By Dr. Ben
Since you’re reading this, you more than likely want more freedom of movement so you can perform a specific task. Whether that is being better at jiu-jitsu, surfing, Crossfit, or even being able to keep up and play with your kids.
OR you may just want to feel a bit looser and a lot less stiff all of the time!
In either case, you know that adding some mobility work to your daily routine can improve your quality of life and make you feel better. Good for you for being proactive!
Unfortunately, the term mobility has been beaten up and bastardized in many ways so it’s hard to understand where to start and how to go about it.
If you’ve ever spent any time on Instagram you may be led to believe that to enhance your mobility you’ll need 15 of the newest shiny gadgets, a designated area of your house for a circus-like routine, and an extra 1-2 hours in each day…
I’m calling BS on all of that!
After reading this you will have a thorough understanding of the process of gaining mobility and better equipped to help navigate the way to your goals.
The fact is that having better mobility doesn’t need to look acrobatic, expensive, or take up a ton of your valuable time!
With the right approach, you can move better, feel better, and crush your goals with relative ease! It’ll just take a little work on your part 🙂
If you look up the word mobility in a dictionary you’ll find a pretty good starting definition:
The quality or state of being mobile or moveable
For the sake of this blog and the way most people describe mobility in the physical health / movement context we’ll take it a bit further with our own definition:
The available ranges of motion that one can actively control their body
Pretty simple right? I think so 🙂
Now that we have a basic definition to guide us let’s get right into things...
Well, you’ve got a body right? And you want to do cool stuff with it right? Then you’ll want to be able to control it well and be able to move freely without worry!
In order to move freely and enjoy everyday activities everyone who has a body requires an adequate amount of control and range of motion over their torso and limbs.
That’s pretty straight forward.
Lacking adequate mobility for the tasks that life throws at us can often lead to pain, injury, or limitations in what we pursue fun or sport.
Let’s use a simple example. In the sport of Weightlifting (picture of a snatch) you need to have good movement and control through the ankle joint (among others!) in order to perform the movements required of the sport. Especially at a high level.
If you didn’t then your ability to throw heavy weight over your head and catch it in a safe manner would be severely compromised.
Could you still do it without good ankle mobility?
Absolutely. Many people do every single day. But not many at a high level. And the fact is it is much easier to perform those weightlifting movements well if you have good ankle mobility.
So does this mean you shouldn’t aspire to get good at weightlifting if you lack ankle mobility?
This just means you need to work on a few things. Ankle mobility would be at the top of the list. So would enhancing the other areas of your body in order to help you get into a position to succeed where your ankle couldn’t!
We all have different hobbies and things that we like to do. Each of these activities has different mobility requirements.
In many cases, if you attempt an activity in which you lack the movement required to perform at a basic level, you’ll be asking for trouble.
This can manifest in pain, frustration, and quitting an activity altogether. Not cool, right?
On the flip side, if you have the adequate mobility and then some, you’ll not only be well prepared for the sport or activity you’re involved in, you’ll also be prepared for a lot more!
Who doesn’t want that?
I can answer this question with 1 simple word.
FREEEEEEDOM!!!! (I bet you just pictured Mel Gibson and the movie Brave Heart in your mind
Having plenty of range of motion that you can control, or even better, express strength and power through is a great way to navigate the physical challenges that life will throw at you!
Having good mobility simply means having more OPTIONS.
Who doesn’t like having options? I know I do!
This means you will have less strain on your body when life's challenges are thrown your way. You may have many things to consider, but an available range of motion won’t be one of them.
And having fewer things to worry about so you can spend more time focusing on your goal is always a good thing!
This will also allow you to express yourself better physically.
Say for instance you do jiu jitsu (this is my favorite sport so I had to use a jiu jitsu example!)
In jiu jitsu there are a wide variety of movements involved that are all centered around controlling and submitting your opponent OR defending someone trying to do that to you.
Many positions are reliant on limiting your opponent's movements so you can steer them into a trap. In either case, whether offense or defense, having more movement options so that you can express your technique and athleticism is a significant advantage!
Would you rather have:
- More ways to win?
- Or only a few ways to get the W?
