“Mobility” is a term that gets thrown around a lot of gyms as this magic bullet to increase performance, decrease risk of injury, file your taxes for you, and maybe even get you more dates. The standard way I see mobility work implemented in the gym is that someone finds one thing that works for them, then another, and another, until they’re stuck spending 40 minutes doing “movement prep” before they even start warming up.
There is a better way.
Before we continue, we need to take a moment to define the term mobility. If we’re not on the same page, this discussion will go nowhere.
Your capacity to move your body through space, essentially your movement potential, is defined as your available range of motion (ROM). Mobility, on the other hand, is always context specific and I define it as having the ability to achieve a desired motion and/or position. Good squat mobility, for example, means having adequate range of motion, and control, to achieve your desired position in the squat, without compensation.
Now that we’re done with that, let’s move on to the myths.
Myth 1: My muscles are tight
This one might surprise people but muscles don’t actually get tight…ever. A muscle is a relatively dumb hunk of meat that contracts in response to electrical signals from your brain. How much force it contracts with, and the length it contracts to, are all regulated by your brain. You can think of it like a dimmer switch, if that helps. The feeling of “tightness” that you may sometimes get is simply the perception of you trying to lengthen a muscle while it’s contracting, pulling it in two opposite directions.
Myth 2: I need to spend a lot of time on mobility
Whether you’re foam rolling, using a tennis ball on the bottom of your feet, attaching your arms to bands and tugging on them, or dropping a people’s elbow on a lacrosse ball, you’re activating pressure sensors in your muscles and joints that send a signal to your brain, coaxing the involved muscles to turn down their level of activity.
When dealing with the nervous system, things happen pretty quickly. Ideally, you should spend no more than 30-60 seconds working on a given area. Less time than that and you may not get the result you want, anything more and there are rapidly diminishing returns.
It needs to be said that quality training will do more for your ROM than any amount of passive massage or stretching. Target the “big ticket” areas of your body that are limiting you and keep your mobility work specific to them and the workout you’re about to do.
Myth 3: Foam rolling my IT band actually does something
I hear it ALL the time still (I’m looking at you, runners) and I’m not sure why this advice is still given to people. Just…stop. Right now. I know it’ll be difficult but you can form a support group with former IT band rollers and keep each other from spending your time on this.
Your IT band, or iliotibial band, is a non-contractile fibrous band that covers the outside of your thigh, crossing both your hip and your knee. It has the tensile strength of steel and is firmly anchored to your bone. Wiggling around on a foam tube will do nothing to change it.
There are two muscles that attach to the IT band, which regulate its tension: these muscles are the tensor fascia latae (TFL) and gluteus maximus (aka booty). If your IT band feels “tight”, these muscles are a better target.
Myth 4: Massage decreases my recovery time
At least not directly. Massage has no impact on your rate of tissue recovery or rate of healing. It can, however, help manage stiffness that you may be feeling after a hard training session, in the short term. Decreasing stiffness may allow you to get back in the gym sooner, which will help with recovery by improving blood flow to your sore muscles.
Now that you’re armed with all of this new knowledge, what can you do with it? Here’s my tips for quality mobility work:
- Simplify your mobility routine to target your specific limitations, starting with global techniques and then getting more specific.
- Spend no more than 5-10 minutes on your mobility work prior to warming up.
- Spend no more than 30-60 seconds per area when using self-massage.
Don’t arbitrarily choose mobility work because you saw it on instagram or your friend does it and swears it’ll help you too. I’d recommend finding out why you’re “tight” in the first place. Remember that muscle tension is controlled by your brain, and if you’re feeling limited by your muscles there’s a reason for it. This could be stress based, it could be learned, etc. The source is most likely not dangerous to your health, but if it’s limiting performance it is worth investigating.
A good coach, or physical therapist, should be able to help you develop an appropriate mobility routine for your specific needs. Anyone experiencing pain, discomfort, abnormal sensation, or other symptoms should seek a licensed physical therapist for formal medical care. If you are unsure where to start, either connect with me via email or search the provider network at www.clinicalathlete.com to find a clinician who understands the demands of your sport, because they are an athlete too.
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