FIX YOUR POSTURE, PREVENT INJURY, AND REDUCE PAIN
How To Master Your Mobility in 15 Minutes a Day
Improve your range of motion using these physical therapy techniques developed for elite CrossFit athletes
Mobility is defined as the ability to move freely and easily without pain. Lack of mobility is when you are restricted either by stiffness or pain. Mobility is often associated with flexibility, but it differs in that flexibility is about a muscle’s ability to lengthen in a passive state. Mobility is about your full range of motion—the ability of your body’s muscles, tendons, joints, and other components to move together actively and pain-free.
Mobility is easy to take for granted — until aging, bad habits, or injury cause you to have a lack of mobility.
Fortunately, you can take action before that happens. But choosing the right habits to maintain your mobility involves more than just choosing a new exercise program.
Despite all my varied training, including years of Tae-kwon-do and yoga, I couldn’t have made myself a mobility routine until very recently. Until that is, I read Dr. Starrett’s famous tome: How to Become a Supple Leopard.
Dr. Kelly Starrett is a physical therapist famous in the CrossFit community for turning super-athletes into super-mobile super-athletes.
A typical CrossFit-games competitor needs to be able to run, sprint, jump, lift, squat, swing, climb, throw, and swim, so it’s no surprise that mobility work would be so essential to them. However, it may also be the single greatest thing you can do for yourself, even if you’ve never touched a barbell in your life.
How effective are Kelly’s methods? Well, I’ve been doing traditional mobility work in the form of 45-minute stretching sequences by Gymnastic Bodies by Olympic Gymnastic Coach Chris Somner.
These routines are no joke, and I fully intend on continuing the program for months or even years.
But one movement from Dr. Starrett’s book, in particular — the plated “Super Frog” with banded distraction — opened up my hips more in 2 minutes than an entire month of hour-long gymnastic stretch routines did.
This is because mobilizing goes beyond the static-style stretching most of us are used to. Instead of just sitting and reaching for your toes to elongate the muscle, Kelly’s techniques instead focus on identifying areas where you need work and then using a multitude of advanced methods to restore function.
Now, Kelly’s book is big for a reason, and I strongly recommend taking the time to read it and practice it yourself. However, I understand that we don’t all have time to read 500-page mobility textbooks. So I’ve taken the most important and useful info from the book and used it to create this article.
Mobility MattersMidline Stabilization: Posture The Bracing Sequence Bracing as a movement habit Bracing posture while sittingDirect Mobility Work: An Introduction With the Psoas MuscleThe Mobility Systems Joint Mechanics Sliding Surface Dysfunction Muscle DynamicsMobilization Methods: Mobs Pressure Wave Contract & Relax Banded Flossing Smash & Floss Tack & Twist Voodoo Floss Band Compression (Voodoo Flossing) Flexion GappingThe 7 Rules of Mobility Rule 1: Test & re-test Rule 2: If it feels sketchy, it’s sketchy Rule 3: No days off aka 15 minutes a day Rule 4: Make mobility realistic Rule 5: Always mobilize in a good position Rule 6: Don’t get stuck in one position; explore your business Rule 7: Don’t make a pain facePutting It All Together The 3 Rules of PainFinding Mobs MobilityWOD Structure of a search query Homework assignment Equipment Advanced foam rollerExample 15 Minute Mobility Routine Jaw Tack & Twist Barbell Shoulder Smash Psoas Kettle Bell Smash The Couch Stretch & Super CouchConclusion
Before we get into the how-to, let’s address why it matters—it’s not just for your movement. Most of us know mobility is important; what you may not realize is that the effects of poor mobility go far beyond restricted movement.
Back pain is the number one cause of missed workdays in the U.S. and causes more disability than any of the other 291 conditions studied worldwide.
Furthermore, over 7 million Americans are living with full knee and hip joint replacements, and the rate of these surgeries is both increasing and trending toward younger and younger ages.
Yet very few of us, even athletes, prioritize proper and functional movement archetypes and mobility work that prevents or mitigates these issues.
Chronic sitting leads to tightness in the muscles in our hips and lower abdominals, which contributes directly to low back pain. In turn, hunching and rounding of the shoulders, such as the position we often assume while leaning over a computer screen, contributes to kyphosis: a condition whereby the spine bends forward and can create back problems.
It’s true that sometimes injury, restriction, and pain are not the result of poor movement patterns. Sometimes people experience pain as a result of pathology: a genetic or biological disease that creates pain through inflammation or structural changes. You can have a tumor that presses against a nerve in your back and causes back pain, for example. In this case, the cause is the tumor, not your poor mobility.
