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How to Improve Your Mobility
The key to mobility training is bite-sized, frequent daily movement—ideally, on the floor where you learned to move as a baby. The two most effective methods are joint lubing and contract-relax stretching.
Joint lubing (short for lubrication) involves repeatedly bringing every joint to its active end range of motion. This not only maintains mobility but restores that which has been lost through a lack of movement.
The most effective way to improve joint mobility and, ultimately, improve your ability to move well is to address working posture. Mobility training is a long, frustrating and sometimes completely fruitless process if you spend more than 12 hours a day sitting in a chair. Secondary to this, remaining hydrated and spending at least 15 minutes a day on the floor doing joint mobility brings the best results.
When lubing any joint, the first three to five reps should be very slow and controlled. The movement should match your slow diaphragmatic breath—not the other way around. People tend to match their breath to the movement, which speeds up the breath pattern. The diaphragm is the most important focus point for all mobility training. A diaphragmatic exhale promotes relaxation and allows increased range of motion; match the end range with your exhale. Actively hold your end range for at least two seconds before coming out of it.
After some slow reps, actively holding that end range for a few seconds, speed it up a little. Perform another 3 to 5 reps at a moderately slow pace, now only holding the end range for one second. Then increase the speed further to mimic daily movement. It doesn’t need to be fast or explosive. That’s about 10 to 15 reps of bringing one joint (or family of joints) to their end range of motion. After a full body joint lube, you’ll feel amazing. Here’s an example of some thoracic spine lubing:
Daily joint mobility is one of the six pillars of longevity (more about that in a future blog). I prescribe it to everyone I train, and I encourage people to start every day with a 5 to 20-minute sequence. Unlike stretching, lubing doesn’t change the length of our tissue. It relaxes the nervous system, breaks down adhesions caused by a lack of movement, nourishes the joints, lubes up the fascia and relieves stress. It is therefore safe and highly beneficial to begin every training session with a 10 to 20-minute joint lubing sequence. Putting this at the start of your session ensures you get it done and prepares your body for action.
Lubing Versus Stretching
Lubing and stretching are both means of improving your mobility. By this, I mean improving your active range of motion. As described above, lubing involves repeatedly bringing your joints to their end range. Stretching involves holding your joints at their end range for an extended period. The purpose of stretching is to change the length of the tissue and to teach the nervous system a new range. When you stretch, it’s your fascia that you can feel, not your muscles.
Principles of Stretching
Diaphragmatic breathing is fundamental to increasing range of motion. All stretching is mostly ineffective if the diaphragm isn’t working correctly. To breathe with the chest or to hold your breath during a stretch causes the nervous system to lock the joints in place. Diaphragmatic breathing tells the nervous system to let go and adapt to the new stimulus.
Get on the Floor
If a muscle is being used for global support the nervous system will not allow it to stretch. Don’t bother stretching the hamstrings from standing.
Involve Your Nervous System
Range of motion is dictated by the nervous system. Using the nervous system during stretching offers a much greater bang for your buck than static, passive stretching. This involves using contract-relax and reciprocal inhibition techniques, summarized in the next section.
It would be wrong to say that static stretching doesn’t work. Sitting in a chair and working on a computer or iPhone is a static stretch into the triple flexed position. Look around you and you’ll see most people are chair-shaped—static stretching clearly works. One of the most effective ways of improving your squat is sitting into a deep squat position for a cumulative total of 10 minutes a day (supported if need be). This is a static stretch. Only looking at Instagram while sitting in the deep squat is another good static stretch habit. Hanging out in static stretches that promote extension over flexion is a great way to multitask. For instance, read a work paper or magazine article from the couch stretch. Watching the TV or a lecture from the floor (not leaning up against something) encourages a plethora of healthy movement and natural postures.
As a rule of thumb, I suggest static stretching only be used while multitasking and integrated into your day. Static stretching only becomes marginally useful if held for at least 2 to 3 minutes. With proper breathing, it takes this long for your nervous system to figure out that you’re not in danger. If you are conducting a focused stretching session at the end of a workout, using contract-relax techniques would be a far greater use of time.
When to Stretch?
Stretching can be performed anywhere and at any time of time. There’s nothing dangerous about stretching without warming up as long as you’re working within your active end range. If your tissue is cold and you’re being stretched by an external force such as gravity or a wall, beyond your active end range into passive end range, this is a recipe for injury.
The best time to stretch is at the end of a workout, after a good warm up or after a lubing session. You’ll achieve faster results when the tissue is warm, adhesions between tissue are broken and when the joints are well lubed.
Which Body Parts to Stretch?
