
Your ability to move, is potentiated by your ability not to move.
Taking a joint through its range of motion is great but only if its met with something called “Proximal Stability”. This is when the axial skeleton (the trunk) is stabilised via intra-abdominal pressure so that the spine remains rigid. When the spine is rigid, the distal structures, such as the shoulder and hip can move with more freedom as they “trust” the base which they’re placed upon.
Top 3 tips for getting the most out of your mobility programmes
1. Do the opposite movement to what you have a lot of
This one is very simple, if you have a lot of external rotation in the hip, but don’t have much internal rotation, try movements that challenge the latter. If biomechanics isn’t your forte, we can break it down even more. Whatever you do a lot of, counteract it with the opposite movement so that the joint knows how to move in all directions. If you move a joint in a certain way and it feels sticky or restricted, gently look to place yourself safely in that position, breathe, stabilise and then move in a manner in which you feel you have full control.
Here’s a useful example of how to test and then address shoulder rotation.
2. Look to load it
There’s a big difference between getting a weight to force you into a position and you controlling yourself through a range of motion. You need to be able to move at a controlled speed throughout and have the ability to stop and pause at any point. This is a true sign of mobility and strength. When we add load, we have to pressurise and stabilise. As discussed, this precedes mobility and so gives us a greater ability to move well.
Here’s one of my favourite examples again for the shoulder complex.
3. Train your core
Proximal stability for distal mobility. This basically means “if the core is strong, the other joints have a greater ability to move well”. If you’re doing mobility drills, make sure there’s a degree of challenge to the core. This could be via loading or the way you position yourself. If you have to stabilise the spine, the intra-abdominal pressure can almost decompress the other joints, leading to an improvement in movement.
Here’s a good example for hip flexion and extension.
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