Laying the Groundwork for a Mobility Practice [Part 1]

In 2016, I wrote what remains one of my most popular posts ever, a guide to injury prevention and rehab titled Jiu-Jitsu Will Destroy You If You Let It: How I Finally Started Fixing My Broken Body. That still holds up today and I recommend reading it if you have not already.

At the end of that post, I talked about how I was starting to get into Functional Range Conditioning, a joint health and mobility training system. Since that time, I have become certified in FRC and the Functional Range Assessment. I wrote about FRC in a 2017 post titled Functional Range Conditioning and Kinstretch from the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Perspective.

In this first installment in my series on mobility training, we will address these topics and clear up some confusion, including:

  • Common posture and joint issues faced by BJJ practitioners
  • The differences between flexibility and mobility
  • When to stretch and how to get warmed up to train
  • How much mobility training can mitigate injuries
In future posts, we we get into the specific method of improving mobility, but let’s start with the basics so we can all be on the same page with regards to what the goals of a joint care routine will be and how we’ll achieve them.

Let’s start with the first big question:

What stresses are you putting on your body?

Your body tissues and your nervous system adapt to the stresses you put on them, and the more often or more forcefully they are stressed, the more they will adapt to handle those stresses for the future.

Training BJJ is the most obvious stress most of the readers put their bodies through. Your workout (e.g. CrossFit, lifting, circuit training, etc.) puts demands on you. Activities like bike riding, kayaking, rock climbing, etc. do, too.

You also have more passive stresses like sitting all day and the habitual postures you adopt. The force is not high but so much time is spent in a narrow range of positions that the body will adapt to maintain these over others.

Even in the absence of acute injuries, most jiu-jiteiros will complain about stiff joints, sore muscles, and lingering ill effects of past injuries.

Read this list and check off anything that applies to you:
  • Slouched, hunched posture
  • Shoulders rounded forward
  • Pinchy shoulder
  • Stiff, sore neck
  • Head sticks forward
  • Tight hip flexors
  • Tight hamstrings
  • Duck feet
  • Flat footed
  • Crappy knees
  • Stiff ankles
  • Jammed toes
  • Aching fingers
  • Sore elbows
  • Clicking wrists

Odds are high you checked off more than a few of those complaints. BJJ may be good for your heart and mind, but it will wreck your joints. Even just a good, simple exercise routine may counteract some of these problems, but with the tendency for jiu-jiteiros to overtrain BJJ at the expense of their body, it pays to know how to keep yourself together and deal with the aches and pains that are somewhat unique to BJJ.

The first step towards fixing these problems is recognizing they are problems but that they are not untreatable and that you do not have to needlessly suffer to do BJJ. Being 100% injury and pain free may not be possible in a combat sport, but you do not need to live with all those little nagging aches and pains.

The goal of a mobility routine would be to reduce and eliminate pain, improve the health of the joints and connective tissues, and increase your range of motion and ability to gracefully express movement with strength and control.

What’s the difference between flexibility and mobility?

Flexibility is the total possible range of motion of a joint, even if achieved with outside forces like gravity or a partner stretching you.

Mobility is the range of motion that you can control under your own power.

Stated simply:

Flexibility includes passive ranges.

Mobility is only active ranges.
MOBILITY = FLEXIBILITY + STRENGTH & CONTROL
Flexibility is an aspect of mobility, because obviously you need as passive range to exist to be able to actively use some portion of it.

Why does this difference matter?

Splitting these terms apart lets us be more goal oriented when we select stretches and exercises. A lot of what passes for “mobility training” is actually flexibility training or something else altogether like movement skills. This distinction will become more important when we get into selecting stretches and exercises for achieving specific goals like improving the health of a joint or strengthening connective tissue.

What limits flexibility?

When someone has an issue like “tight hamstrings” and they are told to stretch, they may imagine it’s as if they had a size small hamstring installed on their size large leg, and the goal of stretching is to literally stretch the muscle out so it’s longer. Following this logic, you do a few short stretches (maybe 10-20 seconds), and you feel more limber and it seems like you can stretch a little farther, so that’s that. Except the next day, your hamstrings are back to being as tight as ever.