Another cause of pain is a catastrophic injury. Things like jumping from a second-story balcony and wrenching your ankle when it lands on a broken terra-cotta pot (this is a personal story, FYI).
However, according to Dr. Starrett, pathology and catastrophic injury only account for 2% of all movement-related issues. Everything else is a result of poor biomechanics and function — which means that 98% of these issues can be prevented and addressed by learning proper movement and working on your mobility.
It’s good to know, too, that even catastrophic injury and pathology can be remedied with mobility work. When I wrenched my ankle, as described earlier, the physical therapist didn’t tell me “Oh, well, you didn’t get here because of poor movement habits, so don’t worry about working on mobility to heal.” No, they gave me a plethora of exercises to address the damaged tissues in my ankle.
An estimated 20% of Americans suffer from some form of chronic pain. Mobility exercise isn’t always the solution, and poor mobility isn’t always the cause—but it sure is a factor.
I don’t know about you, but if I can avoid becoming part of that statistic, and I can make sure my body functions well throughout my life, I’m doing it.
Midline Stabilization: Posture
Midline stabilization is essentially a fancy term for posture, but there is an important clue about what posture really is in those words. Many of us walk around with compromised spinal mechanics, meaning that we put stress on the spine in a multitude of ways due to poor position and movement habits.
Proper posture—or midline stabilization—involves stabilizing the spine into a neutral position, hence the name: midline stabilization.
Learning midline stabilization has a two-fold benefit. Not only is it essential for efficiency and power as a default position, but it also gives you a way to optimize your movement habits throughout the day.
The first step is learning what a stabilized midline looks and feels like, then applying it to standing, walking, sitting, and pretty much any position where it is possible to do so.
The Bracing Sequence
The Bracing Sequence is your all-purpose tool for fixing bad posture habits and creating a default position to use as a starting point. This sequence, found on page 40 of How To Become A Supple Leopard, is a 5-step process for aligning your spine in a neutral position.
Start: Begin by standing up just as you normally would if you were not thinking about your posture. Perhaps your feet are a bit turned out, and your shoulders are rounded forward. Your lower back is overextended and your core is loose.
Step 1: We start from the ground up. Step 1 of the bracing sequence is to get your feet aligned. Position your feet underneath your hips, facing forward and parallel. Your big toes should both point straight ahead and not away from each other.
Now create tension by screwing your feet outward into the ground. Don’t actually move your feet, just create torque by screwing them into the ground.
A good way to think about this is that your kneecaps will point slightly out towards the corners of the room.
Just create a slight tension to stabilize your legs.
Step 2: Squeeze your butt as though holding a penny between your cheeks. This sets your pelvis into a neutral position.
This step can be done concurrently with step one as you screw your feet into the ground.
Step 3: It is difficult and not ideal to walk around while squeezing your butt, so to set the pelvis into neutral, take a large breath in using your diaphragm.
Step 4: Position your ribcage over your pelvis as you exhale, and engage your abs. Don’t hollow out your belly — just engage your abs. The idea is to keep your pelvis set in the right position, without having to keep “clenching the penny”. Maintaining your abs at about 20% engagement will keep your midline stable without the need to keep flexing your buttocks.
Step 5: Externally rotate your shoulders and set the heads of your arms (the shoulder joint) back, spreading your collarbones. Do this by bringing your arms forward, then rotating them so that your palms face the sky and your shoulders rotate back.
Simultaneously, position your head over your externally rotated shoulders. Your ears should be positioned over your shoulders, which are over your hips that are over your midfoot.
Be careful not to disengage your core or extend your back as you rotate your shoulders.
Finish: Finish out the sequence by letting your arms drop to your sides with your thumbs facing forward and shoulders externally rotated.
Again, in this position, there should be a straight line of alignment of your ears over your shoulders, ribcage over the pelvis/hips, and hips over the midfoot.
Bracing as a movement habit
Generally speaking, it is difficult to maintain any static position for more than 20 minutes, so you will not remain braced all the time. However, the point is to make a habit of going through the bracing sequence as much as possible, so that good posture becomes the norm and not the exception.
Prescription 1: Practice makes permanent
Practice the bracing sequence for 5 minutes. Seriously, set a timer right now, and practice the sequence for 5 minutes.
Aim to do this sequence frequently throughout the day to reset your posture. Standing in the grocery line? Go through the bracing sequence. Talking with friends? Do the sequence.
