What Is Mobility? (And Who Gives a Shit, Anyway)

You know how you know something — so you figure everyone else knows it, too? Turns out that is SO WRONG...

And for shits and giggles, let's start with the concept of "mobility" as applied to CrossFit. I thought that my clients likely knew why we do it, the end point, and how to go about it intelligently.


Turns out that many of them are just taking a magical mystery tour of the foam roller, and wondering why this practice that we coaches rave about is actually just:

1.) Painful

2.) Ineffective

So let's take a few minutes to clear the air.

First, the point of mobility is simple — there are certain physical positions in which the human body is most effective in creating force.

(We tend to lump these positions into a broad category called "good technique", and then kerfluffle them up with thoughts about safety. For the sake of this discussion, let's not. This is about force creation, primarily.)

If you want to get into these optimal, force creating positions, your body needs to allow you to do this.

For instance, you'll generally (front squat/clean/overhead squat/snatch) more with an upright torso throughout, as the spine will be in compression rather than rotation, a position where it can bear tremendous loads while creating a very low polar moment about the hip.

This demands a certain degree of hip flexion, knee flexion, ankle flexion, and tons of femoral external rotation to achieve (depending on your body type) — and if you don't possess the requisite "flex-external-rotability" (I made that word up), you're going to have a suboptimal movement.

So the point is to get you in the most favorable position.

Which demands diagnosis. I.e., which soft tissues in your body have been royally screwed by the butt-sitting diseases of modern living to the point where they don't do what they're supposed to?

In other words, where are you restricted?

This tends to be...um...all over. Which is why it's really helpful to have a coach (who's seen hundreds of f'd up but otherwise lovely people) aid you in diagnosis.

Here's a short list of areas that require mobilization on many non-gymnasty or older-than-12 types of people:

- Ankles, Calves

- Psoas, Glutes, Quads, Hamstrings, Adductors

- Triceps, Biceps, Front Deltoid, Pecs

- Erectors, Traps, A Zillion Muscles Surrounding the Shoulder

(I guess I could've shortened that by just saying "your body".)

So what does one do about it?

Again, simple, and a two-step process.

1.) We first break down any scar tissue and/or adhesions between the fascia and underlying muscle tissue through self-massage.

2.) We then lengthen the muscles that need lengthening through stretching.

Hear me on this (because I was absolutely blown away by how many of my clients didn't know this) — massage AND THEN stretch.

Many were doing one (or the other) independently, and wondering why there was no change in positioning. And the answer is pretty simple — you're going to have a hard time getting in new positions if your tight muscles don't lengthen (so you have to stretch), but you can't lengthen a muscle that's full of adhesions and scar tissue and stuff (so you have to massage first).

So now, we've established three things:

1.) Mobility is about getting in the optimal position for force production.

2.) It's helpful to be guided by someone who knows what those positions are, and what muscles are keeping you from achieving them.

3.) You've got to massage (i.e. foam roll, stick a lacrosse ball places, implant a theracane) AND stretch the restricted muscles to see any real result.

The final thing to understand about mobility — it absolutely requires consistency, perseverance, and a willingness to push painful stimuli to the back of your brain.

Let's address these one at a time:

1.) Consistency. You have to do this stuff every day. Once you've identified a restriction and observed that even mild work gets you better positioning, you have to make it a DAILY HABIT to massage and stretch that muscle. Obviously, you can take this too far into Gumby-land...but let's face it, that's not a realistic problem for most folks.

2.) Perseverance. We have this lovely, craptastic tendency to stop doing things the moment they work. (Oh, that nutrition program made you ripped, faster, better looking and happy? Have an Oreo.) In this case, that means that when you see positive results, keep going. Don't do "Mobility December" or whatever. Keep at it, one day, one millimeter at a time, until you're in the proper positions. Then keep doing it.

3.) Painful Stimuli. Do this now. Push hard into your quad with your elbow. If you're like me, it hurt, because (you did a 2-minute set of maximal jumping air squats yesterday). So you should never do that again, right? Nope. You should do it again, right now. In fact, push in there and massage through these phases — a.) oh fk that hurtz why, b.) maybe it's not so bad, I'm a strong person, c.) whoa that feels way better, I'm going to get all Zen and breathe deep while I finish this up.

Once you get through that, you've got a good idea of what it takes to actually break up scar tissue, adhesions, and the like.

So, I hope that helps, mobility in a nutshell:

- The point is proper positioning for optimal force production.

- You need to diagnose where you're restricted, and then massage AND stretch.

- You need to do this very regularly with the general stoicism of your favorite hero/heroine. (I picture being a Zen Clint Eastwood while I mobilize.)