I know I’d rather have as many options to achieve victory as I can!
I'm sure you probably do too 🙂
There are many many ways to get this job done. I personally like to use the most effective yet simplest methods possible.
As we all know, staying consistent is a key factor in improving any skill or physical trait. And overcomplicating things is a surefire way to throw a monkey wrench in your consistency.
I'm sure you live a busy life and have a lot on your plate. You've got goals you want to achieve and fun you want to have! Mobility work shouldn't be an extra burden because it really doesn't have to be!
Keep on reading and I'll lay out how you can earn the movement freedom you're looking for. All this without having to break the bank and without spending even more time away from the people you care about or doing the things you love to do.
A couple of certified smart people named Gray Cook and Mike Boyle came up with what is now known as the Joint by Joint Model. This is, in my opinion, the most straight-forward way to think about the body in terms of mobility.
Keep in mind, this is a generalization! But to be fair it is a very good one and a model that most of us can relate to.
The Joint by Joint model simply breaks down our bodies joints into groups describing them as requiring stability or mobility.
Check out the picture below for the breakdown:
As you can see by the picture, there are areas that we generally want to have more movement and other areas that we generally want to have less total movement. And surprisingly, it goes in a sequence of stability:mobility from joint to joint.
What can happen at times is that you may have reduced mobility in one area that requires it and as a result, another area will make up for it’s slack or compensate.
A simple example I see very often is a lack of mobility in the upper back or anatomically referred to as the thoracic spine. When this area has reduced mobility the lower neck (above) and the lower back (below) often take up the slack.
Instead of sharing the movement load like a big happy family as nature intended, those areas compensating for this lack of mobility can suffer from overuse and become unhappy - meaning pain and limitations 🙁
This type of issue is not uncommon in many areas of the body.
Here a few quick examples:
Humans are excellent at adapting! But sometimes these adaptations can lead to other issues down the line.
Even if this doesn’t lead to pain this can also mean limitations in performance in the activities you love. Or maybe slower progress as a normal training load is unsustainable due to your body having to recover from the overuse.
By maintaining good mobility throughout your body you can keep yourself happy and well functioning. The Joint by Joint Model is a good place to start when you think of where you want to work on first!
Just to be clear… you want ALL joints in your body to enjoy full control in a healthy range of motion!
But from a general health perspective, using the Joint by Joint Model shows that you’ll often need to focus here as they’re common areas of limitation:
Big toe (Yes the Big toe!)
A common misconception out there is that to increase your mobility you need to change your tissue or joint structure.
While in a very small percentage of cases this is true - like post surgical/traumatic scar tissue - in the far majority of cases what you’ll be doing to enhance your mobility is simply retraining your brain.
This is a very good thing! If you really do need to change the structure of your body in order to achieve better mobility you would be in for a very long and tough road.
The fact is that all traditional methods of improving movement through mobility work come from reprogramming your brain. Yes, even your lacrosse ball and foam rollers are working through the brain and NOT from changing the shape and structure of your tissue.
If you were able to change your tissue structure with a lacrosse ball or foam roller imagine what would happen to your butt after a hard fall!? You’d be a wreck! Luckily, your body is much more resilient and adaptable than that.
Let’s look at a simple example: Have you ever done a movement that immediately makes you feel like you can move better ? OR how about after you used a foam roller?
How likely do you think that it is that while doing either of those that you literally changed the cell structure of your body? I can tell you that it is very unlikely. The cellular adaptation that we can notice from the outside of our body occurs over time, not a few minutes of stretching or rolling.
What happens when we do this is complex, but let’s try to keep it simple.
Remember, all of this movement or foam rolling are inputs to the brain.
These are both inputs into your body’s nervous system.
As a result of these inputs, your nervous system either relaxes the muscles in the area or has an increased sense of safety and control and decides to allow more freedom of movement in the area.
This happens really FAST!
And the input can come from a variety of methods.
Optimizing Nervous system inputs are the secret to REAL MOBILITY.
So what does all this mean?
This means that when we approach mobility we should approach it based on the brain and nervous system rather than a structural approach.
When we do it this way it makes things far easier and you will get results much FASTER!
Your structure still matters….
