Loosen Up

June 18, 2015
The Acrobat, Pablo Picasso, 1930

The Acrobat, Pablo Picasso, 1930

Muscles, when exerted consistently, get tight. Between a build-up of lactic acid and an emphasis on a specific, abbreviated range of motion, a worked muscle becomes sore and contracted. Without intervention, the next work out becomes even more arduous, the results less and less impressive. That’s where mobility exercises come in—to relax and restore range of motion.

The ur-text of this type of body work is Kelly Starrett’s “Becoming a Supple Leopard,” which advocates approaching all movement—from sitting in a chair to lifting a barbell—with mindfulness. It’s so common to see this book at CrossFit and weightlifting gyms that it’s easy to take for granted. But if you perform any actions from any pages for just five minutes a day, I promise you will soon see a more flexible (and better performing) you.

I begin every training day with at least thirty minutes of mobility work. There some I do daily no matter what—I always foam roll my shoulders and IT bands, and perform over/under shoulder dislocates (but I use a metal pipe instead of PVC), and Olympic wall squats, for example; others I tailor to whatever work is on deck for that day. If I am doing gymnastics, I mobilize shoulders; weightlifting, hips; running, hams, quads and ankles. I use props: a foam roller, lacrosse ball, 2” elastic band (6’ diameter), and a 6’ length of steel pipe. Mobility is not to be confused with a warm-up, which spikes the heart rate, preps the central nervous system and usually works up a sweat; with these mobility exercises, I’m preparing my muscles and joints for the hard work ahead.

Elizabeth Martineau, Christopher Peddecord

Elizabeth Martineau, Christopher Peddecord

After working out, I often mobilize again, about an hour later. Some days, I’m just too tired to lift my own limbs, and I head to a new spot in Venice called Stretch Lab, which provides one-on-one stretching with a flexologist. And at least once a week, Jessica and I turn to our local best-kept-secret Thai massage spot, where traditionally trained therapists rhythmically press and stretch the entire body using their hands, arms, feet, and body weight (by standing on you), a treatment I liken to passive yoga. It’s amazing.

But like everything in life, moderation is key. Too-loose joints can lead to torn muscles or tendons. I was recently alerted to the importance of maintaining tension for top performance, too. If, for example, your hips are “too limber,” you’ll have problems getting the bounce at the bottom that you need to lift heavy weight to standing. So I’m always looking for that sweet spot: limber and relaxed, strong and stable.



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  • Reply Chuck Miller June 19, 2015 at 8:59 am

    How does one “scale” mobility? What I mean is, most of us are not training for Regionals or the Games. I agree, we don’t want injury, but the average CrossFitter isn’t spending three hours in the gym. Any comments or suggestions. Thanks for a good and thoughtful article.

    • Reply Sandy Hill June 20, 2015 at 8:46 am

      Hey Chuck! Thanks for reading…and your question. If you are asking about how to scale individual mobility exercises, I would have to say that ALL mobility is scaled, because everyone, no matter how flexible, ultimately has limits. So reach your limit for today and try to go beyond that tomorrow. But I think the heart of your question is really about scaling for time. Here are some ideas to help you get the most out of whatever you have:
      –Try to arrive at the gym before scheduled class time to mobilize on your own — even if it is just a few minutes early — and gradually build more of that pre-hab time into your routine. Start thinking about your arrival time this way: “If Group Class is scheduled to start at 5:30PM, this really means 5:15 for me, because I want to get my mobilty in.” I know this sounds pretty basic, but this subtle reorientation of time scheduling helped me a lot.
      –No matter how much time you have, use it wisely and mindfully. This part can be really hard, especially since the gym is, for most of us, a social center, too, and everyone wants to chat and decompress a little before the workout begins. Its human nature. But try and resist the temptation to chat and look around the room when you are mobilizing and turn your attention inward. If you have that look of deep concentration on your face, people are less likely to interrupt.
      –Plan your mobility exercises for the day in advance and write them down on paper, your phone, or whiteboard, and follow this checklist so you are not inventing your mobility program on the fly. This will help you get more movements in no matter how pressed you are for time.

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