Physical Activity

How You’re Doing Mobility Wrong

Mobility is a fickle thing.

It’s fickle in practice, fickle in understanding and by all accounts fickle in definition. That’s a lot of fickles. It is interesting though because CrossFit® is quite literally defined by its definitions. It defines everything, from what it means to be fit to how to measure power and intensity. Yet, when you consider mobility, an undeniably integral part of CrossFit®, the definition feels like trying to grab a bar of soap in a bathtub. And I’d be willing to bet that if you asked 10 different people their definition of mobility, you’d come back with 10 different answers. So let’s rectify that straight away.

Kelly Starrett, for all intents of purposes the Dalai Lama of the mobility world, defines mobility as such:

“A movement-based integrated full-body approach that addresses all the elements that limit movement and performance including short and tight muscles, soft tissue restriction, joint capsule restriction, motor control problems, joint range of motion dysfunction, and neural dynamic issues. In short, mobilization is a tool to globally address movement and performance problems.”

You’ll be the hit at all of the parties when you pull out your textbook definition of mobility, trust me. The last line is key: “In short, mobilization is a tool to globally address movement and performance problems.” Mobility is not simply stretching. Let me repeat that. Mobility is not simply stretching. The same way a square can be a rhombus but a rhombus could never be a square. Stretching falls under the umbrella of mobility but it does not define it.

The primary focus of mobility is to improve positions thereby improving power output and performance. The more and more the sport of CrossFit® evolves and the training regimen and strategies of the elite start bleeding into the programming of us peasants, the more mobility and recovery must become a priority. The reason the only thing you ever see of your favorite Games-level athlete is them hitting heavy snatches or their shoes still strapped into the rower as they lie gasping for air on the floor is because nobody wants to watch an Instagram video of someone rolling out their lats or flossing their ankles.

Yet, that doesn’t mean they aren’t doing it and doing it constantly. They do it to take care of their bodies. They do it to improve power output and performance. And the more we mimic their training, the more it needs to become a priority to us as well. Now, the only thing left is to make sure we’re doing it correctly.

How You’re Doing Mobility Wrong

Embrace the Pain

Let me quantify this statement right off the bat. Pain is a pretty broad term. Mobility shouldn’t be “pleasant” by any stretch but it shouldn’t be outright painful. I love the saying by Kelly Starrett, “If it feels sketchy, it’s probably sketchy.” Perhaps a bit of perspective is in order.

Understand this: You are potentially undoing years and years of bad habits you’ve developed. Do you think that’s going to feel good? You’ve sat a desk the past 30 years and now your hip flexors are chronically tight or you’ve worn heels to the office ever since you’ve entered the workforce and now your heel cords are like steel cables. These things need to be rectified in order to perform to your potential. To put it another way, think sports massage, not Swedish massage.

Which leads me to my next point and simultaneously one of my top five biggest pet peeves at the gym: the foam roller — key component of the “I do mobility” starter pack. Don’t get me wrong — I don’t inherently have a deep seeded hatred for tubes made of foam. But I do have a hatred for how they’re used — most of the time. A foam roller isn’t a pillow and mobility time isn’t, “Ask your friend if they caught the last episode of Game of Thrones” time (God, I miss that show).

The issue is people who either don’t want to do mobility or don’t know how to do mobility use the foam roller as a crutch rather than in a meaningful way. Using a foam roller is like paying the minimum balance on your bills when you consider most people’s mobility deficiencies.

Make peace with balls and bands, with kettlebell handles and uncomfortable positions. Remember what we said earlier: Mobility isn’t pleasant. Most of the time, the foam roller is. On to major pet peeve number two on the big board: people’s unwillingness to be uncomfortable during mobility.

There’s a stark difference between the sensation of doing mobility on your own compared to when a coach or super friend “helps” you out. For most, the second a super friend put their hands on you to aid you on your mobility journey it’s like the unpleasantness gets cranked to 11. The misconception is that people think that’s unusual or not how it’s supposed to be, yet in reality that’s exactly how it’s supposed to feel.

