Movement

Maximizing Mobility


Written by

by Keith Enderlein

The recent popularity of improving mobility has been a major blessing in the strength and conditioning field.  No longer is stretching just for girls and yoga classes.  People like Kelly Starrett, Eric Cressey and Mike Robertson have made it cool to mobilize and they show you how you can reap the benefits in terms of faster WOD times and PR’s on the platform.  I’m sure that if you worked one on one with Kelly you would get huge results and be PR’ing all the time, but odds are you aren’t working with him and not hitting PR’s because of improved mobility.  Will doing mobility drills on your own lead to PR’s?  That is the question I’m here to attempt to answer for you, and if so is the time spent mobilizing a worthwhile endeavor.

Mobility interests me because I was always injured in high school and college while playing football and couldn’t figure out why I was suffering these non-impact injuries.  Hitting a 250 pound tight-end full-speed and separating my shoulder was pretty easy to figure out but not the hamstring tears, MCL sprains, ankle injuries, meniscus tears, pectoral tears, etc.  I’ve been to six different physical therapy clinics, five different chiropractors, and had five different athletic trainers during my football career.  There were some subtle differences in approaches with my treatments but regardless of the injury, the care basically all went the same way.  They looked at the site of injury, tested that area to see the issue, and went about treating only that area until they thought I was healthy enough to return to play.  They left me with a printed out cookie cutter exercise and stretching plan and that was it.  This is the classical approach that is taken when only treating symptoms.  Once the symptoms were gone I guess I was ok?  The issue with that was that I kept getting hurt.  It would be this or that while sprinting, this or that while jumping, this or that while benching.  I was doing the same exercises as everyone else but why weren’t they getting hurt?  The trainers would say, “You are just unlucky.”  But I felt there was a reason and no one seemed to have any answers for me.

I was a proponent that stretching didn’t work based on what I had been through with my various injuries in physical therapy.  I’d gain range of motion in the session of stretching but the next day, I was back to baseline.  Sometimes I’d get really into stretching and do it for an hour a day for a few weeks and see some progress but just missing out on a couple days of that routine and I’d be back to where I was before.   Maybe you have been there as well.  Felt that all your efforts were for not.  That nothing seemed to work, no matter how much you tried to mobilize the areas you were told to.

The major problem with the way my injuries were dealt with was all they did was treat my symptoms and never went in depth to figure out why I was always tearing my hamstring or why I was always spraining my ankle or why I’d have a tight hip flexor one week and then a tear in my groin the next week.  Never did they look up or down the kinetic chain to see if their was a movement pattern fault or weakness outside of the injured area until I went to a Chiropractor who studied Biomechanics last November.   He never once popped or cracked my back.  He wasn’t about trying to adjust me to put me back in alignment.  His theory was after I did these specific exercises, mobility drills, and soft tissue work, that my body would slowly realign and balance itself over time.  He tested my motor patterns, found weak muscles, found tissue restrictions and then we took an approach together to attack those areas.   This is really where my journey and interest in this sort of treatment took off.  I’ve had a couple massage therapists tell me that bones are slaves to muscles (if the muscle is tight it will pull the bone out of alignment), which is true but muscles have a higher commander and that is your central nervous system (CNS).  You can get the muscle to relax and lengthen but if your CNS wants that muscle to be short, the muscle is going to shorten and there is nothing you can do about it.  A typical Chiropractor would say that if you align the spine then your central nervous system will have less restrictions in communicating its signal to your muscles and your body will realign itself. This is true to an extent but that doesn’t mean it will revert to the most optimal state and create new motor firing sequencing just because you got rid of a subluxation.

What needs to occur is a rewiring and reintroduction of how to move properly through repetition and strengthening weak areas.  Alignment of your spine is awesome but if you don’t fix the underlying issue nothing is going to become permanent.

So am I suggesting you stop stretching?  Maybe.  Maybe your time is just better spent hammering away at the weights and realize that the five minutes you spend stretching isn’t going to cure a life time of poor movement.  Think about the time you spend in the gym trying to fix a weakness or movement pattern and then think about the rest of the day where you are just ingraining the old improper movement pattern by sitting in a desk, typing with your shoulders forward and stuck in a forward head position.  If you aren’t fixing how you walk, you are going to be fighting an uphill battle.  You don’t walk, you say? Okay how about breathing?  Ryan Brown wrote a great article on breathing and that you breath 20 thousand times per day on average.  So is doing five minutes of massage work on your traps really going to have a chance against 20 thousand improper repetitions causing overly tonic trapezius muscles?  If right now you are think “This seems kinda hard and quite the process.”  Well, it is going to be extremely hard.  No one wants to have to think when they breathe or walk but that is the case.  We need to be conscious of the way we breathe, walk, sit and stand because that is what we are doing all day long and what you are battling with when you go to the gym to fix those areas.

For some reason mobility still has a connotation that a novice lifter would have.  A novice lifter thinks that Dan Green has massive biceps because Dan Green has this one special bicep exercise and if they can find out that exercise they can have giant biceps as well.  As we know that isn’t the case.  He has giant biceps because of his magical hair. Seriously though, he built his physique through years and years of training and followed properly designed programming.  If you want greater range of motion to get down into the deadlift, you have to figure out why you can’t get down there. Do you have a lot of soft tissue restrictions in the form of fascial adhesions?  Do you have a problem with core stability?  Do you have tight hip flexors that cause you to overextend?  Or is it really only just tight hamstrings?  To fix your problems you need an approach that is meant for you and no one else.  It needs to be followed every single day and when you aren’t doing those drills you need to make a conscious effort to move correctly to not go backwards.  Fixing your problem isn’t about one magical stretch or corrective exercise or painful lacrosse ball session; it is diligent work just like the work you spend in the weight room to get strong.  Would you expect to be strong when you only lift 10 minutes a day, eat McDonalds every meal, play video games all day and sleep for three hours a night?  Obviously not.  So if you have a mobility restriction start to think about it like you would with lifting and plan accordingly.  Obviously not everyone needs as much work as others so maybe a couple stretches will work for now but you must think about the long run and clearing up any issues now is a lot easier than waiting around till doctors are telling you need back surgery or a hip replacement.

Keith Enderlein has interned at Juggernaut Training Systems. A former football player at Western Illinois University, Keith is now pursuing his masters in Kinesiology at Cal State Fullerton. 
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