As a trainer who bases everything I do around movement you’d probably be surprised to know that I’m not really in favour of mobility drills. They were something that used to be a staple part of my business and what I would to prescribe to all my clients. I have arguably more mobility drills in my locker than any trainer out there so you might be wondering why the change of heart and what do I do instead? As part of my education with Faster one of the things that we constantly do is properly critically analyse ourselves and what we do. This is the only way I can guarantee to give my clients the best possible service.
Why do mobility drills suck?
Before I can really answer that I need to look at why people feel the need to do mobility drills or why trainers feel the need to prescribe them. At the end of the day all mobility drills are just exercises and exercise is good for you, so I’m not saying mobility drills are bad per se or that they’ll give you cancer or anything but I just feel the context of why we do mobility work doesn’t add up to what people really need.
I believe mobility drills are an artificial solution to an artificial problem.
So lets look at the real problems people face, and see how the fitness industry has twisted it to sell you mobility work.
Pain and Stiffness
This is probably the main reason why people do mobility drills. Something hurts or feels stiff so you naturally you want to move it or stretch it to make it feel better. So you seek out a mobility expert like me and ask for the best stretch/exercise for this muscle or that joint. You do the exercise, you stretch one muscle or maybe you activate another one and you instantly feel better. What could be wrong/bad about that? You could have also gone for a few beers and it would have had a similar short term effect, but is focusing on mobility work a good long term solution? Maybe it is maybe it’s not, this is the question that I’m trying to figure out.
This need for mobility training falls down tho when we look at what the science says about pain and stiffness. Pain is an output of the brain, it is complex and multifactorial and it is not caused by a lack of range of motion. It is not caused by tight muscles and in fact it would seem that even the feeling of stiffness is also an output of the brain and doesn’t correlate with the actual tightness in the muscle. Tightness and pain would appear to be protective mechanisms created by the central nervous system to make sure you don’t harm yourself. So if the brain is holding a muscle tight to protect it, is it a good thing to stretch or mobilise that muscle or joint. You feel better initially because you’ve been tricked into range of motion again, but the story needs to be compelling enough to ensure you stay this way or you will tighten right up again.
When it comes to pain the context of what you’re doing is very important.
The nervous system is easily tricked into greater range of motion, and I’ve learned a lot of them on many different courses. The first one was at university when we were discussion the effect of visualisation and mental imagery. You can try it, just touch your toes with straight legs. Then spend 3-4 minutes imagining you have gymnast/yogi level flexibility. Imagine folding yourself in half, being able to slam your first through the ground, really believe you can do it. Then open your eyes, touch your toes and you will drop lower than the opening test. It works but it disappears as fast as it arrives. As I progressed through my career I learned more and more ways to trick the nervous system. Techniques like PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation) stretching, foam rolling, trigger point therapy, myo-fascial release techniques, tool assisted massage, assisted dynamic stretching, Kinesio taping and the list goes on. All of them with the aim of improving range of motion.
Which brings me to nicely to mobility work. Bear with me here as this isn’t going to be a black and white topic to cover as there are lots of benefits to exercise and mobility work does count as exercise. Essentially mobility work is training with the goal improving mobility or range of motion. This is a fine goal to have, just not as a cure to pain or stiffness. I personally work on improving my hip mobility and flexibility so I can more easily throw head kicks when I train martial arts. For what I put my body through on a day to day basis then having this kind of flexibility is a good thing for me.
Why not use mobility drills for pain and stiffness?
As I’ve mentioned earlier and something I’ve talked about this quite a lot now but it’s worth repeating. Pain does not steam from the body. There are no such thing as pain receptors, pain is an subjective experience created by the brain to protect you. Kinda like feeling hungry tells your body to go get some food before you die. In essence a lack of mobility is not an immediate threat so why would improving mobility cure your pain? Flip that concept and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that if your nervous system believes the body to be in danger, for example if you had a previous flare up of pain from picking something up from the ground then a lack of mobility would be a wise and appropriate response.