Changing your joint structure is nearly impossible with the common methods that everyone uses to gain increases in mobility.
By the time we are adults, our bone structure is quite set for the most part. Yes, you do have the ability to adapt in this regard but bone adaptation takes a very long time and requires a lot of properly applied stress. And it ain’t gonna change the location of your hip sockets!
The reason I bring this up is that you will still be limited by your bony structure. It’s a simple fact we all have to face.
This doesn’t mean you can’t work to improve your mobility with the given structure you have! Most of us have plenty of room to work with and a lot of available mobility to gain!
Understanding your structure and how the nervous system affects mobility helps you to focus on where you have control. This way you avoid spending time obsessing over lengthy and unnecessary tissue work or mobilizations. If we approach those methods from a nervous system perspective it liberates us and speeds up the process!
Another misconception is that mobility work must come as a result of mobilizing tissues or joints so that they give you more freedom.
This is NOT always the case!
In my clinical practice, I see just as many people who gain better mobility and control of their body by adding more STRENGTH and COORDINATION.
As I said before, you likely have plenty of available range of motion structurally.
The thing that may be holding you back is your body’s confidence in those ranges that are currently not within your control.
This is very often the biggest roadblock to increased mobility.
Your brain is extremely smart...
As a way of protecting you, it will limit your movements to keep them in a range that it perceives as safe. This means that to access these broader ranges of movement you will have to prove to your brain that you can do so safely and with adequate control.
So how do you do this?
The more you actively move your body through those ranges that your body doesn’t typically use the more confidence it will gain.
As a result, it will unlock more freedom of movement. As long as you continue to move in those ranges!
To be sure this doesn’t mean just easily moving your arm through a range of motion and in all cases, you'll be able to do that. Your body is too smart for that!
This means that in order to perform harder movements that require more strength your body will need to be confident in your ability to do so with the strength that is required for that task.
You can’t go WRONG with getting STRONG! Strength is often the biggest factor that will need to be enhanced in order for you to be able to perform better and have greater mobility!
You know that you want to maximize your ability to move and control your body. You know that you want to feel better and have more freedom of movement for the activities you care about.
What you need to do now is figure out what your actual GOALS are!
What are you looking to have mobility for?
Is it for a specific sport or hobby?
Is it because you feel you’re lacking in a certain area?
Is it because you feel stiff and don’t feel comfortable doing certain movements?
OR do you simply want the best for yourself and have all the freedom of movement you can!?
These are very important questions that you’ll need to answer in order to streamline this process. Having a good understanding of where you want to go and what you need to get there will help you avoid wasted time and instead get to your destination faster.
Say for instance you're a jiu jitsu enthusiast… (yes I’m doing it again!)
In many of the movements required in jiu jitsu, you’ll need plenty of mobility in the hip to perform them effectively. Whether it is a triangle, attacking the back, escaping side control, or any other various movements, you’ll need plenty of freedom of the hip to get this accomplished.
Another key area to focus on is also the ankle and the big toe. In order to crouch into many of the positions required when playing in the top position, you need ample mobility and the ankle and big toe in order to achieve it.
If you don’t have a decent level of mobility in the hip, ankles and big toes your ability to maneuver into the required techniques movements when necessary will be impaired. This will limit your performance and possibly lead to putting your body into positions that will lead to injury. Not cool!
This is just one example. But I could go on forever.
If you take the time to figure out what areas in your particular sport or activity require more mobility you’ll be much better off than simply guessing!
I'm going to let you in on a secret that most of the people peddling mobility gadgets and circus acts aren't telling you… you may not even need mobility work! It may be a waste of time for you! *GASP* ?
Imagine that! You’ve come this far all to have me tell you that you may not need to work on your mobility at all… Well, it’s true!
The fact is that you won’t know if you do or do not need to actively work on increasing your mobility unless you figure out what your sport/activity requirements are and then ASSESSING where you are currently at!
This means taking the time to figure out how well you move in certain areas of your body then comparing that to the needs you have.
You’ll have a very hard time figuring out where you need to go if you don’t already know where you are currently at. It is super duper important that you take the time to honestly figure this out. This way you can focus on the mobility work that you need and as Bruce Lee would say, ”Hack away the non-essential”.
