What I think about when I think about mobility

The site theme this month is mobility. Mobility is a term that’s been a bit bastardized. Kelly Starrett, who will join the HMMR Podcast next week, helped popularize the term and even he told us the term has now come to mean everything and nothing just like the word “core” or “functional.” I’ve done a lot of research on mobility this month, and it has helped me shape my own thoughts on the topic. I wanted to share a few ideas about how I understand mobility and its role in the performance equation.

» Learn more: our latest HMMR Classroom video shares four different mobility sets put together by Steve Myrland and Joe Przytula.

Life is mobility training

In preparing for the Starrett podcast I stumped upon a past interview with him with one point that really stood out. He talked about how you have a choice for training mobility: mobilize for an hour, or make a better decisions around your life.

This is even more true in the time of lockdowns. For my own training I traditionally haven’t done much focused “mobility” work. I’m on the move all day long, often walk 5-6 miles a day around the city, toss my kids around, and play multiple sports regularly. I’m moving all day in many different ways. Over the last year, however, my day is often just coaching, training, and sitting. My body notices the difference and I’ve needed to supplement more mobility work. It’s still a work in progress, but I’m getting there.

What’s in a word

When it comes to mobility, Myrland has my greatest influence and I agree with him more often than not. He contributed some mobility sets in our most recent HMMR Classroom video and his article this week made the case against the term mobility. While we agree on the end goal, I don’t entirely agree on this point. Myrland’s issue with the word is that it is quantitive. When you start talking in quantities the “more is better” lightbulb tends to turn on in the minds of coaches and athletes. Then we go overboard and lose sight of what we actually want.

All too often this is true, but to some extent we can’t avoid talking about quantities. We all have measurable positions we need to execute and use in our sports. If we aren’t there we fall quantitatively short of the goal. For me the problem isn’t in discussing quantities. It is in how we discuss quantities. We should be talking about what quantity, and how that mixes with quality. Are we searching for the maximum quantity, or optimal quantity?

Create shapes you can use

I also have some thoughts about the words we use in this area. For me, the difference between flexibility and mobility is movement. Mobile athletes can start connecting movements better. Thought about in these terms, in some ways flexibility and mobility are contradictory.

Flexibility is about separation; mobility is about connection. Often when we traditionally stretch, we are trying to pull two parts away from each other. With mobility we want those parts to work together to create length.

Flexibility is about range of motion. Mobility is about how you can use those ranges. Being flexible serves no purpose if it is not connected and you can’t use it. Athletes don’t just need to create shapes, they have to create shapes they can use. As Steve Myrland said in his article, flexibility alone just means you are Gumby. There’s a reason Gumby isn’t a superhero.

Next week we’ll be publishing an article from Donie Fox on ankle mobility. One point he will make is that we blame limited ankle range of motion as a reason why, for example, someone cannot reach a certain squat depth. Take that person to a different movement and the range is there. So why can’t they squat deep? The connection is missing. You don’t just need to have range, but you need to explore range and connect the range. Often this is done through non-mobility exercises, or isolating the issue. They are just helping the athlete get comfortable and better self organize.

Joe P’s mobility rules of thumb

One of the best exchanges I had on mobility this month was with Joe Przytula. His thoracic spine arm drivers are among the mobility sets included in our latest HMMR Classroom video. As Donie discussed in his example, often the range is there but not accessible. I often see athletes with sufficient thoracic spine extension and rotation abilities, but cannot combine them at once (i.e. to reach back and catch a pass while running). He simply made three points to me about how he trains mobility:

  1. Never try to blast your way through a dysfunction or movement restriction. Always exploit the plane the athlete is the most successful in and use it to sneak into the restriction.
  2. Some joints are trouble makers (thoracic spine, hips); some are hit takers (neck, low back).
  3. No joints work in isolation. Rib mobility, for example, has a huge effect on whether the thoracic spine zigs or zags.

It all comes back to connections

That last point from Joe P brings us back to connections. When choosing how to train mobility, focus on connections. I love Steve Myrland’s stick mobility exercises for precisely this reason. The stick serves as a tool to help us focus on and even overload the connections. As he put it to me last year: “the stick connects two potential kinetic links that are almost always disconnected (your hands), creating an additional movement-driver by allowing one hand to push against the other. In this way, you optimize the kinetic chain and enhance both the quantity and quality of movements.” Just compare a supine twist and reach with or without the stick. Your back will tell you the difference immediately. This is where Myrland is right: maybe we can’t measure the difference but you can sure feel the quality step up.