There is a growing and already huge body of evidence that says this about pain and from preliminary studies it would seem that stiffness could be similar in origin. This would explain why bendy people still experience stiffness. If it was due to an actual lack of range of motion then I would feel a lot stiffer than your average yoga teacher but my bet is that most of them feel stiffer than me. I can say that smugly from my couch as I write this feeling pretty supple and loose but when I enter a yoga class I don’t feel quite so superior. Back to the point tho and from my understanding of the origin of pain and stiffness I am now hesitant to prescribe more mobility as a cure.
I have genuinely helped lots of people with mobility drills. Some even say I cured them! What’s going on?
Honestly it’s hard to say exactly how mobility drills have worked. I used to have many theories that were taught to me by various gurus involving fascial lines, releasing trigger points inhibited muscles, some muscles too weak and some too strong. I used to blame dysfunctional movement patterns and then I would ride in and save the day providing the perfect and “correct” sequence of drills that made that person move correctly. I believed I was providing a sacred set of movements that cured pain. Have you ever heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect? I had a fairly serious dose of that so it was a big hit to the ego to find out I was talking a lot of shit.
By challenging my bias and reading a lot I discovered that most of my theories and stories were bullshit, even taking a stroll into the realm of quackery. There was a pretty humbling moment in there somewhere where I realised I was selling some pretty strong placebos. Whilst many seem happy to just say if it helps then what’s the harm, this wasn’t good enough for me the same way that it wouldn’t be good enough if a doctor offered homeopathy as a treatment plan for something that was potentially serious.
What do I know now?
At this point I want to say that I don’t really know. I truly wish I had an answer as I love helping people with what I do but the field of pain science is an ongoing one and new discoveries are being made as we speak. We don’t know everything about the human brain, and pain is hugely wrapped up in brain function. I don’t know and I’m learning to be ok with that. I would strongly advice to be wary of anyone that claims that they do. Anyone who says they know exactly what’s going on is either lying or they’re not even aware of how little they know. Be wary the therapist that just knows, who is intuitive about these kinds of things. I was that guy and I was, albeit unknowingly full of shit.
I think the success of my programs where nothing to do with the exercises I came up with and was more to do with me being a good coach. I’m good at really listening to people, understanding what they say, figuring out what they need and then subsequently good at getting them to move better. The mobility drill is just a random task, I could choose any exercise here. It just needs to be something my clients couldn’t do to begin with and then with some quality coaching and encouragement in a completely safe environment I got people to do more than they thought possible. I became a compelling story teller (in the areas of movement and anatomy) and by connecting how these tasks related to the real world and how they would now be able to move in better ways avoiding pain. It was enough proof for my clients to go out and expect less pain when they moved. The evidence does indicate that expecting pain will likely cause pain so my stories reduced the expectation of pain and combine that with the act of exercising regularly again, not only on the physical benefits that everyone is aware of but also the mental health benefits of training. I brought people to a much more positive place where they could really overcome their pain.
So my problem with mobility drills aren’t the drills. They give people purpose and something to focus on and improvement is always good. However the story that comes with the drill is really important, the context of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it really matters. Pain (and seemingly stiffness) is an output of the brain so context is crucial and if you develop the narrative that you’re stiff or in pain due to a biomechanical fault can create a new cycle of pain based upon a craving for mobility.
I’m not in touch with all the people I’ve helped, I’ve helped hundreds of people at this stage and I simply don’t know whether or not the pain returned after I finished working with them. Most people who saw me had already seen a decent number of other therapists who failed to help. Maybe they didn’t call me back because they added me to the list of failed systems and what I do doesn’t work. Whereas had I taught from my now updated and more scientifically accurate story that pain is like an alarm system then they would hopefully understand that life can be threatening and having an alarm system is beneficial, then maybe I would have had even more success. Anecdotes are not data and I would love to say that they definitely did but I have no way to know if my drills helped in the long run or not.
Making pain disappear for an afternoon or even a few weeks is easy, changing it completely is a different story. It’s kinda like the difference between weather and climate. It doesn’t matter that the weather changes from day to day, pain can come and go but climate change is a pretty big deal and can have big repercussions on someones life. I feel like mobility drills might be a bit like changing the weather, a week in the sun might be nice but we should be focusing on climate change.