Let’s make a bet. I guarantee if you walked into any CrossFit box across the country and asked the first 10 people you saw to define the word mobility, you would walk away with 10 different answers. If I’m wrong, I’ll do 15 burpees, scout’s honor. Defining mobility is tricky. Just like when someone asks “so what’s CrossFit?”, mobility can be difficult to explain. I guess you can say it has a flexible definition.
Thankfully, CrossFit itself has its own superstar mobility guru in Kelly Starrett to provide his own all-encompassing definition:
“Mobilization is a movement-based integrated full-body approach that addresses all the elements that limit movement and performance including short and tight muscles, soft tissue restriction, joint capsule restriction, motor control problems, joint range of motion dysfunction, and neural dynamic issues. In short, mobilization is a tool to globally address movement and performance problems.”
Boy, that’s a mouthful. Thankfully, the real crux of the definition is in the first section. Maybe the reason mobility is so hard to define is because it’s not really one thing in particular. Stretching isn’t mobility. Foam rolling isn’t mobility. Hanging from a band isn’t mobility either. It is all mobility – and so much more. Like Kelly said, an integrated system to help restore proper movement and, in return, better performance – which in the end is something we all want.
And what better way to maximize on performance than by focusing on those areas of mobility that need to be shown some love from time to time, but are often forgotten. Areas like the hamstrings, quadriceps, and shoulders get all the attention, as they oftentimes should. But if these are the only areas you’re paying attention to, then you’re missing a huge piece of the puzzle. These are the unsung heroes.
Ankles and Calves
The ankle, along with the calf and achilles, is a pretty obvious starting point in my mind. Just think about it: in any given day at the gym, how many miles do you think you put into that complex? Box jumps, jump rope, running, snatches and cleans – not to mention the 10,000 steps the average person takes per day – are all heavily reliant on a fully functioning ankle and calf complex. The bigger issue at hand is that these muscles are made – quite literally built – to take this level of abuse. Which in turn causes people to neglect taking care of this area until something traumatic happens. To borrow an example from Kelly Starrett: it’s like driving a car without ever getting an oil change and then being shocked when the engine explodes.
Mobility Drills For The Ankle and Calf
Taking a seated position on the floor, position a foam roller or barbell under the calf or heel cord. Because of the nature of the muscle, adding weight is essential, either by placing opposite leg or something like a sandbag on top of the active leg. Make sure to roll the entire length of the muscle, including side to side, as well as range of motion at the ankle through those sticky spots.
Loop one end of a band around a stationary object, like the base of the rig, and the other end right above your foot around the ankle. Step out to get a big stretch in the band. Elevate your forefoot by placing it on a plate or wall while keep your heel in contact with the ground. Drive your knee forward and out going in and out of peak tension.
Wrists and Forearms
It’s interesting to consider the wrist and forearm as second on this list because the wrist and forearm are basically the ankle and calf of the arm. And coincidently, the same issues apply. Again, just think about it. How often do you have a barbell or kettlebell in your hands? If not that, then how often are you hanging from the rings or pull up rig — almost every class? Well, it’s your forearm that absorbs the brunt of that abuse. It’s something that’s easy to overlook because, just like your calves, they were made to handle this workload. They tend to go wholly ignored until it hurts to hold a barbell in the front rack, or overhead during a snatch or until your elbows flare up after compensating for a lack of range of motion in your wrist. It goes without saying that having a healthy and fully functioning wrist and forearm complex is vital in almost every barbell movement and needs to be taken care of.
Mobility Drills For The Wrist and Forearm
Get down on your hands and knees. Loop a thin band around a stationary object, like the base of the rig and the other end just above your hand over your wrist. Move your hand away from the rig, fingertips forward and get a big stretch in the band. From here, use your non-banded hand to pin down your banded hand as you work in and out of end range of motion.
Laying down on the floor, take a barbell and place it the collar on your forearm palm up. From here, roll the entire length of the forearm adding range of motion at the wrist through the sticky spots. Repeat with palm facing down.
I don’t know if this area falls under the category of ‘neglected’ as much as it should be considered ‘misunderstood.’ The hardest part of mobility is honing in on the actual deficiency. That’s why Kelly Starrett calls for a full body approach — if a person can’t straighten their arms over their head, is it a shoulder issue? Is it a lat or upper back issue? It can be any number of things. Oftentimes, I see T-spine issues being mistaken for shoulder issues. For example, if the shoulder blades are unable to retract properly, then the arms cannot fully extend overhead causing pain or discomfort in the front of the shoulder. This causes people to misdiagnose themselves with a shoulder injury and, in turn, waste time trying to mobilize their shoulders rather than understand and attack the root of the problem in their upper back.
Thoracic spine mobility should be an automatic go-to for most people when they get in the gym — especially if you work a desk job, have a history of long distance running, biking or anything that lends itself to falling into that ‘hunched over’ position day after day. Maintaining a healthy T-spine clears up many issues at the shoulders as well as allowing for better positioning in pressing movements, pull ups and during your front rack.
Mobility Drills For The Thoracic Spine
Anchored T-Spine with Barbell or Kettlebell
Laying down, position a foam roller over your thoracic spine or upper back. Lifting your hips slightly off the ground, reach back with arms fully extended grabbing a barbell or kettlebell placed on the ground behind you. From here, without overextending in you lower back, slightly lower your hips until you feel a stretch. Here’s an image to see how it’s done.
Laying on your back, position a lacrosse ball on the inside of your shoulder blade towards your spine. From here, fully extend your arm overhead, and keeping your arm straight, move it diagonally across your body towards the opposite hip. Repeat a few times before moving the lax ball trying to trace the outside of your shoulder blade.
In my personal experience, mobility isn’t pleasant — in fact, far from it. Consider the fact that you’re actively trying to undue all the damage you’ve done to yourself over the course of a lifetime. Sometimes you have to travel deep into the pain cave on a consistent basis to illicit real and lasting change. Which brings me to my next point: understand that mobility shouldn’t just be used as rehab but also as pre-hab.
I talked about this briefly when addressing the issues with the wrist and ankle – don’t let an issue become an issue in the first place. Don’t wait until something goes wrong to start taking care of it, be proactive! Dedicating a few minutes each day, accumulates to a lot of time over the course of a month or year. Every little bit helps in the long run. If the goal of CrossFit is to enjoy a higher quality of life throughout your life and to old age, mobility may be the foundation that makes that goal a reality.