Starting a Daily Mobility Practice: Controlled Articular Rotations [Part 3]

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is good for your heart and mind, but it’s bad for your joints. It’s time you learned how to counteract that and build a healthier body.

In Part 1 and Part 2 in this series, we cleared up common myths about stretching and made the case for why jiu-jiteiros need a mobility practice to balance out the wear and tear that BJJ puts on their bodies. Here in Part 3, we are going to show what a basic mobility training looks like and how you can start doing it today.

In Functional Range Conditioning (the mobility system I’m trained in that’s been the basis for this series), we start with the research on the biology of connective tissue, how the nervous system generates movements, and how stretching and exercises affects tissue. To summarize the key points:

  • Your body prioritizes repairing and improving tissues that you use frequently.
  • Conversely, anything you do not use will not be well maintained.
  • Your nervous system gets worse at controlling ranges you do not use often.
  • Using a body part more improves your nervous system’s command over it.
  • You gradually “lose” a range of motion the longer you neglect to use it.
  • The connective tissues of the joint capsules are nourished by movement.
  • Joint rotation is the best way to get at the deep capsular tissue.
  • The brain prioritizes signals from the joint capsule as high priority.
  • Your body lays down much of its connective tissue early in the morning after waking up.
  • Directional forces in tissue guide how new connective tissue is laid down.
  • High tension and neural drive tell the body to really pay attention to any area.

From that, we can say that a daily routine where you move each of your joints through all their ranges of motion under tension would give your body the stimulus it needs to maintain and improve your joints and sharpen your control over them. In Functional Range Conditioning, we teach a practice that does just that called Controlled Articular Rotations, or CARs for short.

As the cliche goes, “use it or lose it.” If you want to keep “it” -- whether “it” is a range of motion, motor control, strength, flexibility, etc. -- then you have to use it. Your body is not going to waste its energy and resources maintaining stuff you do not use.

Most of us spend our days in only a few positions, mostly sitting, just standing up to walk somewhere else to sit down again, then laying down in bed all night. Somewhere in there we go to BJJ and get crunched up into awkward positions and have people yank on all our limbs.

To get your body to repair itself and keep your joints and connective tissues healthy, you need to put the right stimulus/stress into it. How you dose out this stress -- when you give it, how much, how long, etc. -- affects how your body adapts to it. Whenever you find you are tight or inflexible in some way, ask yourself how often do you really demand that range of motion from your body. Odds are high that you don’t use it 99% of the time, so why would your body care about the 1% of the time you suddenly demand it?

Frequent CARs, even done at a low intensity, will do more to keep your joints healthy and feeling good than sporadic stretching or dropping into a yoga class once a week. With daily CARs, you are telling your body “I want to use all my joints throughout all their ranges so keep it all in good working order.”

How do you do CARs?

While working with a FRC mobility specialist in person would be ideal, you can get started with tutorial videos.

First up is Samantha Faulhaber. Sam is a BJJ black belt, a Panda Nation grappler, and proud holder of almost every FRC/FR certification. Here she is leading a 10 minute follow-along daily CARs routine:

Next up is Ian Markow. Everything on Ian’s YouTube channel is worth watching, but start with this in-depth 26 minute CARs guide:

You can find more detailed explanations of each joint’s CARs by searching YouTube. What you watched here are the best ways to get started, but you can get into many variations as you get the hang of it.

Why not just call them “joint circles”?

“Joint circles” is usually taken to mean quick, light movements like swinging and shaking your limbs out. Those movements are fine for loosening up, but they do not give the type of continuous tension and neural drive we are aiming to generate during CARs.

Let’s break down that name:

Controlled: Purposeful, deliberate, and smooth
Articular: Dealing with articulations AKA joints
Rotations: Rotational movements, ideally through end ranges of motion

Andreo Spina defines CARs as “active rotational movements at the outer limits of articular motion.”

Calling them “joint circles” sells them short. Depending on how you do CARs, you can use them for a wide variety of purposes, such as:

  • A daily morning joint care routine
  • A self-diagnostic to see how you are feeling and moving each day
  • A warm-up before training, working out, or competing
  • An “active rest” exercise to do between sets or between rounds of sparring
  • A way to “check in” with your body after training
  • A good way to take breaks when you have been sitting or inactive for too long
  • A low intensity way to encourage healing after injuries
  • A high intensity way to increase active ranges of motion

As a beginner to this, your best bet is starting with the whole body morning routine at low-to-medium tension. You can try the medium-to-high tension versions later in the day, perhaps before training or during your workout.

