When to Mobilize

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A popular question. When is THE BEST time to mobilize? My response has usually been “play around with timing and see what works best for you.” Unless you plan to do a bunch of holding stretches or serious abdomen/psoas work (both should still be done after or nowhere near your workout time), I gave people  a lot of freedom when to mobilize as long as you took the time to warm up properly before your workouts. This past weekend I the privilege to re-do my CrossFit Mobility certification with Roop Sihota who is part of the Mobility WOD team. I have learned so much from Kelly Starrett in the last few years and continue to, but it was cool to get a refreshment of movement and mobility from a new brain. Roop is very similar to Kelly, but also has diffferent opinions and a great way of presenting this information to various levels of knowledge from clinicians to athletes. Without re-presenting the information (which I legally can’t do and would rather you take the course yourself), I’d like to share my new perspective on when to mobilize based on what I learned this last weekend and my experience working with athletes.

Starting off with what happens to your body when you mobilize….

Soft tissue mobilization is when you use the foam roller, lacrosse ball, kettlebell, barbell, or any other tool/person to help move soft tissue. Try to break up “The Fuzz.” This can be skin, connective tissue, muscle, tendon, nerve, blood vessel or organ. Or all at once, like laying on a soft ball in your abdomen! The goal with this is to get the tissues moving so they can work properly. Getting blood flow into areas that may be stagnant from inflammation, poor positioning, pain, poor breathing, etc. Areas that aren’t moving don’t get adequate blood flow, and in turn are starved of nutrients that are needed to keep the tissues healthy. Mobilizing these tissues helps to improve blood flow and nutrients to the area, as well as normalizing the tissue back to it’s healthy position (whether it has scar tissue built up or has just been constantly contracting AKA spasm because of pain/overuse). This is why we do soft tissue mobilization. And when we do, part of our autonomic system (auto meaning out of our control) kicks in that causes us to relax so that we can get all the benefits. This is called the parasympathetic system, opposite of the sympathetic system which gets us pumped up to work out. Or run away from a bear chasing us. So the constant pressure on your tissues creates a relaxation response in the body. [1]

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Banded joint mobilization is when you use the strength bands to create distraction of the joint. This distraction helps in a few ways. It helps to put a joint back in place if it has been hanging out in the wrong spot (think of your arm bone sitting forward because you’ve been slouching all day). Putting the joint back in place helps the muscles work the way they are supposed too. Helping to relax the one’s that have been working really hard to keep your joint in place, and activating the one’s that are supposed to be working to keep your joint in place. Since the band puts the joint back in place, you will find that you can get a deeper stretch, which is why it’s usually a good idea to stretch with a band whenever possible. Lastly, the band helps to get into the little muscles surrounding joints as well as the joint capsule to help improve joint range of motion. Getting into the joint like this improves blood flow and nutrients to the joint, helping to reduce any pain and keep the joint healthy. [2]

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Spinal mobilization using the lacrosse balls, foam roller or other tools. There are joints in between each vertebrae, as well as on the side of each vertebrae. You can achieve more mobility using a single ball or two balls taped together (or in a sock). The foam roller will give more of a global, large scale mobilization, where the balls will be more specific to each joint. Either way, same at with the banded mobilization you are increasing blood flow, unlocking stiff joints and getting your body into better positions. Mobilizing the spine activates the parasympathetic nervous system (like soft tissue mobilization) by relaxing the sympathetic nervous system which has it’s home base in the spine. [3]

Static Stretching muscles helps to relax the muscles and get them into the most ideal position. You are not actually gaining length in the muscle! The only way to increase muscle length is through eccentric strengthening exercise. Stretching also creates a parasympathetic response, but it depends on how long you hold a stretch for. 2 minutes seems to be the general recommendation for minimum dose to actually gain a response in the muscle.

Then when to do what…

Soft tissue mobilization should be done done after you work out and/or before bed. Why not use the parasympathetic response of the body to bring your body back down to baseline after your workout and help you relax before bed so you can sleep well. Does this means never do this type of work before a workout? It’s just not a good time because we want the sympathetic system activated to work hard for use. But if you find that there’s a spot you really have to get at before your workout, make sure it’s well before your warm-up time and ensure that you warm-up really well afterwards to get that sympathetic system activated. You can do some light, specific foam rolling to help get blood flowing to areas of the body that will be working, but make sure this is not just your excuse to be social before the workout rather than using your time wisely to prepare. There are usually better options to warm-up.