Most personal training textbooks state that the main purpose of post-workout stretching is to bring the muscles back to their original, pre-workout length. I respectfully disagree. The movements and exercises that are suitable for chair-bound everyday people does not shorten tissue. Everyday athletes require exercises that train their bodies to work as a single unit, undoing some of the harm caused by chair abuse. The movement involved in their training should use entire myofascial chains. Strength is built through a full range of motion, stabilized by the apparatus it was born with, not through a partial range of motion isolated by fancy external gym apparatus. Besides, the act of walking away from the gym brings muscles back to their normal length.
The goal of post-workout stretching is to increase your active range of motion in areas in which you are deficient. These are normally areas that shorten as a result of sitting in chairs. Therefore, anti-chair stretching should be the default. For instance:
TRX T stretch
One for the Coaches
Mounting your client and pushing them into a stretch is not only unprofessional and inappropriate, but a complete waste of their time and money. Their nervous system will not relax and adopt a new range of motion if they are being pushed into it. Especially not when their personal space is being invaded in the process. Their nervous system senses a threat and the target area is locked up. Pushing your client into a stretch could be useful at improving their passive end range of motion (flexibility), not their active end range (mobility) if you held them there for a very long period (upwards of 15 minutes).
Instead offer tactile cueing by gently tapping areas they should activate and use your body only as an immovable block for them to contract-relax against. They must actively put themselves into a position for their nervous system to accept a new range of motion.
How to Contract-Relax Stretch
Adopt a stretch position.
Squeeze the target muscle by pushing into an immovable object. We’ll call this the block.
Squeeze all of the surrounding muscles to help increase tension in the target muscle area.
Hold this tension for 10 seconds. Finish the 10-second period on an exhale. As you exhale, relax all tension while maintaining the same stretch position.
Squeeze the opposing muscle, the antagonist of the one being stretched, and pull the limb away from the block.
Being mindful not to compromise the integrity of the stretch by breaking form, keep pulling away from the block for a further 10 seconds.
Move the block to the new end range of motion. Rest the limb on the block and completely relax for 20 to 30 seconds.
That’s one round and takes about 40-50 seconds. Complete 3 to 5 rounds for each stretch to get noticeable results. In summary:
Adopt stretch position
Push into block for 10 seconds (end on an exhale)
Pull away from block for 10 seconds
Relax for 20-30 seconds
The block only ever acts as an immovable tool. It never pushes you deeper. It’s important for you to get there yourself. Here’s an example of how you might do that with a partner:
Should Everyone Train Mobility?
Everybody should spend at least a few minutes lubing up their joints before a workout. Every human would benefit from actively moving their joints through their full range of motion a few times every day. But a significant percentage of the population are hypermobile and should not stretch. Hypermobile people need to reteach their nervous systems where their end range should be, which in many cases means shortening it. They would benefit greatly from regular stability and strength training.
If you are hypermobile it’s likely that you have stiff and restricted ankles and feet. No matter how much mobility training you do your brain will not let them become more mobile. Your brain feels threatened when you perform potentially hazardous movements like walking and bending over. Your brain assumes a risk of falling or injury because it doesn’t know where the end range of motion should be for many movements. Tension is sent down to the feet and ankles because your nervous system craves stability. Many hypermobile people experience chronic foot pain as a result of the undue tension in the area. A professional who specializes in feet (and only assesses feet) may treat the symptoms by prescribing orthotics without considering why a hypermobile is experiencing pain in the first place. Remember that the site of pain never marks the site of the problem.
If I was working with a hypermobile client, key focuses would be:
Lots of diaphragm work.
Developing stability with a series of low threshold floor-based movements that help the nervous system activate your deep stabilizers.
Helping the nervous system learn movement patterns that don’t go beyond their functional end range of motion. This involves a lot of unloaded repetitions.
Improving strength from the torso out.
Most people tend default to training their strengths. Many ballerinas and yogis are drawn to their disciplines because they are hypermobile and can excel at them. This is why most yogis and ballerinas I know would benefit from strength training. Similarly, most people who prefer to lift heavy would benefit greatly, and hit new personal records in the long run, by making mobility training their key focus for some months.
Joint Lube Sequence
Set something to bleep every minute and flow through the following 20-minute routine. After learning the movements and the names of the exercises, the key focus should be your breath. Maintain slow relaxed diaphragmatic breathing. Sync the movement of your body to your breath. Exhaling creates an inhibition response in the nervous system. Match your exhales to the end ranges of each movement. For example, during the deep squat reach into the air during each exhale. Perform every movement slowly and with intent. Treat this as a moving meditation.
Diaphragmatic breathing supine (3 minutes)
Supine toe circles (2 minutes)
Segmental rolling (2 minutes)
Six-point neck nods (2 minutes)
Six-point cat-cow (1 minute)
Six-point twists on elbows (1 minute each way)
Six-point circular rocking on elbows (1 minute each way)
Deep squat sit with arms reaching (2 minutes), hold onto something in front of you if need be
Scrape the barrel (1 minute each way)
Dragon twists (1 minute each side)
Here's the full sequence on a YouTube playlist
Thanks for reading,