This will help you have a more neutral spine and create a stable default position.
Bracing posture while sitting
The next step is learning to optimize your sitting. If you’re like me, you spend 4 hours or more sitting in a chair per day. I wrote about the dangers of sitting in more detail in Solving Sitting: A Guide to Optimizing Your Movement for Health, Longevity, & Performance. However, in short, sitting compromises health as much or more than smoking does.
Surprisingly, a NASA scientist named Dr. Joan Vernikos discovered that you can counteract these negative health effects merely by standing up every 20 to 30 minutes.
We’re going to take it a step further and optimize your posture at the same time.
Prescription 2: Brace when you sit
Before sitting down, go through the bracing sequence. As you finish, sit down by hinging at the knees and hips as if you are doing a squat, while maintaining a neutral spine by keeping your shoulders back and your core engaged.
Sit on the edge of the chair with your knees at a right angle. If you need to lean over, such as to type, hinge at your hip joint instead of slouching or bending your spine.
Unless you are just a disciplined super-freak, you will not maintain this proper braced position. You will get uncomfortable keeping your core engaged, which is indeed tiring, and you will compromise the position.
It is difficult to re-brace when you are already sitting down, and most of the time trying to do this just results in over-extending your lower back. Instead, stand up, and go through the sequence that way before sitting back down.
By doing this at least every 20 to 30 minutes you will practice good posture while simultaneously combating the health effects of stagnation caused by prolonged sitting. In turn, many mobility problems will begin to resolve just by practicing better posture.
Direct Mobility Work: An Introduction With the Psoas Muscle
Of course, just resetting your posture regularly will not address everything, especially if you have beat up your body as an athlete or at work. This is where direct mobility work comes in.
Most of us have mobility restrictions even if we have good posture. Perhaps your left arm hurts when you raise it overhead—assuming you even can. Or like many, your knees sometimes ache when you attempt to squat or pick something up from the ground.
Mobility restriction can afflict any of our joints or range of motion (ROM). Sure, maybe being a little restricted doesn’t sound so bad, but the causes of these restrictions can have health implications.
A good place to start is by understanding the psoas muscle, located in the lower abdominals, which is found to be notoriously tight and stiff as a result of prolonged sitting.
Stiffness of this muscle is a clinical indicator in lower back pain, and some believe it can cause ovary pain in women and even restrict blood flow.
How do we mobilize the psoas muscle and release the tension? One easy way is to lie down and on the handle of a kettlebell, or find a way to press a lacrosse ball into the muscle; here’s a quick video of how to do that.
The Mobility Systems
Dr. Starrett categorizes mobility into 3 primary systems, and these are important to understand in order to prioritize further mobility work.
The 3 mobility systems are:
Joint MechanicsSliding Surface DysfunctionMuscle Dynamics
If you have a mobility issue or pain, and it is not the result of poor movement habits (such as those caused by poor posture), then the problem is most likely due to your joint mechanics. Basically, if you cannot get your joints to move correctly without pain or restriction, or your joints don’t sit where they are supposed to, then you likely have this problem.
The end goal of any mobilization is to get your body into the positions it is supposed to be in, both while moving and at rest.
For example, I get pain in my left shoulder when performing overhead pressing movements. I have noticed that I cannot pull my left shoulder as far back as my right shoulder during the bracing sequences and also when my arm is overhead. Unsurprisingly, the mobilizations that have been most helpful for me are those which pull my shoulder into its functional position while my arms are overhead.
This is a matter of improving the joint mechanics by noticing that a joint is not behaving the way it should and then using mobility techniques to restore position and function.
We’ll discuss specific techniques in detail later, but banded distractions are particularly adept at restoring joint mechanics. These techniques involve wrapping a loop band around a pole at one end, and around the joint at the other end, and using the tension of the band to “set” the joint capsule in a good position.
Sliding Surface Dysfunction
After you check your joint mechanics, the next system to consider is sliding surface dysfunction. This is often overlooked, but sliding surface simply refers to how well your external tissues move over the internal tissues—how well your skin moves over your muscles, for example.
To observe your sliding surface function, use your index finger and middle fingers to press down on the back of your hand. You should be able to move the skin around by pressing in different directions. Notice that closing your hand into a fist reduces the range of sliding surface function.
Regardless of your body position, you should have some level of sliding surface function everywhere on your body. Surface dysfunction restricts mobility by more-or-less acting as a cast over your body. Ever try squatting or kicking while wearing really tight jeans? It’s a bit like that.