Let’s say for instance that you realize you’ll need adequate hip mobility for jiu jitsu and want to make sure you have it. Well, it’s pretty easy to assume that if you are the type of person who can put your foot behind your head like a pretzel without using your hands, it’s not an area you need to spend much time mobilizing.
This really doesn’t have to be hard and is truly rather simple. None of the stuff I’m talking about in this blog has to be hard! The application is much easier than many would lead you to believe.
And when it is all said and done the right answer may actually be some simple mobility work. OR it may be a change up in your training plan. OR maybe more work on strength and coordination. OR… you maybe just need to keep doing what you’re doing and you’re already on the right track!
No matter how you move forward, it should start from a foundation of understanding what your goals and needs are plus knowing where you are currently at.
When it comes time for the rubber to hit the road I always like to start at the simplest place first. This allows you to get the most bang for buck.
Rather than introducing a ton of new things wouldn’t you rather simply modify what you are already doing? Most people would. And that’d make it a lot easier to stick to. And the fact is this is always a good place to start!
Let’s look at a quick rundown of the different ways to approach mobility work:
Body Work (joint mobilizations and tissue work)
Optimized Training Plan
Let’s dig into these further…
We’ve all been there. Stress is mounting and it feels like you’ve got the entire world resting on your shoulders. Even when things calm down you still have trouble shaking the tension out of your body.
Stress and your mental state can have a huge impact on the way your body feels. If you’re too tuned up you may experience tension in your muscles and a bit more stiff in your joints.
This can often be a major cause of someone who is experiencing a lack of mobility and an easy place to start.
Using relaxation techniques such as focused belly breathing and meditation are very simple and uber-effective ways to quickly help your muscles relax and open yourself up to better movement!
You don’t have to be a Buddhist monk either! Give this a shot for just 30 seconds and notice how your body feels afterward…
Sit in a relaxed upright position and gently close your eyes
Place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest
For 30 seconds, bring your undivided attention to the rhythm of your movement as you breathe
How did you feel after doing that? I bet you feel more relaxed and your muscles feel a bit looser!
Incorporating simple relaxation techniques like this into your life can pay off big time!
Yes, it can be that simple 🙂
Bodywork like simple joint mobilizations or tissue work can be very effective.
You can and should be able to perform these yourself! Although having a little help on occasion can be great.
Sometimes the input our body needs may need to be different. And finding ways to use simple joint mobilizations or tissue work can be an effective way to open up new windows of movement.
These may or may not involve the use of a simple tool like a band, strap or foam roll. It really doesn’t have to be expensive or elaborate. Most of these things you probably already have laying around your house or the gym.
There are a million ways to get this done. But the gist of it is figuring out a way you can wiggle or move your joint or tissues in such a way that it gains more freedom of movement.
Remember, you won’t actually be changing the tissue or joint structure while you do this. So don’t beat the crap out of yourself! These therapies should feel good and help your movement not leave you bruised up and in agony.
You’ll also want to reassess your movement after this to ensure what you’re doing is productive.
I often see people doing these types of therapies aimlessly. Sorry, but that’s probably not going to help. You need to make sure it’s worth your time! The only way to make sure is to recheck how you’re feeling and moving!
Don’t get caught up in thinking the job is done once you put away your foam roller. Those changes won’t stick unless you give your body an active input to do so. Remember, it’s that whole brain trusting your movements thing and trust takes reps.
Which leads us to our next method...
Dynamic movement is where many people that I work with will start on their path to better mobility. And for good reason!
In the case where adequate strength and coordination has yet to be developed in the ranges you are looking for, simple dynamic movements that take you into those ranges are the best way to go.
These movements will be specific and targeted to the limitations that you discovered during your assessment. They will allow you to ACTIVELY explore areas that you often may not move.
These movements are also a great tool to help you warm up and prepare your body for more challenging movements in training.
The cool thing is you can do these OFTEN!
Building coordination is like any other skill. You need to practice to get better.
So instead of only using these exercises to warm up before your workout, you can sprinkle them in throughout your day to constantly get this QUALITY INPUT into your brain and body.
