Physical therapists and chiropractors have been banging the drum about the importance of mobility work for years, and, to our credit, most CrossFitters are listening. Walk into any box and you’ll find crates of lacrosse balls and foam rollers, as well as pre- and post-WOD athletes engaged in some type of stretching or rolling.
For many, the time they spend on mobilization is purely prompted by the pain of muscle tightness and sore joints. And what they’re actually doing — all that stretching and rolling — is often some haphazard combination of crowdsourced gym “choreography” and stretches that date back to high school track practice.
What movement specialists like Kelly Starrett, doctor of physical therapy and author of the best-selling mobility bible Becoming a Supple Leopard, want you to know is that mobility work, when done right, is good for a lot more than easing pain. It could even be the key to conquering goals and crushing PRs. “People are leaving performance on the table,” Starrett says. “What I’m telling you is that you can go faster. You can lift more weight. And you can do it all for longer.”
When it comes to mobility, misconceptions abound, and they tend to spring from inaccurate terminology. C. Shanté Cofield, doctor of physical therapy and founder of TheMovementMaestro.com, is quick to make this point. “Mobility and flexibility are not synonyms,” she explains, and the conflation of the two ideas often leads to pointless exercises. “Flexibility has this very passive connotation. Like, ‘Let’s lie on the ground and hold my leg up in the air for two minutes and try to get as much flexibility as I can so I can touch my toes.’ But the body doesn’t work like that.”
“What we're really talking about when we define mobility is, Do you have the requisite biomechanics to get into full, normal, physiologic positions?”
Also surprisingly problematic? “Stretching.” Both Cofield and Starrett cringe at its catchall usage. “Let’s stop using the word ‘stretching,’” Starrett says. “Stretching literally describes the properties of a rubber band. What we’re really talking about when we define mobility is, Do you have the requisite biomechanics to get into full, normal, physiologic positions? As in, can your body do what it’s supposed to do? Yes or no?”
It’s a question that some athletes may answer for themselves. Cofield and Starrett publish instructional materials and videos that demonstrate movement benchmarks that can aid self-assessment. For example, one of Starrett’s tests involves standing with the knees and feet together and squatting all the way down. An inability to reach the floor without lifting the heels suggests that you lack full range of motion in the hips and ankles.
A simple test like this is easy to perform independently, but one-on-one time with a physical therapist or chiropractor will often identify underlying issues that can hone a mobility practice. “A lot of times when someone has mobility deficits, there’s a hierarchy,” Cofield explains. “You can be hammering away at your hamstrings forever, but the problem is actually some stability issue at your core.”
Your Body Is a Ferrari
It can be tempting to shortchange mobilization for the same reason car owners put off regular oil changes. You can get away with it for a while. You can run like a duck, rag-doll on the pull-up bar, muscle through a dozen wobbly overhead squats and still feel like you got a great workout because you are, indeed, working hard.
But, beyond risking injury, athletes who consistently “empty the tank” without full range of motion are getting in the way of their own gains. “The best example is that person who’s trying to do an overhead squat and they’re just struggling to squat down,” Cofield explains. “That’s energy that’s being used just to fight against their own body. When people gain mobility and they have this freedom of motion and they can just get into the squat, they suddenly have this whole reserve of energy to direct into performing the lift as opposed to bleeding energy just trying to get into the position.”
Starrett likens a CrossFitter lacking full range of motion to a Ferrari with a stuck hand brake and wheels pointing in different directions. “You’re still a Ferrari, but you’re going to be less efficient and your wheels are going to blow out.”
Creating a Practice
So how can CrossFitters turn half-assed stretching into mobilization that will lead to results? First, you need to address the whole body. Starrett makes the point that runners who mobilize only from the waist down often encounter neck and shoulder issues that hinder their training. Going too deep is another common mistake to avoid. If you ever find yourself holding your breath, it means the movement is too provocative and your nervous system is receiving a “threat detected” signal.
A comprehensive mobility practice will incorporate pressure and rolling to target matted-down tissues, the opening up of restricted joint capsules (aka “flossing”) and, for lack of a better word, stretching. However, there’s an important distinction between effective stretching and the kind that frustrates the pros. “You need to activate the muscle at the end range,” Cofield explains. “You can lie on your back and hold up your leg, but you want to make sure that you’re also squeezing your quad for 10 to 15 seconds and then contracting your hamstring so that you’re getting some nervous system activation.” Cofield says this is like “hitting the save button.”
Starrett and Cofield both recommend that for every training session, athletes spend 10 to 15 minutes on mobilization that connects to their workout. “If you deadlifted today, let’s go mobilize the deadlift positions,” Starrett says. “If we get people in the habit of connecting their mobility practice to their movement practice, suddenly those things become intertwined, as they should be.” When it comes to putting together specific mobility drills, a coach, physical therapist or chiropractor can provide detailed instruction and guidance, and resources like Starrett’s MobilityWOD, a mobility programming subscription service, and Cofield’s website and social platforms are intended to empower athletes at home or in the box.