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.)

Running in CrossFit: Advice for Athletes