Tissue mashing techniques, such as laying on a lacrosse ball or foam roller, can help address sliding surface function. For more direct work, you can do things like the “tack and twist” or the ball whack.
Usually addressing posture, movement habits, joint mechanics, and sliding surface function will restore someone’s range of motion without any stretching.
However, if this is not the case, then you need to address muscle dynamics. Muscle dynamics simply refers to your muscle’s ability to “stretch.” This would be your typical idea of flexibility.
Someone with good muscle dynamics in their hamstrings and hips can easily touch their toes, for example.
To improve muscle dynamics, however, you shouldn’t “stretch” in the way that most people do. Typical stretching techniques involve reaching into your end range of motion, such as reaching as far as you can to touch your toes and then just striving to reach further for two minutes. This is known as “static” stretching.
Static stretching is not the most effective, and it may also weaken muscles. Similarly to pulling a rope apart, you are making the muscle “thinner” and also tightening “knots” in the tissue.
Instead, you want to use a method known as proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF). PNF stretching improves your flexibility by relaxing the muscle in pulses, rather than simply pulling it apart.
PNF stretching is a method of contracting — or tightening — your muscle, then relaxing and letting go of tension while reaching into your end range.
For example, if I am trying to improve my ability to touch my toes, I first reach for my toes as far as I can. Then I flex and create tension in my legs by tightening all the muscle in my quad and calves as though I were at the top of a heavy squat. After 5 seconds of this, I release the tension in my leg while simultaneously reaching further into the stretch.
This is the basis for the Contract & Relax technique described in the next section, and we’ll get more into the details there.
Mobilization Methods: Mobs
Here’s the fun part: the mobility techniques (or “mobs” for short).
I can’t include specific mobs for every ailment in the scope of this article—but fortunately, all mobs fit into at least one or more categories of mobility methods. By learning these categories, you can not only apply them to mobs you pick up out in your life, such as at the gym or during yoga classes, but you will also gain some ability to freestyle and create your own mobilizations based on your needs.
Even so, I will include a few examples at the end of the article, along with a guide for finding mobs online.
Pressure wave is a technique used when doing tissue mashing mobs. It involves using an object, such as a lacrosse ball, to dig into your muscle and unglue knotted tissues.
To help identify when/where to use pressure wave, understand this: your tissues should feel pliable when relaxed. When you find a muscle that is tender to the touch and stiff, or beef-jerky like, that is likely something known as a “trigger point,” and could use some not-so-tender loving care.
Trigger points are areas where tissue has formed into knots, creating tension throughout limb and likely affecting the entire body.
To do this technique you will need an object of some kind, but I recommend a lacrosse ball or a foam roller.
If you don’t know what a foam roller is, here’s an example. They are common at gyms and fitness centers and are generally easy to find.
To perform a pressure wave, lie on the ball or roller while keeping your muscle completely relaxed. The intent is to “sink” into the deepest layers of your muscle tissue at the location of a trigger point (muscle knot.)
Now, slowly roll the trigger point over the ball or foam roller using the full weight of your body. The slower you move, the better. You will be able to handle more pressure and generally experience more positive results.
Ever had a deep tissue massage? Well, this is the same thing but without having to pay someone $200 to dig their elbows into your muscle tissue.
Here’s a video for details on how to do a lower back pressure wave with a double lacrosse ball:
Contract & Relax
We mentioned this technique briefly earlier as an alternative to static stretching.
Contract & relax is a form of proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching, which is a scientifically established method for improving muscle dynamics.
You can use this technique to improve your end ranges of motion during stretching, or you can combine it with a foam roller or a ball.
If focusing on muscle dynamics (stretching) flex your muscle for 5 seconds. Release the tension and relax into your new range of motion for 10 seconds.If focusing on sliding surface function, knots, etc. find a trigger point or tight area on a foam roller or ball, flex for at least 5 seconds, and then relax onto the roller or ball for at least 5 seconds, letting your body sink deeper onto the ball.
Mobility Project Example: CrossFit Seminar PNF Stretching (can be seen at about 4 minutes into the video):
Banded flossing is one of my favorite new discoveries. Why? Because it addresses joint mechanics directly by isolating your joint capsule. This has been a game-changer for me, particularly as a tool for getting my left shoulder into better positions, and for work on my hips.
Banded flossing involves taking a loop resistance band, such as the Rogue Monster Bands and looping it around a joint while the other end is attached to an anchor, such as a pull-up bar or the rails of your stairwell. This is known as a “banded distraction”.