Irradiation and tension

Speaking of tension, the concept of irradiation is a very important aspect of FRC that you will need to acquaint yourself with to do CARs and other mobility exercises properly. By irradiation, we are referring to how a muscle contracting hard enough will recruit surrounding muscles to contract too, and how a muscle can contract more fully when surrounding muscles contract too.

  • Whole body tension eliminates a lot of the wobbliness that can hide how well the target joint works.
  • Tension in surrounding muscles drives more juice into the muscles we are using to move the joint, thereby increasing our control over it.
  • Generating all that tension puts stress on the nervous system, which forces it to adapt so as to be more efficient at generating that much tension in the future.

Examples of irradiation or tension building techniques:

  • Bracing your core and flexing your abs like you’re about to take a cannonball to the gut
  • Squeezing your fists tight or holding a kettlebell, tennis ball, or small dumbell
  • Flexing your glutes, locking out your knees, flexing your quads
  • Locking your arm to your side and squeezing your armpit tight
  • Gripping the floor with your feet and “screwing” your feet into the ground
  • Squeezing yoga blocks between your knees or hugging a block to your chest
  • Dorsiflex your foot and toes (drawing them up like you do with butterfly guard hooks)

You won’t necessarily be able to follow all of these cues for every kind of CARs, but just understand you want to find ways to generate tension throughout your body (up to the desired intensity level). In particular, your body pays attention to tension in the core, hands, and glutes.

What are you checking for during CARs?

Do you feel any pain or pinching? If so, where in the movement? What side of the joint is it on?

Do you feel anything unpleasant, but not necessarily painful? For example, stiffness, tightness, mild discomfort, cramping, “weirdness,” weakness, crunching, cracking, popping, grinding, or jerky/shaky movements?

Do other body parts that are not the target joint move, too? For example, when you reach your arm overhead and backwards to do the shoulder CARs, does your elbow bend, your torso twist, your hips turn, your head lean, or anything else that’s not just clean movement at your shoulder joint?

What is the biggest range of motion you feel good about? Can you expand into a bigger range on your next rep? Can you get more rotation out of the joint if you try a little harder?

What is the overall quality of the movement? Are you straining or do you do you move with grace, control, and ease?

You may not be able to answer all of these questions doing this alone. You will be surprised how little body awareness you have once you get very picky about how strictly you do CARs. I know I thought I was doing CARs pretty well until I went to an FRC seminar and FRC instructors pointed out all the cheats and compensations I was not even aware I was doing.

You can do CARs in front of a mirror or film yourself for review (send it to me if you do!) If you live near a FRCms, they would be more than happy to review your CARs practice and point out any mistakes you may not even be aware you are making. Sam has a membership site I recommend for people who want to develop a mobility practice with her via the internet.

Do not train through pain

Do not grit your teeth and mindlessly push through pain when doing CARs. Pain can be a sign that something worse is wrong, and pain changes how the nervous system treats movement.

When you feel pain, pay attention to what side of the joint it is on during the movement. Pain on the closing side of the joint (that’s to say on the side that you are moving into, where the joint angle is getting smaller) usually means you want to go see a specialist who can figure out if it is a more serious problem that needs medical treatment.

Pain on the opening side (where joint angle is getting bigger) is usually not as scary, especially if it just feels like a very unpleasant stretch, and you are likely safe training through it.

If only a certain range of motion hurts, you can do as much of the pain-free CARs as possible, then dodge the painful range and go around it. You can try doing smaller ranges of motion or lower tension CARs. Anything is better than nothing, assuming you aren’t hitting a pain wall. Frequent light movements can be surprisingly effective.

That concludes your introductions to Controlled Articular Rotations. In the future, we will get into more of the nitty gritty of each joint and its common problems, but for now, I want you to start a daily CARs routine when you get up for the day and as many more times throughout the day as you can fit in. Keep that up for a month and let me know how you felt before and how you feel after.

As always, drop any questions you have in the comments below and I will do my best to answer them!

Matt Kirtley


Matt Kirtley

Hi Matt

Very good article!

Is there research about the fact that the body lays down much of its connective tissue early in the morning after waking up? I’m very interested in it!

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