I admit it – I used to be in foam roller purgatory. I would spend thirty to forty minutes doing foam rolling, banded distracted stretching, and lacrosse ball smashing in the hopes of becoming more “mobile.”
But mobility is more than flexibility. All of the great mobility teachers tell us it is about creating better movement patterns. Here are their thoughts, along with three movement patterns that could replace 90% of your mobility work.
What the Masters of Mobility Have to Say
Kelly Starrett is probably the best known of the mobility masters. When people speak of his website, MobilityWOD, they often talk about stretching with distraction or some sort of foam rolling (maybe on a MobilityWOD Supernova ball). But his seminar is called the Movement and Mobility Trainer Course (in which he spends the first ten minutes talking about movement and explains he couldn’t name his website with both words, mobility and movement). Starrett says the goal of all the mobility work is to have better movement.
Gray Cook is well known for creating the Functional Movement Screen, which is a quick test to identify dysfunctional movement patterns. It has been used extensively in research and with many professional sports teams. The level two FMS certification focuses on correctives for these movement dysfunctions. Most of the correctives are exercises to build proper motor patterns. As stated on the FMS website: “Movement quality is an essential component to reducing the risk of injury and reaching optimal levels of performance.” Thus, there is more of a focus on tying together movements than on stretching or smashing individual muscles.
MovNat, Primal Move and Original Strength focus on movements as a way for people to become better athletes. (Disclaimer: I have not attended a MovNat, PrimalMove or Original Strength workshop and I probably should not lump these very different systems together). MovNat and PrimalMove focus more on movements thought to be evolutionarily important (walking, running, jumping, balancing, crawling, climbing, swimming, lifting, carrying, throwing, and catching). These systems get us outside and performing functional movements in nature.
Original Strength focuses on how we moved when we were younger. Children are known to have great mobility. To move better, we need to reset ourselves by returning to movements we did as children (crawling, rocking, rolling, and nodding). All of these systems place a much greater emphasis on movement patterns than on becoming mobile. The idea is the movement patterns themselves reset our mobility.
So let’s take a cue from these mobility masters. Rather than trying to build mobility, here are three exercises that help with movement patterns.
The Goblet Squat
Credit for this movement goes to Dan John (although prying the knees apart is also a yoga movement). As he tells the story, he had spent a great deal of time trying to fix young athletes’ squats when one day he stumbled upon the goblet squat.
Upon using the movement, he saw a whole room of kids suddenly have perfect squat positions with the chest up and hips opening wide. The weight provides a perfect counterbalance so the body can go straight down into the proper position. It is like magic how instantly the squat pattern almost becomes perfect for a front or overhead squat.
Research backs up doing goblet squats for mobility. Researchers from the University of Limerick (I like the research already) conducted a systematic review of articles and found the eccentric movement (downward movement in the squat) had a greater effect on flexibility than static stretching. There is a complicated explanation as to why this happens. But simply put, the eccentric motion increases the sarcomeres in series within a muscle, making the muscle longer.
“Mobility is more than flexibilty. All of the great mobility teachers tell us it is about creating better movement patterns.”
I now do most of my warm up with the movement I am planning to do that day. If I am squatting, I warm up by squatting. Instead of normal squats, I do long and slow eccentric movements to warm up everything that will be used as I hit heavier weights. Research studies have shown that eccentric movements build greater mobility than stretching.
The Turkish Get-Up
I have read and seen a lot about the benefits of the Turkish get-up, but I was never entirely convinced. Andrew Read claims it as his favorite exercise, but I really had to work to develop a love for it, and it was probably my lack of proficiency that led to my dislike.
RELATED: The Value of the Get-up
I may not be as ardent of a supporter of the get up, but I have grown to see the benefits. The biggest change for me was that I forced myself to do it frequently. Without the frequent practice, I don’t think I would have learned to do it proficiently.
One of the biggest benefits of the get up is that it is like pre-habilitation for my shoulders. That is, I feel like my shoulder joint gets stronger and I avoid injury. On a related note, StrongFirst coach Brandon Hetzler came up with an excellent list of benefits of the Turkish get-up:
- Promotes cross lateralization (getting right brain to work with left side)
- Promotes upper body stability
- Promotes lower body stability
- Promotes reflexive stability of the trunk and extremities
- Ties the right arm to the left leg, and left arm to the right leg
- Gets the upper extremities working reciprocally (legs too)
- Stimulates the vestibular system (one of the three senses that contribute to balance)
- Stimulates the visual system (the second of the senses that contribute to balance)
- Stimulates the proprioception system (third of the three systems that contribute to balance)
- Promotes spatial awareness
- Develops a front/back weight shift
- Develops upper body strength, trunks strength, and hip strength
Below is a great video of coaches Mark Cheng and Gray Cook demonstrating some of the key aspects of the get up:
The Bent Press
As mentioned previously, I have grown fond of the bent press as a mobility drill. It helps build rotational strength, mobility, and coordination. This exercise is the most advanced of my three picks, but it complements the others by hitting areas left out of the other two.
Gray Cook speaks a great deal about how differences in symmetry raise the risk of injury. The bent press, as a single-sided movement can help build more symmetry between the two sides of the body. Surprisingly, it is also good at improving pull ups as the lats need to be engaged throughout the movement.
“Reserch studies have shown that eccentric mobements build greaters mobilty than stretching”
In the video below, you see the old-time strongman showing off his lats, as well as the mobility in his thoracic region. The only person I have seen with that level of thoracic mobility is Kelly Starrett – and I imagine the old-time strongman did not spend hours on the foam roller.
Putting It All Together
Here is a quick-and-dirty warm up that could take care of 90% of your mobility needs:
- 2 goblet squats with a 10 second lowering (stop in sticky spots)
- 1 goblet squat with 20 seconds of prying the knees in the bottom position
- 1 Turkish get up (1 on each side) with a moderate to heavy weight
- 1 bent press (1 each side) with a moderate to heavy weight (70 to 75% of a 1RM)
RELATED: Primal Move Workout #1 (the Warm-up)
Disclaimer: People with medical issues might need to do different movements. In addition, the Turkish get up and bent press are more technical movements that require a good deal of practice to do them properly. Therefore, I would strongly recommend having a qualified professional take a look at your movement.
Foam rolling is great as a self-massage technique. But a massage before a workout is not necessary, and it is probably better suited as a recovery method. So, maybe we are spending too much time on mobility and not enough on movement? The pendulum seems to have swung to a place where people are hyper-focused on mobility. I think we could simplify our mobility work by focusing on the above three movements.
Please agree or disagree feverishly in the comments below or tell me the three movements you would take with you on your deserted island.
1. Kontrogianni-Konstantopoulos, Aikaterini, Maegen A. Ackermann, Amber L. Bowman, Solomon V. Yap, and Robert J. Bloch. 2009. “Muscle Giants: Molecular Scaffolds in Sarcomerogenesis.” Physiological Reviews 89 (4): 1217–67. doi:10.1152/physrev.00017.2009.
2. O’Sullivan, Kieran, Sean McAuliffe, and Neasa DeBurca. “The Effects of Eccentric Training on Lower Limb Flexibility: A Systematic Review.” British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2012.
Photo 1 courtesy of Strength Education.