Where to Begin Your Mobility Training?
When starting a mobility program, you can quickly get overwhelmed figuring out where to start and what to do. No ready-made routine will work for everyone, but we can lay out what goals are common to almost everyone, especially BJJ practitioners, and what to start working on.
To get all caught up on this mobility series, you can read the previous articles here:
- Laying the Groundwork for a Mobility Practice
- Myth Busting Stretching
- Starting a Daily Mobility Practice: Controlled Articular Rotations
In a hurry? That third article about Controlled Articular Rotations (CARs) is the most important one for what we’re going to do below.
Where to start?
This is usually pretty easy for most people to answer:
Wherever you feel pain.
Practically everyone who trains BJJ has some sore spots or creaky joints, and they are usually all too eager to tell you about it. Many people find their way to mobility training because they want to solve a pain problem.
The truth is that the painful joints may not even be the most important ones for an athlete’s overall health and performance, but pain has a way of taking all of your attention, and it also messes with motor function, so it has to be checked on first. The squeaky wheel gets the the grease, as the saying goes.
In FRC, a distinction is made between closing angle and opening angle joint pain. Assuming the pain is not too severe, we do not worry too much about opening angle pain, especially when it feels like an uncomfortable deep stretch along the lines of the muscles and connective tissues. You are usually safe to stretch and train through that.
But when we find closing angle pain, we can be dealing with capsular or boney problems that are not so easily pushed through. In those cases, you should be checked out by a doc to rule out the need for surgery or physical therapy. If I found you had closing angle joint pain, I’d refer you to a medical provider who is certified in Functional Range Release, the hands-on therapy side of FAS, but any qualified doctor, physical therapist, or even chiropractor who is experienced with athletes could do the job. We need to rule out anything that would prevent stretching and other training mobility methods from being the right course to take.
But assuming you are not suffering from major pain problems, and you have the OK from your doc, your big priorities tend to be:
The rest of this article will focus on how to start improving these three. We will get into all the other joints in the future, but if you get a good spine and pairs of shoulders and hips, you’re well on your way.
Let’s set goals so we know what we are working towards. With all joints, we want to achieve a state where you have:
- No pain or discomfort
- More than adequate passive and active ranges to meet the demands of BJJ and whatever else you need or want to do in life
- Freedom in all passive ranges that we would expect of a healthy joint
- Active ranges that are very close to your passive ranges
- Independent articulation of each joint with no odd compensations or coupling by other joints
- Strength and control even in the very long or short ranges
With those as our broad goals, let’s talk about how we work towards achieving them for our spine, hips, and shoulders.
Many BJJ players, as well as wrestlers, kickboxers, and MMA fighters, tend to be stuck in chronic spinal flexion -- that is, crunched up, hunched over, head forward, and chest sunken in. This is common because most fight stances or guards have you make yourself more compact to protect your vital organs and your face. The trouble is that we then stay bent over in our day to day lives, where we are likely also sitting at computers or looking down at our cellphones to further reinforce the habit.
Training mobility in the spine is a balance between the seemingly conflicting demands for both segmentation and stability -- being able to move freely, but also being able to resist unwanted movement.
For spinal stability and core endurance, try McGill’s “big three” exercises: curl ups, side planks, and bird dogs, and add “stir the pot” to that, where you rest your arms on an inflatable yoga ball. These are all demonstrated in this video:
For segmentation, you can start with cat/camel poses like McGill recommends. At first, you are OK doing these as big, global movements of your spine. Focus on your pelvis initiating the movement. Think of tucking your tail like a sad dog to go into flexion, and sticking your tail up like a skunk to go into extension.
As you get comfortable with those motions, you can start focusing more on segmentation, where the goal is to get each joint up and down your back to move independently of the next. You want the spine to smoothly hinge at each vertebral joint.
This ability is not something that comes naturally to most people, and it’s hard to feel what’s happening. Have someone watch you from the side or film so you can watch yourself later. Look for any sections of the back that are very stiff and any points that hinge too much (with stiff sections on either side). Also pay attention to your scapula (shoulder blades), because they may be “faking it” by protracting forward and pulling back in the absence of true spinal movement.
You want to break up any “chunking” by doing hinge point training. Here is an example of that:
As your spinal segmentation gets better, we would add rotational movements and look more at your scapula and diaphragm.
In BJJ, we use the word “hips” to talk broadly about everything between your belly button and knees, including your butt, pelvis, and thighs. For our purposes here, when we say “hip,” we are just talking about the ball-and-socket joint where the head of the femur goes into acetabulum of the pelvic bone.
BJJ tends to give everyone more than enough hip flexion and external rotation (think of sitting in butterfly guard), but internal rotation is almost always a problem (think of how your leg turns inward when you get heelhooked), especially for men’s hips.
When doing the standing hips CARs, the common compensations to look for are wobbling and twisting the pelvis around; extending and flexing the lumbar spine to create the illusion of hip movement; leaning and tilting on the standing leg (the hip not being worked on); bending the standing knee; and leaning your upper body forward when trying to extend.
Here's a refresher on hip CARs:
If you, like most BJJers, lack sufficient hip internal rotation, you can try what Samantha shows here:
That is an example of PAIL/RAIL, ab acronym for Progressive/Regression Angular Isometric Loading, which is an FRC protocol for stretching and doing isometric contractions on either side of the stretched joint.
Start with big, slow shoulder CARs. Some minor clicking and popping is normal, but pay attention to any pain, discomfort, or “blocked” ranges. Set yourself up in front of a mirror and watch to make sure you are not compensating by: twisting at your waist or extending your back (look for rib flare); bending your elbow or wrist in awkward ways; hiking your shoulder up towards your ear; tilting your head; or anything that is not just a clear movement of your shoulder joint in a big circle.
This is a basic example of shoulder CARS:
I can almost guarantee your internal and external glenohumeral joint rotation will need help, and here are the PAIL/RAILs for that:
What about the rest of the body?
In future articles, we will get into how to train mobility in your:
- Feet and big toe
- Knees including patella
That’s for later though. You have a lot of homework to get through with what we’ve already laid out above, so get started on that. Leave a comment below or on social media if you have any questions or need help with a certain stretch or exercise and I’ll do what I can!