Neurological Drills to Help Hold On To New Mobility
Video by Nick Hawkes

Most athletes put a good deal of focus on stretching and expanding their joints because…well  the way they function plays a big part in being able to excel at many of the movements that CrossFit throws our way like snatches, kipping, and squatting. Having tight shoulders or hips, for example, can make those movements more difficult and the athlete more prone to injury. 

You’ll see anyone who has been around fitness and the gym long enough spending time in their warm-up on their “problem areas” and parts to prepare for that day’s movement patterns. But is the traditional mobility routine moving them any closer to not always needing to address those areas? Probably not if they aren’t incorporating nervous system training into it. 

You CAN see lasting gains with your traditional routine and banded stretches. But as we’ve previously discussed, if you’re missing the “neurology first” component, this is one of the main reasons that your mobility isn’t sticking

Why “Neurology First” Works

When the brain senses danger to the body, such as a new range of motion it thinks it is outside of your “safe zone” (where you are still able to control movement and apply force), the CNS down-regulates the muscles and connective tissue to try and keep us safe. When we stretch past this position in our warm-ups, for example, the CNS down-regulates and results in the area you just lengthened or expanded being brought right back to where it was i.e. where your brain knows it’s safe and protected.

When you make your mobility drills challenge the nervous system, they teach your brain how to actually use your joints through their full ranges of motion. There are a number of ways to demonstrate to your nervous system that you are able to control movement and apply force in your new position. 

“Neurology First” Mobility Routine

The goal of this routine is to be active and expansive in order to get your nervous system as open and big as possible. Do this as a warm-up before you stretch and mobilize to open up ranges of motion so your body doesn’t resist the new positions you’re about to put it in.

Clock Reaches (reaching as far as you can) x 1 set with each arm
(1 set = reaching to each the 12 clock positions both forward and backward)

Do not rush these. Make the movement and the reach very thoughtful and deliberate. Focus on your breathing. You’ll notice a greater release if you exhale at the end of each reach.

Screwdriver Reaches (reaching while rotating) x 3 sets with each arm
(1 set = reaching to each the 12 clock positions both forward and backward)

Pay attention to the line of tension on these and spend more time in the “sticky” areas. You might feel intense stretching in the biceps or shoulder when rotating. Don’t push it too hard, but make note of where you are in the movement. Continue gently working through it to see if you can reprogram your brain to signal less (the tension/pain) by stopping just shy of the painful point and breathing smoothly. Back off if it is painful! More to come on this…

Clock CARs x 3-4 different planes + 3-4 reps set with each arm
(1 plane = a circle you will follow with your arm; 1 rep = one rotation of the circle)

Controlled Articular Rotations (CARs) are the “biggest circle you can make with a single joint” and can improve range of motion of your joints, bathing them in synovial fluid and washing away the calcium deposits and other waste that cause inflammation and pain. They can also be used to determine your “safe zone” and to teach your brain about new, safe zone ranges of motion.

Shakes (in all directions) x 1-3 set each arm
(1 set = wrists + elbows + shoulders)

Start with your hands and wrists and flick and shake them in all different directions and ranges of motion. The goal is to create lines of tension and also a stretch reflex-rebound. If you’re new to shaking, be careful not to flick too hard as you move from joint to joint because it might be too much for your system to handle right off. Ease yourself into this one and explore the positions where it feels weird or new. Go until you feel the “buzz” in your hands.

Now that you’ve got your joints and nervous system primed, time to hit your mobility routine! Here are two techniques that you can add into your current routine to incorporate nervous system training. 

Muscle Contraction Technique for Finishing Banded Stretches

For the common banded stretches, an easy technique is this “activation” technique where you contract the muscle you were just stretching, telling the nervous system that you got this! 

PNF Stretching

This stretching pattern allows you to do 5 seconds of pushing into the stretch and then 10 seconds of relaxing within the stretch. You can do this with pretty much any stretch. Just add it to the end of your hold!

By spending a few minutes longer each stretch session on training your nervous system, you will save time in the long run by not having to do that same stretch Every. Single. Day. for the rest of your existence. 

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