I often tell patients that I would much rather they do a movement for 30-60 seconds, 6 times a day, rather than spend 15 minutes doing it only 1 time a day.
By providing consistent input into the nervous system this way it often has a much bigger payoff in terms of learning new coordination or skills. Meaning your brain adapts and the mobility STICKS better.
But if you really want to keep these mobility gains, you’ll want to continue to challenge yourself!
The best way to elicit change in the body and make it stick is with sufficient CHALLENGE. So if you are capable of doing hard work in a broad range of motion then you’ll want to use strength training type of movements.
This helps make the new mobility STICK!
And it will not only enhance your mobility but also make you more of a BEAST at the same time. 2 for 1!
This can be anything from a simple modification to an exercise so it explores a broader range of motion under tension or changing in the volume/load structure so you simply don’t get so tight after training.
Often times starting here is a great place because this is where you’ll want to end up anyway!
As soon as you can safely move into a new range of motion under tension you’ll also want to start incorporating explosive movements as well. This way you can really harness your ability to move and express your athleticism!
But just make sure that you are well prepared to incorporate explosive movements before doing so. If you go too fast too soon you’ll be asking for trouble.
Take your time and enjoy the ride! Stay consistent and you’ll get the pay off you’re looking for!
You do not have to use all of the above in order to get where you want to go. Everyone is different and what works best for one person may not be the best for another person.
The key is to keep things simple and use whatever method gives you the best results!
The best route for you may involve only one a maybe couple of the methods here. But you’ll always want to back it up with quality training if you want the most out of those results.
You may find that bodywork is the best place for you to start, but eventually, this can change and you won’t need to do that anymore. You’ll just need to do a few dynamic movements to get the results you want.
This can also change, and as you progress you’ll notice that all you need to do is warm up your body a bit then train and you’ll be where you want to be.
Or you may find that using relaxation techniques gives you the end result you’re looking for and you won’t need to do anything else to feel good and move better. That’s cool too!
Just use what works best for you plus fits your goals and lifestyle.
The perfect way to approach this is to use what works best for you at that moment in time 🙂
I’m gonna keep it real with you… I love helping people! (I’m in sunny San Diego, come visit me).
Whether it is helping get them out of pain, better mobility, better coordination, better strength, or just all around KICK MORE ASS, when it comes to this stuff I’m a hardcore nerd!
Much of my waking hours are spent helping people achieve these things or LEARNING to be better at doing that 🙂
An excellent way to streamline this entire process is to get professional help. There are many people like myself who have dedicated much of our lives to helping people just like you move and feel better!
Take this word of advice when seeking professional help. Make sure they PUT YOU IN CHARGE of the process!
The fact is that having better physical qualities takes some effort. And there is no such thing as you enhancing your mobility by simply having someone do something TO YOU.
Can this be a great way of helping you reach your goals?
But the meat and potatoes of getting there will rely on you having a concrete plan and executing it!
This means that a high-level professional who really has your best interest in mind won’t just use some gadgety jackhammer tool then stretch you out and call it a day.
A real professional (the type you want to work with if you are serious about moving and feeling better) will help you navigate your needs, assess where you are currently at, and help you develop a plan that fits your personal goals and lifestyle.
They’ll help guide you through the process and make any necessary modifications along the way. Making sure you’re staying on track to where you want to go!
AND, a real professional will be honest and tell you when you DO NOT need to work on mobility and help you focus on more important areas of training and life.
I’m extremely passionate about this. I have many many colleagues that are as well. If you need help then CONTACT ME and I’ll do my best to help you OR to connect you with someone who Gets It and will give you the help you deserve 🙂
I really hope you enjoyed this journey through mobility with me! All of this may seem like a lot but I promise you that it doesn’t have to be.
You CAN achieve excellent mobility without breaking the bank on the latest fitness fad toys!
You CAN move and feel better without adding 10 hours of circus acts to your week!
You CAN attain live a happier and healthier life with the freedom of movement you’re hoping for!
And if you need help from someone who CARES and will give you their all to help you get where you want to be, then please make sure and reach out to us here at FlowForce Rehab!!!
***The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this blog.***