Overhead Squats. Cleans. Snatches. Pistols. Dumbbell Squat Snatches (gasp!)
We’ve all felt it - that uncomfortable feeling of our body not being able to perform an exercise because it just doesn’t want to get into position. It feels like we’re just gonna snap if we squat lower, or we are holding our breath so hard to get into a position that we might pass out. Or we just look at an exercise and say “Nope, not happening.”
Mobility work. It’s something we say that we are going to really focus on.
“This is the year,” we say, “I’m really going to focus on improving my mobility.”
And then nothing happens.
I think this is due to a number of reasons, least of which is that mobility work isn’t the most exciting thing to work on. Creating lasting change in our movement patterns can be fairly complex and navigating the sea of low quality information floating around the internet and various social channels can be overwhelming.
In this article, I’m going to outline the approach we take at EVO Performance Therapy to create LASTING change, not just temporary, feel-good changes. We’ve helped hundreds of athletes optimize their movement, from the highest level CrossFit Games athletes, to elite level tactical athletes, all the way to brand new athletes that are looking to get the most out of their training program.
I will also discuss common misconceptions and mistakes about improving mobility.
First, we need to clarify exactly what we’re talking about. What many refer to as “mobility,” I refer to as “functional range of motion (ROM).”
Functional ROM has 2 components: Mobility and Stability
Mobility = available motion of a joint (passive). Aka, Flexiblity
Stability = strength in that given range (active)
Mobility + Stability = Functional ROM
You can’t have one without the other, and having an imbalance between the two, often leads to injury.
Just by separating these two components out, we already have a head start on those that continue to stretch themselves to nowhere. We now have more specific targets to improve.
To improve mobility (passive range of motion), we can focus on passive modalities. These include but aren’t limited to stretching, banded joint mobilizations, self myofascial release, massage guns, and tissue smashing. These passive mobilizations create temporary changes in our mobility and allow for greater range of motion with less discomfort.
It’s important to note that these are temporary, and don’t create lasting change on their own. It’s a common misconception that we are breaking up scar tissue, adhesions, fascial restrictions, etc. (this thought process was still taught when I was in PT school). The current research does not support these ideas, and that’s a good thing! Our bodies are far more resilient than this; we aren’t so fragile that a piece of foam can break stuff up in our muscles.
Instead, based on the current literature, these passive mobilizations seem to have more of neurological affect. We’re essentially manipulating our nervous system to down regulate our tissues to allow for great range of motion.
But again, this is temporary!
So then what?
An easy way to remember this is:
“New Range of Motion is Weak Range of Motion.”
If we have just spent time opening up brand new ranges of motion, then it stands to reason that we aren’t strong in these new ranges just yet. And since our nervous system is really good at preventing us from hurting ourselves, this new, weak range of motion isn’t going to be very usable under heavy loads or high intensities.
We need to spend time strengthening these new ranges. Otherwise, our nervous system sees this new range of motion as unsafe, and essentially locks us out of using it. And we go right back to feeling tight again the next day, or even a few hours later.
There are many ways to make this new range of motion “stick,” but I prefer to break it down into two approaches: general and specific.
When we are working on improving our functional range of motion, I like to be as specific as possible. So whatever area we just mobilized, we want to strengthen that specifically. For example, if we just performed a mobilization to improve our hip internal rotation, we want to then perform a drill to strengthen hip internal rotation specifically. This sends a clear signal to our nervous system that this new range of motion is safe and usable, and is the quickest route to make lasting change.
From there, we can be more general. Going back to our hip mobility example, if we have mobilized hip internal rotation, then performed some isolated strengthening to hip internal rotation, we can now apply this to our squat pattern. So the last piece would be to work on our squat positioning. This can do this by working on paused squats, tempo squats, squats with breath work, etc. The point is to spend time in the shape that you are wanting to improve after addressing the specific mobility and stability limitation.
So, there you have the EVO Performance Therapy formula for creating long term changes to your functional range of motion.
Passive mobilization + isolated strengthening + pattern integration.
Or as we prefer to say:
Mobilize > Activate > Integrate
And that leads us to the most frequently asked question:
“What’s the best time to do my mobility work?”
The practical answer is “Whenever you will actually do it.” Imperfect execution is always better than waiting around for the perfect time that never comes. Consistent effort over time is the most important variable for improving your movement patterns, so just get it in when you can.
That said, I can offer some guidelines for structuring your mobility work.
If you have a specific area you want to improve, I recommend implementing the Mobilize > Activate > Integrate formula before training that area. If you’re trying to improve hip mobility for squats, implement the formula before you squat so that you are reinforcing new movement patterns in training.
Another consideration is utilizing more general mobility work for warm-up and recovery. If we want to take a specific approach to improving mobility/functional ROM, we can take a more general approach for warm ups and recovery. A dynamic warm up is better used for general mobility before training, as it increases core body temperature, increases blood flow to the extremities, and primes the nervous system for activity. Passive stretching is better utilized post training or at a separate time of day, as it down-regulates the nervous and creates a state of relaxation. Gentle stretching and mobility flows are great before bed as way to calm the body while getting some general mobility work. Foam rolling, massage guns, and tissue smashing will have a similar affect on the nervous system as passive stretching.
If you’re interested in taking the guesswork out of your mobility work, check out our website at www.evoperformancetherapy.com. We work with clients both in-person and remotely to go through a thorough assessment to create a plan specifically for you, so that you can finally make lasting changes to your movement patterns.
For specific questions about all things mobility, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ben Moore, DPT, Physical Therapist, CF-L2
Owner, EVO Performance Therapy