By Joe Cavallaro, O2X On-site Human Performance Specialist
Simple drills for mobility can make a profound difference in the health, career, and life of tactical athletes. Most people are aware that it’s beneficial to maintain some sort of mobility routine, but may fall short when deciding how and when to actually get that mobility work done.
Tactical athletes’ jobs often demand the need to move in and out of a variety of unnatural positions and postures, often while wearing cumbersome gear and carrying heavy equipment. The ability to achieve and function in these positions means there is a benefit to improving your mobility. In addition to improving the movement qualities of tactical athletes, mobility sessions provide opportunities to focus on breathing, reflection, and relaxation. You can make your mobility sessions practical and productive.
What is Mobility
Before getting into the specifics, you may be asking yourself, “So what is mobility?” Mobility can be divided into two components – joint range of motion and muscle flexibility. Joint range of motion is the total amount of motion that a joint can move through. This can be influenced by inflammation and pain-related joint stiffness or ligament laxity. Muscles cross over joints and need to be able to change their length. When they are weak, fatigued, or tight they can be resistant to lengthening, especially under additional load. A muscle that is resistant to lengthening is limited in its flexibility and, in turn, can limit motion at the joint it crosses.
Mobility drills can be performed as a standalone session, as a part of your warm-up prior to working out, or even during a workout. In my own practice I like to utilize longer mobility sessions on recovery days, and I’ll take two or three drills before each workout that are specific to areas I have injured before or that I know will be key components during my workout sessions.
When completed pre-workout these drills help me ensure I don’t have any limitation in muscle flexibility or joint range of motion that can limit my performance or increase injury risk. They also help me tune into my body to ensure that I am ready for the day’s training session. Taking this time before a training session is key to assess my level of recovery and readiness to train hard. If I find excessive or unusual push-back from a specific area indicating limited recovery relative to my previous workouts and the potential for a flaring of an old injury I may choose to alter the workout movement or intensity.
On recovery days I can utilize a full mobility and recovery session to check in from head to toe. Check out the 10-minute routine that incorporates drills I use to optimize my movement on recovery days or before working out.
10-Minute Mobility Routine
Neck stretches often focus on relieving the upper traps to try to reduce forward head and forward shoulder posture. Consider that there are also muscles in front of your neck that run from the base of the back side of your skull and your jaw down to your collarbones and scapula. Muscles like the scalenes and sternocleidomastoid can play a significant role in neck and jaw pain as well as headaches. To stretch these muscles, sit or stand tall, keep your mouth firmly closed and tip your head back to look upward as far as you can. When you are looking straight up, try tipping or rotating your head side to side while maintaining full extension.
The ball-and-socket shoulder is a dynamic joint that needs to be capable of moving well in all directions. External and internal rotation are key movements for complete shoulder function. To increase your shoulder external rotation, stand in a doorway or at a weight rack with your arm out to the side, shoulder and elbow each bent at 90 degrees with fingers pointing straight up. Your palm and forearm should be pressed against the frame. Gently lean forward until you feel tissue tension start to resist. Press your palm and forearm into the frame for 5 seconds and relax. Repeat this 5 times, each time leaning slightly more forward when you relax between efforts. You can improve your internal rotation the same way. Stand with your hand in the small of your back with your palm facing away from you and pressed against the door frame or weight rack. Press your hand away from your back for 5 seconds, then relax and lean slightly forward. Repeat 5 times.
The latissimus muscle is a powerful muscle that has broad connective tissue and muscle connecting your pelvis and low back, crossing your thoracic spine and wrapping all the way under your armpit to the front of your shoulder. This simple stretch will help you unlock your lat. It will help improve mobility and comfort at your low back, thoracic spine and shoulder. Try 2-3 repetitions of 30 seconds on each side.
