How to choose the right mobility exercises

Step 1 in your recovery plan will typically involve mobility work. Hold that thought for a moment. Your actual step 1 is to make sure you are performing the movement correctly. It sounds ridiculous, but the fastest way to fix a movement is to do it right. Make sure you know the proper technical cues to give yourself the opportunity to do the movement correctly. So you know those cues, but you still can't overhead squat? Don't worry about it. Proceed forward to the wonderful world of mobility.

For our purposes mobility work can be thought of any corrective exercise that improves joint mobility and tissue extensibility. Keep in mind that there are two vital components that we discussed: 1) joint mobility and 2) tissue extensibility. In some cases, simply “smashing” every muscle won’t get you much further, because there is still a joint component to consider.

In regard to what that corrective exercise looks like, sometimes this will be a static stretch, foam rolling, or a joint distraction, but don't forget about the infinite number of dynamic options. Movement is life, after all. Sometimes statically, the muscle and joint is just fine, but when you start to apply movement, that is when the deficits begin to emerge.

If you are looking for me to spoon feed you with specific exercises for your problem, feel free to contact us via our website. We do that regularly for our patients and clients. However, I’m not going to list all of the exercises in existence, because truly every person is different. Instead I want to teach you how to choose the right ones for your particular issue. The right corrective exercises are any movement/exercise that yields the desired outcome of improvement movement.  And there is more than one right answer. The most important rule for determining what exercise is right for you is to test and retest.

Test and retest is how you can get the most out of the 15-20 minutes that you spend on recovery work. Without it you are just pressing and guessing. Find one or two movements that best represent what you are trying to fix. For this instance we will use the overhead position. Perform that movement by placing the bar overhead before you begin your recovery work. Take note of how it feels and what it looks like. Then you will choose a corrective exercise. Remember that we spoke about the fact that there are two targets for corrective exercises: 1. Joint mobility and 2. Tissue extensibility. Let’s explore those further, and then we’ll move into an example.

In regard to joint mobility and tissue extensibility specific corrective exercises, think globally, not locally. Don't stress over whether your horrible overhead position is caused by your hypertonic pectoral muscles, your inflexible thoracic spine, or your weak serratus anterior. Instead focus on the movement. Pick exercises that target the joints and the muscles. Have some exercises be static stretches. But largely pick dynamic exercises that resemble the movement. Think end result, not cause. Ultimately we care about moving better, not necessarily the exact source of an issue, because realistically there is rarely a single source of an issue.

Soft tissue work is largely comprised of smashing and mashing. One of my personal favorites to improve movement is to tack and floss while performing a specific movement. Tack and floss allows for amazing specificity. You can even use your objective test as the movement for your flossing. Foam rollers, massage, yoga, and cupping are all forms of soft tissue work. Lately I'm even seeing a growing trend towards stacking heavy objects on your body. I'm not condemning those options. Like I said before, anything that improves your test is fine by me. I just want to make sure you don't forget about joint mobility.

The most neglected portion in step 1 is joint mobility work. To improve any joint you need to know how it's supposed to move relative to how your’s is currently moving. Let’s revisit the overhead position. You've tack and flossed your shoulder while performing snatch grip barbell press. You've held onto a door and stretched your pec. Now how about something to improve your thoracic extension? Why not use a peanut and flex and extend between each and every thoracic vertebrae? A peanut is a great way to isolate each joint while a foam roller is too broad for the task. You're likely to miss a few places with the foam roller.

After each of those corrective exercises, you will retest. It's unusual for someone to not have any improvement, no matter how small. You can retest as many times as you'd like. Do it after each set. If nothing is happening, say with stretching your pec, move on to the next option, say using the peanut to perform thoracic extension. Don't get attached to any one exercise. If the pec mash and stretch wasn’t helping, move on. The only way to make your plan sustainable is to trim the fat and only stick to the two to three mobility exercises that make a difference, otherwise, you’ll quickly accumulate a multitude of exercises that don’t actually serve your needs.

So what happens if you choose correctly on your first attempt at finding a corrective exercise? Say foam rolling through your quads makes a difference. Then keep doing that. You don’t need to get fancy with adding bands or foam rolling through different areas. Keep doing what works for as long as it works, while keeping in mind that is something has worked for a few weeks, you may need to move on at some point to something else that is more of a glaring issue.

So there you have it. The basic framework for the mobility portion of your recovery work is as follows: Choose your objective test and hypothesize about your problem regions that are preventing your from properly moving. Make sure to consider both the muscle and the joint. Once you have a region you can decide on static or dynamic corrective exercises for the muscles/joint involved in your objective test.. Retest after each exercise, and narrow down your routine so that it is no more than 15-20 minutes. Once you find the winning combination, exploit it as long as possible.

In my next blog installment I will discuss a few mobility products in further detail. While I don't specifically endorse any one product, I still want to make sure you are using your products correctly. For example it's not enough to just lay on a foam roller. I have a two step process that will ensure you get the most bang for your buck. More on foam rollers, tack and floss, and stretching next week.

Post from the Mobility Doc

John Giacalone holds his doctorate in chiropractic. He is certified as a level 2 USAW coach and has competed as a weightlifter. John has competed at 85kg, and more recently 77kg, where he qualified for the American Open in 2015. John's best snatch is currently 121kg, and clean and jerk at 1451g. John's additional certifications include CSCS, USATF1, FMS, SFMA, CFL1, CF Mobility, CF Weightlifting, and NASM CES.


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