Every time we assign mobility to a class, you look around and everyone appears to be working diligently. Yet the moment a coach goes over to help they begin to squirm as if their fingertips have hot coals attached to the end of them. Which begs the question — what were you doing this whole time? Granted, the unpredictability and applied pressure of another set of hands (or feet) ratchets everything up but it shouldn’t be night and day drastic. Just like CrossFit® taught us back in the early days, get comfortable with being uncomfortable — mobility not excluded.

Don’t Be A Robot

Do you know the definition of insanity? Doing the same mobility over and over again and expecting different results. Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s how it goes.

The issue is that this is an all too common error with mobility. Mobility requires you to be a scientist and an artist at the same time — to test and retest, while using your creativity and imagination to target new areas. Too often I see people come in with some type of nagging issue and day in and day out they do the same drills because either someone told them to or they read it online with no results. Don’t be a robot! Give an honest effort but if the problem persists, it may be time to change the medicine.

The problem is it’s not always so cut and dry — example: A shoulder impingement manifests itself in pain in the front of the shoulder. However, the source of the pain is usually due to poorly functioning/sliding shoulder blades in your back — the complete opposite side of your body which, unless you know better, isn’t even remotely obvious.

This is where talking to a professional, taking it upon yourself to do some research or talking to a coach must become a priority. The worst thing you can do is continue with the same pattern without yielding any results.

The simplest solution is to work, what Kelly calls, upstream/downstream from the issue. The point of pain isn’t necessarily the point of restriction or source of the issue. Sometimes that’s simply where the issue manifests itself. For example, a poorly functioning wrist or shoulder usually manifests itself in elbow pain. This is because an injury to either of those joints requires the elbow to compensate for a lack of range of motion or whatever.

Working upstream or downstream means rather than focusing on the area of pain, work the surrounding area as well. Work up from the injury on your body as well as below. Sometimes that lets everything else fall into place.

The Over/Under Commitment Fallacy

The best things in life are the simplest, right? The concepts that tend to revolutionize the world tend to be the most self-evident and the most easy to grasp by the masses. I’m not saying this concept falls into the “revolutionize the world” category but it is easy to grasp if nothing else. The over/under commitment fallacy states that people tend to overcommit to something in the short term and under commit in the long term.

I wish I could say I was smart enough to come up with something like that but alas I am not. Unfortunately, I’m not entirely sure where I heard it first either or who said it. I don’t believe its roots find their lineage in CrossFit® or even in fitness in general but it can be applied here nonetheless. The idea is that when people discover something new, they tend to overdo it right off the bat before neglecting it entirely. You see endless examples of this within the CrossFit® world.

CrossFit® atheletes tend to fall victim to these “fads” regularly. Whether it’s paleo and the bastardization of grains to ordering a new piece of equipment and adding it to the daily programming for a month, to learning about Westside Barbell and only squatting with bands or chains draped over the bar, etc. to completely neglecting them all after only a few months. Instead they should incorporate the finer points of what they learned or what worked into their long-term philosophy rather than going all in and just as quickly losing focus.

This is true of mobility as well. How often do you see this pattern: Shoulder Injury > intense shoulder mobility/rehabilitation for short period of time > shoulder recovers > stop most, if not all, mobility > shoulder injured again > rinse and repeat. I see it every day.

People, especially with injury, tend to overcommit to taking the necessary steps to correct the issue (usually through some form of mobility) then under commit to the less intensive daily mobility work they need to do to prevent further injury. The focus should be recognizing weak links in the chain, whether due to lifestyle/work issues or previous injuries, and perform occasional maintenance on the area — not just when it blows up. Prehab as much as rehab. Strike a middle ground between overcommitting in the short term and under committing in the long term to maximize results and stay healthier longer.