A Checklist for Change

I believe that the Affiliate community is under threat from forces both internal and external.

We compete with each other on price while large corporate entities (with superior economics of scale) prepare to drastically undercut us with one-size-fits-all group classes.

We are complicit in a rapid race to the financial bottom, accelerated by our own strategic and tactical ignorance.

We charge semi-boutique prices (from the customer's point of view) without truly customizing instruction to the individual athlete. We refuse to take the time to enforce a culture of goal setting and accountability, whether due to a lack of time and resources or simple ignorance of the need to deliver high-touch service.

On Risk

There is a firm and immediate relationship between risk and reward:  If you don’t take a risk, there will be no reward.

This lesson is easy in the abstract, and incredibly difficult when it’s your (whatever) on the line.  As we accumulate rewards, in the form of jobs, cars, spouses, and real estate, we forget the dynamic that got us there, protecting, hedging, and refusing further risk.  In doing so, it’s no longer rewards on the line.  It’s progress.

At some point, you’ve got what you need, be it financial or fitness, and the instinct is to stop, build the fort, and wait it out.  Fight this with every ounce of your being; your duty is no longer to yourself.

The Secret to Happiness

At 34, stuck somewhere between being young and being old, I believe I’ve discovered the secret to happiness.  A brave thing, claiming “the secret” to anything, yet if one’s principles are based in empathy, morality, and a keen understanding of the human condition, it’s hard not to believe one has stumbled onto a rulebook for further action.  Time and tide may paint me a fool, but I believe this is worth sharing:

Be ruthlessly consistent in the application of your principles, and joyously inconsistent in your choice of activity.

Ten Things that Inspire the Sh*t Out of Me

1.) Death. We have a limited time on this earth: 77 years for a U.S.-born male. Realize that life is a ticking clock, and you've got a small window to make a big impact. 

2.) Fast cars. There's just no better physical manifestation of man's desire to be unreasonable in the pursuit of the unimportant. I'd like to go 200 mph. Check. How about 1.5g around a traffic cone? Check. Fast cars are confirmation that the frivolous is absolutely worth the effort. It'll put a smile on your face.

3.) Adaptive athletes. No arms? I'm lifting. No legs? I can run. You might have an excuse, but it's junk, and after you hang out with these guys, you'll realize it in short order. If you want something, anything, badly enough, there is never a reason not to get it done.

4.) Big data. I like the idea that nothing is unknowable. In that list, in that spreadsheet, in that mass of numbers, lies the answer. Whatever you want to know, it's there. Frame the question correctly, collect the data, find the answer.

5.) Premature action. In the absence of proof (which is nearly always), you need to take a guess and act. There is no clarification quite as potent as that engendered by action. Want to know what she'll say? Ask her. What happens if you try to ship barbells to Antigua? Do it. Can you snatch 200 lbs.? Give it a shot. 

The Ultimate Permission Slip

Everything ends eventually. Me, you, stars, galaxies, governments, everything. 

On its face, this could be an incredibly dispiriting concept, a resignation to fatalism and predestination. Yet I pass graveyards, and I smile, because I know that someday I'm going to die, and time is short.

This is the ultimate permission slip. Do what you will, be an agent for change, attempt to serve a cause higher than yourself. If you succeed, you'll go eventually. If you fail, you'll go too. No harm in trying.

Go Hard and Go Home

The vast majority of your training time, regardless of your aim, should be spent at general physical preparation, embodied in simple couplets and triplets, strength training, and the occasional long-duration effort. Short, hard, intense. 

This intensity is much more important than volume. Remarkably more important. 

For the newer trainee, this means no two-a-days, no four-WOD Saturdays. No flash-in-the-pan volume accumulation.

Volume accumulation, the method by which athletes are able to endure ever-more reps within any given time period, is not the product of a week of training. It is the product of a lifetime of training, years of consistent focus. 

Competitors must treat intensity and volume accumulation like two different things, each with a different trajectory. Intensity is created in the moment, embodied through intelligent programming that allows for maximum output. Volume is accumulated over months and years, an extraordinarily gradual layering of intense workout upon intense workout.

Don't confuse the two.

On Monopoly

As a business, I would like to have a broad, legally-defined and protected territory with no competition allowed therein. I would like a monopoly. Who wouldn't?

But funny thing, monopoly. The loser is the customer, who has but a single option at a price determined by fiat rather than market forces. This is unacceptable, and a perversion of the natural order, enrichment of a business through artificial means.

Therefore, we must have competition. Competition spurs excellence. Without people trying to beat us, without adversity, without someone kicking your ass (or at least trying) once in a while, you'll never be what you could be.