Often times, when we think of following a well-rounded exercise regimen, we think of a balance of cardio and strength training, but sometimes forget about incorporating mobility training. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean that we should all be mobile enough to do the splits or touch our noses to our knees. However, mobility training should still be a major component of any training session.
Why is mobility training so important?
While most of us do not need the mobility of a professional dancer or gymnast, all of us need a certain level of mobility in order to perform everyday activities with ease, like getting out of bed, lifting groceries, sweeping the floor, or tying our shoes. Several things can deteriorate mobility, including aging, a sedentary lifestyle, and injuries. As mobility decreases, normal activities can become more difficult. Activities as simple as standing up out of a chair or various knee-jerk reactions such as catching a falling bowl can become stressful or painful, and can make life daunting and unpleasant. To make matters worse, the more you limit your range of motion to avoid that pain, the more limited your mobility will become. It’s a vicious cycle. For instance, sitting for the majority of an eight-hour work day will lead to tight hamstrings and hip flexors, which can contribute to complications with one’s lower back, hips, and knees. These complications might make exercise difficult or daunting, so physical activity might decrease and the problem will get worse. Staying active, especially as you age, will help alleviate any built-up tension, and will drastically improve performance.
Start at the Beginning: Warm Up
Before any workout, it is absolutely necessary to warm up sufficiently. I like to think of muscles as spaghetti noodles. If left uncooked, they will bend to a certain point, but if they are pushed too far, they will snap. However, if they are placed in a pot of hot water for just a few minutes, they become far more flexible. In the same regard, if you workout with cold muscles, you are incredibly more prone to suffering an injury. Now your muscles may not snap in half like uncooked pasta, but you could suffer a muscle strain or something worse. To warm up, perform a few minutes of light cardio activity, such as walking or jogging, taking a few flights of stairs, or jumping rope. Anything that is not too strenuous but is still enough increases your heart rate and gets your blood flowing is a great starting point to getting a better workout with a lower injury rate.
Another excellent way to increase blood flow is self myofascial release (SMR). SMR involves using your own body weight to roll on a cylindrical foam roller to massage away any tension in major muscle groups, which returns soft-tissue function to normal. Using SMR techniques on common tight muscle areas such as hamstrings, IT bands, hip flexors, and lats can help improve joint range of motion, and promotes direct circulation to that specific area.
Time to Work Out
The next step in achieving optimal mobility is to incorporate real life movement into your workout routine. Don’t just hop on a treadmill and start running for an hour. Try to vary your workout to include functional movements such as jumping, throwing, bending, lifting, and pushing. Exercises like burpees, box jumps, prowler pushes, squats, medicine ball twists, lunges, deadlifts, and push-ups will improve your daily functional activity and promote an increased range of motion. Activities like yoga and pilates are also excellent methods that focus primarily on mobility for longer periods of time, while still incorporating some core and strength training.
Don’t Skip Stretching
Last, but certainly not least is the final step of stretching. There are two primary types of stretches: static and dynamic. Static stretches are what we probably think of when we remember the days of stretching in P.E.—bending over and trying to touch your toes to stretch out hamstrings, holding your ankle against your glutes with your knee bent to stretch out quadriceps, or holding your arm across your chest to stretch your shoulder. However, doing these static stretches with cold muscles can actually increase your chance of injury (Think back on the spaghetti analogy; if you stretch cold muscles too far—snap!). Wait until after you have worked out to perform static stretches. Doing so will release tension in muscles or connective tissue around joints, and will help alleviate potential delayed onset muscle soreness the day after you have worked out. To perform properly, hold a stretched (but not painful) position for 20-30 seconds, rest for 30 seconds, and repeat two or three times per muscle group.
Dynamic stretches are movements that put joints through their full range of movement. For example, you can swing your leg straight to the front and back to stretch out hamstrings and hip flexors, make large circles with your arms outstretched to warm up your shoulders, or go through a yoga “sun salutation” flow series to stretch a variety of muscle groups. These dynamic stretches are also helpful during the warm up stage, because they prepare joints and muscle to perform activities with full range of motion or explosive movement, as well as increasing blood flow and decreasing muscle tension.
As with any exercise, you want to listen to your body. If you stretch too far, or if the position is unusually painful, you could potentially cause tiny tears in your muscles that will prevent optimal progress.
Remember, mobility training is vital for improvement. Even if you’re rushed for time, don’t ever skip your warm-up or cool-down stretching periods. Doing so can increase tightness, lead to soreness the following day, and can potentially set you back in your training program. In other words, mobility training is just as important as lifting weights or doing cardio, so make sure you do it. And if you’re unfamiliar with how to perform SMR and foam-rolling, don’t worry; we’ll be happy to show you how it’s done!