Thoracic spine range of motion is a key component for your ability to reach overhead, squat, and turn to look behind you. In fact, nearly half of your total rotational range of motion comes from your thoracic spine. The Open Book drill is done on your side with your hips and knees each at 90 degrees and your knees resting on one another or on top of a foam roll. Extend your hands straight out in front of you. Keep one arm flat to the floor. Lift the top arm up and roll your back flat to the floor. Try to touch both shoulders flat to the floor. If you have shoulder pain you can keep your hand on your chest. Try 5-10 repetitions on each side.
We spend a lot of time concentrating on hip flexor stretches. The truth however is that many of us can only fully achieve maybe 10 to 20 degrees of hip extension. That’s not much. How about instead focusing on the large muscle of the inner groin and thigh: the adductors. This muscle group can limit hip range of motion in multiple planes. The Kneeling Adductor Rock Back helps you increase groin flexibility and helps improve hip motion in multiple directions.
To do this stretch get in a half kneeling position on one knee. Extend the opposite leg straight out to the side and gradually sit back, leaning forward slightly drop your hips toward your foot behind you. You should feel this in the inner thigh of the extended leg. Try 5-10 repetitions on each side.
Another key area for hip mobility is the hip flexors and hip extensor muscles. Try doing these AFTER stretching your inner thigh and groin. First opening up hip rotation and lateral movement may help you achieve greater hip flexion and extension. This range of motion is essential for sprinting, lunging, kneeling, and climbing. The World’s Greatest Stretch helps improve both hip extension and hip flexion simultaneously. Try 2-3 repetitions of 30 seconds on each side.
Looking for a new way to stretch your quadriceps (front of thigh) and improve your knee flexion range of motion? Stand with your back to a chair, bench, box, or the edge of your bed. Stand on one leg, and then lift the opposite leg behind you. Bend your knee and place the top of your foot on the raised surface. You should be set up like you are going to do a split squat. You are. Only this time instead of focusing on the front leg, focus on your trail leg. Keep your torso upright, and don’t lean forward as you bend into a greater quad stretch. Try to add an extra layer to this stretch to really bulletproof your quads. Make sure to actively push down through your trail leg as you lower, and then use the same leg to push you back up. Actively engaging your quad while lengthening them will help improve your flexibility and increase their resistance to muscle strains. Try 2-3 repetitions of 30 seconds on each side or 5 repetitions of 4 to 5 seconds in each direction for the active version.
Looking for another way to try to improve your hamstring flexibility? Hamstring flexibility is key for functioning in hinging, lifting heavy load from the ground, and quickly getting in and out of kneeling positions or up from the ground. Try this twist on the classic hamstring stretch and see if it helps improve your hamstring stiffness, low back pain, or deadlift technique. Start standing with your heels on the floor and your toes elevated on a weight plate. Reach as high as you can, think long, and then push your hips back, and reach down for your toes. Make sure to keep breathing and repeat this movement 10 times. Next, stand with your heels on the plate and your toes on the floor. Repeat the same pattern of reaching straight up, pushing your hips back and reaching for your toes another 10 times. Once you’ve finished, recheck your hamstring flexibility with your feet firmly flat on the floor.
Foot and Ankle
The Knee to Wall drill is excellent for improving ankle range of motion. Kneel on one knee with the toes of your lead foot against a wall. Lean forward to touch the wall with your knee. If you can touch, back up slightly until you can no longer touch the wall with your knee and a stretch is felt while trying to reach. Make sure that you keep your heel flat on the floor. Try 5-10 repetitions on each side.
Great toe – You need greater than 60 degrees of toe extension to run, and to kneel or crawl you may need as much as 80 to 90 degrees. One of the muscles that can limit to extension crosses the bottom of your foot and the back of your ankle. You can mobilize it like the calf, but with your toe extended. Place your foot on a stair (1st or 2nd from the floor is usually best) so that your big toe is raised and supported pressed up against the stair riser. Keep your heel flat on the step. Try 2-3 repetitions of 30 seconds on each side.
I highly recommend you take some time to work through this routine or take several of these drills and incorporate them into your own routine if you already have one. For more ideas for mobility drills to include in your Prepare and Recover sessions, so you can feel and perform your best, check out the programs available in the O2X Tactical Performance app.