Mobility Series Part 1 – What is mobility, anyway?

This is the first in a series of more technical blog posts discussing aspects of form, technique, mobility, and body mechanics. For this one, we spoke to EverProven coach Kevin O’Shea.

You’ve probably heard the word “mobility” at EverProven about a thousand times. Sometimes it just sounds like a fancy word for stretching, as in the mobility section of class between the warm-up and the strength/skill. Other times it sounds like something you only have to worry about if you have an injury, or if you’re about as flexible as a pull-up rig. But mobility is important for everyone, and improving your mobility can really improve your overall performance.

When we “do mobility” as part of our warm-up, we’re getting blood into the muscles and practicing moving them through the full range of motion. We might do some targeted mobility to open up and lubricate a joint we’ll be using in the WOD. For example, we might use bands or lacrosse balls to open up our shoulders in preparation for thrusters or pull-ups.

That’s different from “doing mobility” after the workout. For example, you might do some end-range stretching at the end of the workout, when your muscles are warm. The point of end-range stretching, such as trying to touch your toes, is to tell your brain that it’s okay for your muscles to be this long. Your brain is always sending messages to your muscles about the proper amount of tension they should have. By stretching, you are trying to train your muscles to accept a new stasis. You might also work with a lacrosse ball or a roller to target problem areas.

When you have a mobility issue, one of three things might be happening inside your body:

1. Your muscles are pulling too tightly on the bones that make up the joint.
2. Your fascia (the stuff surrounding the muscle – think of the silver skin on ribs) may be glued to the muscle.
3. The connective tissue in the joint might be limiting the range of motion.

(Actually, there’s a fourth option: you could have an actual genetic or organic issue, such as a bone spur. The first three issues are much more common, though.)

Kevin says that muscles are like layers of cake. They’re all on top of each other, overlapping and touching. Ideally, they can slide freely, without being constricted and angry. When you use a roller or a lacrosse ball, you’re using pressure to delaminate the fascia from the muscle and from your skin, helping the muscle slide freely.

If you have limited mobility in a joint, your body will adapt and start changing the way you move. You’ll develop a less efficient movement pattern, which can lead to injury in that joint or in another area. Your body may just transfer that instability somewhere else. When that happens, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly where the problem is. You could end up trying to stretch muscles that aren’t even responsible for the pain you’re feeling.

That’s exactly what happened to Kevin. He says he started “worshipping the gods of mobility” after dealing with terrible IT band pain that kept him from running. He was repeatedly told to stretch the IT band, but the IT band isn’t actually a muscle and cannot be stretched. (The iliotibial band is a band of tissue that runs from the hip to the knee.) “It’s completely useless to roll your IT band,” he says. Eventually, he discovered that the problem was in his hip. When he tried to run, the tightness in his hip flexor caused an internal rotation on his femur, which in turn stressed the IT band. He stretched, rolled, and worked on his hip flexor with the lacrosse ball. Over time, the problem improved and he was able to run again – but only because he addressed the root of the problem.

If you think you have a mobility issue, ask a coach. Let them watch you do the movement and help you figure out what’s going on. Kevin notes that you may have more than one problem. “CrossFit lays problems out there,” he says. If you have tight hips and bad ankles, for example, you probably struggle with your squats. Your coach will help you focus on one issue at a time. You might work on holding your scapula back when you squat, which will help you keep your chest up and avoid rounding your back. Once you get that down, the tight hips might become more obvious. Then, you can start working on your hips. Improving mobility is a continual process, not a box to check off. “I’m never done with mobility,” Kevin says. “I’ll always be continuing to fix things as I work them out.”

Even if you aren’t already aware of a mobility issue, or you’ve just assumed that those limitations are permanent, consider sticking around the next time there’s an after-WOD mobility session. A bit of mobility work could be just the thing you need to kick your performance up a notch.