Why Your Mobility Routine Isn’t Working
Written by Colin Diment
Let’s face it, your mobility probably isn’t as good as it should be. You probably already know that you have stiff ankles, tight hips, and restricted shoulders. You probably already know how your limited ankle dorsiflexion can cause low back pain, and that your tight hips can lead to knee pain.
(If you don’t already know this, don’t worry…we’re going to talk plenty more about it).
You probably already know you need to improve your mobility, and (hopefully) you’re already attempting to do something about it.
But don’t you think it’s weird that you do the same mobility drills EVERY. DAY. and your mobility never actually seems to get any better?
Sure, you might manage to get yourself through the day’s workout, but the next day you’re probably just as stiff and immobile as you were yesterday.
Have you ever stopped to consider why that is?
There are literally MILLIONS of Instagram posts, YouTube videos and blog articles about how to improve your mobility. There are numerous follow-along apps and websites dedicated to “mobility training”. People are spending more time doing their “mobility routines” than ever before.
And yet, people are stiffer, tighter, more immobile, and more injury-prone than ever.
Let’s talk about why that is.
AN EVOLUTIONARY MISMATCH
The fundamental problem is this…
Our modern, sedentary lifestyle is completely incompatible with our DNA.
(At this point, you’re probably thinking to yourself “Oh boy, here comes another ‘Paleo, live like a Caveman’ blog post. Is he about to tell me that Sitting is the New Smoking?”)
I’m not going to go into all of the specific problems of a sedentary lifestyle…that’s too big a topic for this particular article.
(But maybe we’ll talk more about that another time. It’ll probably be called “Why your desk chair is f-ing up your gainz”, or some other catchy title.)
Our Origins as a Species
But in order to understand why your mobility routines aren’t having any lasting impact, we do have to talk a bit about our origins as a species.
For about 300,000 years, humans existed on this planet as hunter-gathers. On any given day, you might have to walk, jog, run, sprint, cut, dodge, throw, climb trees, swim, carry a freshly killed animal back to camp, squat (to rest, to perform tasks, and also to pick berries and gather things off the ground), fight, dance, have sex, and sleep on the ground.
(And despite all that movement, you still would’ve gotten a LOT more/better rest than the modern human gets today, by the way).
You would’ve been active for 12-14+ hours per day, and you never would’ve “exercised”. You never would’ve gone out for a run to “improve your cardio”. You never would’ve done squats to “build stronger legs”. And you never would’ve had to do 3×30 seconds of a “couch stretch” to deal with your “tight hip flexors”.
Exercise is a Modern Invention
Everything we think of as “exercise” is a modern invention…it’s an attempt to make up for the fact that our day-to-day life no longer requires us to move.
What does this have to do with your mobility routine, you ask?
Well, we evolved to MOVE. It’s helpful to think of our movement needs like a diet
(or “liveit” as the Rastafarians would say).
Most people are severely deficient in movement nutrition…the modern sedentary lifestyle is like eating McDonald’s and ice cream for every meal.
Common Approach to Mobility Training
And the common approach to mobility training is to take a little pre-workout “mobility supplement” and think that will make up for a movement-deficient diet.
Imagine if a nutritionist, working with someone who only ate Big Macs and ice cream for every meal, simply told the person to add in a greens supplement before their workout to make sure they’re getting their vitamins and minerals. Would that really solve the person’s problem?
How to Maintain a Healthy Body
Movement is the ONLY way to maintain the health of your joints, muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments, nerves, etc. It costs ENERGY to maintain your body, and we evolved in an environment in which energy (food) was scarce. The body isn’t going to waste its precious energy to maintain tissues that you’re not even using…if you don’t use it you lose it, as the saying goes.
#1 Reason for Poor Mobility
If you don’t frequently use your joints to their full capacity, your body is going to limit your joint capacity to the positions you actually use. And unfortunately, most people are sedentary for 12-14+ hours per day! This is the number one most likely reason why your mobility routine isn’t working…you’re probably not getting enough movement throughout the day when you’re not at the gym.
(This is not a “sitting vs standing” conversation, by the way. Sedentary is sedentary, whether you’re at a standing desk or in a chair).
To summarize, most people spend their time being stiff and immobile, so their body gets better at being stiff and immobile. It’s really as simple as that.
Let me pause here and acknowledge that I know this is going to be off-putting (and maybe even a little depressing) to someone who feels chained to their desk and trapped in a sedentary lifestyle. You probably already know that a sedentary lifestyle is bad for you…and I want you to know that I see you and I empathize with you. I work with a LOT of people stuck in sedentary jobs and I see firsthand the damage it does to people’s bodies.
How to Optimize Your Movement
From here on out, we’ll talk about how to optimize and improve your movement diet (basically, how to choose better “movement snacks”), but for starters, we have to be clear about one thing…
Right now most people live a sedentary lifestyle with occasional breaks for movement. And as a species, coded into our very DNA, we evolved to live a movement lifestyle with occasional breaks for being sedentary.
If you care about your health and longevity, you MUST strive to live a MOVEMENT lifestyle with occasional breaks for being sedentary, not the other way around.
#2 Reason for Poor Mobility
“No man steps in the same river twice (for the river is not the same, nor is the man)”
Your body is made up of more cells than we can possibly count. Seriously, there are about as many cells in your body as there are stars in the sky! And those cells are in a constant state of change…every moment of the day, old cells are dying and new cells are being born.
Literally, at a cellular level, you are not the same person you were when you started reading this article.