In many cases (if not most), what limits your range of motion is the nervous system and its safety mechanisms like the stretch reflex, not “tissue length.” Your nervous system can restrict your movement and make you “tight” when it does not trust you can handle going any further. That is what most of us run into when we stretch tight muscles.

You can also have restrictions like boney blocks, scar tissue, junked up joint capsules, pain problems, which are issues you would want to take up with a doctor or physical therapist, or find a Functional Range Release practitioner.

Is mobility gained by doing “animal” movements like crawling, Ginástica Natural, “functional patterns,” etc.?

Many exercise systems aim to improve mobility (though they may define it differently than I do here), and they all probably help with it to some degree. Jiu-jiteiros (and that includes me) love crawling around, tumbling, and doing novel movements or solo grappling drills instead of traditional programs. A problem with these movement practices is that they may fail to counteract the overtraining caused by BJJ, sometimes instead only reinforcing the same issues, or they are not specific enough to target specific problems. My bias toward FRC is because it focuses on creating healthy joints and connective tissue (as opposed to max strength, cardio, or other physical traits) which is where BJJ causes most of its damage on the body.

Is mobility gained by rolling on lacrosse balls, foam rollers, and other self-myofascial release tools?

Largely due to CrossFit’s Kelly Starrett and his MobilityWOD, the BJJ world got into all the rolling and smashing on “mobility” tools to work out sore spots and tight muscles. Many of these “mobilization” techniques can cause fast changes to ranges of motion or pain levels. The question still remains if they are really doing what we think they are doing (such as voodoo band flossing and foam rolling) but many have experienced improvements from doing them, myself included.

Back to the question, do these improve mobility as defined above as the ability to actively control a range of motion? The answer is likely no, if all you do is smash and stretch the tissue without progressing to active exercises that have the goal of incorporating the newly acquired range. If you just roll or stretch briefly as a band-aid to the soreness and tightness you feel from training BJJ, you should not expect lasting changes or improvements.

Can stretching prevent injuries?

Static stretching (i.e. going to your end range and holding the pose) before rigorous physical activity does not seem to prevent injury and may sometimes make the risk worse. This runs contrary to how many BJJ schools start their classes and decades of PE coaches warning kids what will happen if they do not stretch before playing sports, but that’s what the research indicates.

A little light stretching before training may feel good and there is probably little harm in that if you are not training too hard, but most modern experts would have you do more active warm-ups or dynamic stretches and get your heart rate and body temperature up before training or competing and save the stretches for another time.

Stretching does have its uses though, just not as warm-ups and short term injury prevention. Long, static stretches can be used to gain larger range of motions, especially when used in combination with strengthening exercises like isometrics. FRC has a protocol based on this called PAIL/RAILs that combines long stretches and isometrics on both sides of the stretched joint. In future installments, we will talk more about these and other exercises that can fix common problems caused by doing BJJ.

Can stretching treat pain or heal injuries?

Some evidence points to stretching having a pain killing effect by changing the pain threshold in the nervous system. That’s not to say it’s appropriate for treating injuries or chronic pain problems. You should get those checked out by an appropriately qualified medical professional, not a BJJ blogger like me. But when you feel a general sense of soreness and stretching helps relieve it, that’s likely what you experience.

While on the topic of pain, you should know that it’s a big and weird subject that is full of misconceptions and where truth is often stranger than fiction. I wrote about this in a post titled The Weird Science of Pain and the Brain. The short story is that pain does not always mean injury (and vice versa) and many factors affect pain perception, such as your psychology, your beliefs about pain and injuries, nervous system sensitization, and more. Pain -- especially chronic, recurring, or persistent pain -- is a complex topic, but if you suffer from it, you should look deeper into it.

We are cutting today’s post here, but as the series continues, we will give examples of mobility practices you can start doing on your own, and how to address problems common to BJJ athletes.

So how do I start improving my mobility?

Sorry to be a tease but you’ll have to wait until next time! We will get into the basic daily routine you should be doing, and how to start targeting your biggest problem areas.

Until then, if you have any specific questions that were not addressed above or that you hope we can get to in the future, please leave a comment below or on Facebook.
Matt Kirtley

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