Mobilize your soft tissue with friends after your workouts!
Mobilize your soft tissue with friends after your workouts!

Banded joint mobilization can be done anytime! But is especially great to prep for a workout. We want our joints in the right position for a workout so that our muscles can move efficiently. That is what the band is for. I always like to hit my hips and shoulders with a band before workouts, as well as….

Spinal mobilization! Even though this can stimulate the parasympathetic response, I find that everyone (including myself) gets stiff in the thoracic spine. And the importance of having the thoracic spine moving, mainly into extension because that’s what most people lack, is essential for  many different forms of exercise. Lower body, upper body, forward movements, sideways movements, twisting movements, etc. All requires the lovely thoracic spine to move so why not loosen this area up before working out. My recommendation would to just find 2-3 spots to work on and then get into a good warm-up. If you are working on this after your workout or before bed, by all means hit every level of the spinal cord. And enjoy every last bit of the relaxation that you will reach afterwords:) Otherwise the better movement in your thoracic spine is worth the momentary relaxation.

Stretching. If you have a band around your joint and are stretching, go ahead and do it before working out as long as you hold for 2min and no longer. Holding for longer will decrease your strength potential. And again, there are just better options that holding stretches longer, like getting your blood flowing and doing dynamic movements that will mimic your workout. I would save most of your stretching for afterwards. Research suggests that holding longer than 45seconds can decrease your strength potential [4,5], which is why I like to save most of it for afterwards. Doing contract-relax will help your stretches be more effective! And make sure you know why you’re stretching so you know if you actually need it, because a lot of people would benefit more from the mobilizations above. Read Eric Cressey’s insight on “15 Static Stretching Mistakes.”[6]

More bonding with friends doing contract-relax stretching
More bonding with friends doing contract-relax stretching

As you can see, this topic is not black and white. Research continues to change the way we think about movement, exercise, injury prevention, etc. I think the take home is to try things out and learn what YOUR body needs. And you won’t know what you need until you explore your body and find it’s restrictions. So play around with it! And if you have certain things that work for you please share in the comments below:)

References:

1. Young-Hee Lee, et al. The Effects of Heat and Massage Application on Autonomic Nervous System. Yonsei Med J. 2011 November 1; 52(6): 982–989

2. Bretcher J and Sueki D. Orthopedic Clinical Rehabilitation Clinical Advisor. 2010

3. EJ Hegedus, et al. The neurophysiological effects of a single session of spinal joint mobilization: does the effect last? J Man Manip Ther. Aug 2011; 19(3): 143–151.

4. JC Gergley, et al. Acute effect of passive static stretching on lower-body strength in moderately trained men. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Apr;27(4):973-7

5. L. Simic. Does pre-exercise static stretching inhibit maximal muscular performance? A meta-analytical review. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2013 Mar;23(2):131-48

6. “15 Static Stretching mistakes” by Eric Cressey

4 thoughts on “When to Mobilize

  1. How often can you mobilize your lumbar spine with the double lacross balls? Are you going to damage soft tissue by mobilizing it every day for a week?

    1. Hey CrossFit PRC. A lot depends on the health of your tissues in that area. Use your judgement and if you start to feel/see bruising in that area lay off for a few days. I find that my body responds better to using the Yoga Tune Up balls in that are because they are softer and I can actually get in deeper without bruising the bone. If you haven’t used those ball before I would highly recommend them. I actually never use the lacrosse ball over the yoga tune up ball when working near my spine…….doesn’t mean the lax balls aren’t helpful it’s just what I’ve found to be more beneficial with myself and my patients. Hope that helps! Let me know if you have any further questions.

      1. Thanks so much for this response! It is surprisingly hard to find on the internet or even in Starrett’s book how often one can mobilize soft tissue without harming it. I like your answer that everyone is different, and I suppose that answer is implicit in all the videos and articles out there on mobility, so no one says it, but thanks for letting me know. I’ll get some of those ytu balls. Working my way down from my mid thoracic to lower lumbar I usually take about 10 minutes. Is this way too long or just right? Sorry for these noob questions, but it can be hard to find answers to them without working with a specialist.

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