(That’s a really profound and transformational insight if you truly stop and think about it. We’ll talk more about that another time.)
The Body is a Verb!
Most people think of their body as a noun…a “thing”…a finished product. But really you are a verb. You are an energetic being, and your body is an active, dynamic process that is constantly evolving and adapting.
You are in a CONSTANT state of CHANGE.
I realize some of this may sound mystical or “new age”, but I assure you, even the most atheist, evidence-based scientist would agree with the above statements. At this point, you might be thinking to yourself, “I thought this was supposed to be an article about mobility…why are you telling me about evolution and cells?”
Frankly, your doctor, physical therapist, etc should be talking to you about evolution and cells too, because the more you understand about your body, the better you can take care of it.
But for the purposes of this article, the answer is this…
The Problem with Mobility Routines
Most people’s mobility routines don’t work because they are ROUTINES.
Imagine for a second that you are a CrossFit coach tasked with providing a warm-up and mobility routine for the 30 random people who showed up for today’s workout. Everyone in the room has a different body, a different lifestyle, a different injury history, different goals, different needs. Even the BEST coaches in the world can’t possibly make a routine that will work for everyone in the room.
A general, arbitrary mobility routine that you got from an app, an Instagram influencer, or a YouTube PT is going to yield average-at-best results. Your body is a dynamic, ever-changing structure, and your mobility work should be dynamic and ever-changing too!
The drills you needed to prepare your body to squat last week are probably a little different than what your body needs today. The warm-up exercises that YOUR body needs for today’s workout are probably quite different from what the person training next to you needs. Your hip is not the same as your teammate’s hip. Your spine is not the same as your neighbor’s spine.
You probably don’t need a $400 massage gun or the latest variation of that banded shoulder capsule opener you saw on your favorite physical therapist’s YouTube page. You probably just need to start listening to your body. You have to start tuning in to what you feel, and adapting the exercises you found online to suit YOUR body. Everyone’s body is starting from a different place, and your mobility training should reflect that!
Listen to YOUR Body
Rather than blindly following some random mobility routine that you found online, it’s imperative that you start to build a better connection to your body.
In my own work with clients, I rarely give people a routine to follow every day (which, I’ll admit, is often frustrating for some people at first). But I’m not interested in giving people a pre-set routine…believe me, if I could write a mobility routine that would work for every person, every day, in every situation, I would write that program and I would be rich.
But it doesn’t work.
So instead I give people knowledge, tools, and principles to follow, and to help them learn how to connect to their body. Then you can start to tap into what you need and be able to generate YOUR OWN mobility drills, specific to exactly what YOUR body needs in any given moment.
#3 Reason for Poor Mobility
Your nervous system!
So far we’ve learned that your mobility routine isn’t providing lasting results because you probably need to move more throughout the day when you’re not at the gym. And your routine probably isn’t specific or applicable to YOUR body.
The final major reason why your mobility routine isn’t working is because it probably doesn’t respect how your body actually works or how you best learn.
Most mobility advice boils down to something like this… “Your hamstring is ‘tight’. You need to rub it and/or stretch it to make it ‘loose’”.
I hate to break it to you, but that’s not how your body works. Sure, ‘stretching your hamstring’ makes it feel ‘loose’ for a little while, but pretty soon it’s as ‘tight’ as it was before (if not tighter), right?
It’s not just a matter of “releasing tight muscles”… you have to actually train your nervous system!
Your brain and spinal cord are what control, guide, and generate motion. Your mobility drills need to challenge the nervous system and teach your brain how to actually use your joints through their full ranges of motion.
That’s one of the main reasons you never make any lasting mobility gains — you might stretch and open up new ranges of motion, but if you don’t actually teach your nervous system how to use those new ranges, your mobility will go right back to where it was before. That’s what your nervous system knows how to control. That’s where it feels safe.
Nervous System Training for Mobility
So, how do we train the nervous system? We learn best through fun, engaging activities that don’t feel like work… we learn through PLAY.
Rolling around on a lacrosse ball or climbing into a banded hip capsule stretch do nothing to teach your nervous system how to actually use your body. And feeling the cramp monster during a hard PAILs/RAILs set is not fun. Most “mobility training” is not fun… it feels like a chore, and you probably don’t feel the benefits of it, so you don’t feel like doing it.
To sum up, your mobility drills should be fun, dynamic, and specific to YOUR body. You should WANT to incorporate more movement snacks throughout the day, because they should feel like PLAY.
Throughout this and future articles, Nick Hawkes, Benjamin D’Aguilar, and I are going to start giving you more examples of mobility drills that fit these principles. These are variations of the exact drills we use ourselves — we never give anyone something we haven’t personally used and seen benefit from. Here’s one to start with…
In the meantime, feel free to reach out to Nick (@nicvictus), Benjamin (@benjamin.equilibrium) and me (@colindiment) on instagram…we would also love to work with you 1-on-1 and give you more customized versions of everything we share. It is all of our goal to help you build a better connection to your body and to help you optimize this human experience.
Colin is a Certified Athletic Trainer and performance therapist. He spent 4 years working for USA Track and Field at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, CA. In that time he traveled around the world helping over 75 Olympians optimize their health and performance (including numerous olympic gold medalists, world champions, and world and American record holders). He also worked for the Los Angeles Lakers organization, where he received a ring from their 2020 NBA Championship. He has also worked with various sports teams at the University of Michigan and at Mississippi State University, and has consulted with professional athletes in a wide variety of sports, including the NFL, NBA, Rugby, Bobsled, and CrossFit.