This allows you to pull the joint into an optimal position while you stretch using other techniques, like contract & relax.
Our joint capsules are filled with thick, robust tissue, so stretching alone is not enough to create change. When you simply stretch without a band, the thinnest, most pliable parts of the tissue will experience the most change, while thick tissues—such as those in the joint capsule—will stretch the least, if at all.
Setting up a banded distraction allows you to isolate these thick tissues in your joints. Then you can add “flossing” to feel around for tight spots and create change by doing contract & relax.
For example, in the pictures above, I set up a banded distraction for my shoulder joint. I use the force of the band to pull my shoulder joint to the back of the socket, an area that is troublesome for me.
Then I “floss” by grabbing my hand behind my back, and moving my hand up my back towards my neck. As I move my hand, I find tension in my shoulder, and will “floss” by moving my hand to different locations on my back.
Here’s an example from MobilityWOD:
Smash & Floss
Smash & floss involves flossing while mashing your tissue with a foam roller or a lacrosse ball.
Once you have “smashed” your tissue by relaxing onto a lacrosse ball or other some-such device, you can “floss” the tissue by going through a range of motion. This is particularly effective when you find a tight area of tissue.
In the pictures above, I use smash and floss to address the tissues in my leg just above my kneecap.
First I relax onto a lacrosse ball, then when I find a tight spot, I slowly raise my heel to my butt. If I find tension while flossing, I will lower and raise my heel to release the tissue in my knee.
This can be done with almost any tissue mashing technique that is working on a limb. If you have a lacrosse ball under your tricep (the arm muscles on the back of your upper arm, behind the bicep) you can floss by bending your arm at the elbow.
If you are mashing tissue in your calf, you can floss by moving your ankle around. etc. Combine this with other techniques like contract & relax and you can get some great results.
Video from Mobility Project — Psoas Flossing:
Tack & Twist
Tack and twist is pretty basic, and it’s great for restoring sliding surface function. If you find a patch of skin anywhere on your body that has poor sliding surface function, get a lacrosse ball or other ball that has some “grippyness” to it.
Press the ball into the area of focus, and twist the ball to take up slack in the fascia and tissue underneath. Maintain pressure while twisting the ball.
Voodoo Floss Band Compression (VooDoo Flossing)
Voodoo floss is a tool created by Dr. Kelly Starrett to restore mobility by creating multiple effects at once.
Basically, voodoo floss is a rubber ace bandage, and you can do wonders for your mobility by wrapping it around a joint to create massive compression.
The bands help create “gapping” in the tissue to allow greater blood flow. Simultaneously, the bands restore sliding surface function and can allow you to get into good positions that are otherwise limited.
This, more than any other mobility technique, feels like magic to me. Of all the gear you can get to start mobilizing, I want you to get Voodoo floss bands.
You don’t have to go with Kelly’s brand. There are plenty of inexpensive options such as this one by WODfitters on Amazon.
To use Voodoo floss, wrap the band around a joint just above, and just below the area where you are attempting to make a change.
Kelly recommends creating stretching the bands to about 75% of their ability as you wrap them over the tissue in question, and 50% stretch as you wrap around the opposite side of the limb.
If wrapping your knees, for example, you’d take one band and wrap it with 75% stretch when on the front of your leg, and 50% on the back of your leg.
Wrap the band with about a half-inch of overlap as well. For larger joints like the knees, you should use two bands. Wrap one around your leg just above the knee joint, and wrap the other just below the knee joint.
If you have extra band, you can create an X shape over the most sensitive tissue to create extra compression.
Once the joint is wrapped, attempt to get into positions that you are trying to improve.
If you are trying to improve your squat mechanics, then you should squat, for example.
If you are not addressing a specific position, and are just trying to improve the joint or remove pain, then simply move through as much range of motion as possible.
You could address elbow tendinitis by wrapping the elbow and then extending your arm, doing arm circles, raising your arm up and down like a scarecrow waving at someone, etc.
Generally, you should Voodoo floss for 1 to 2 minutes, or until you feel tingling in the wrapped limb. If you feel tingling or numbness, you are done. Remove the Voodoo floss and go to the other limb.
You may also notice discoloration in your skin while Voodoo flossing. Generally speaking, your skin will look pale. If you touch your skin, it should redden like you are touching a sunburn. If you touch your skin and there is no reddening, then remove the Voodoo floss.
Removing the bands will create a flushing effect and cause increased blood flow in the limbs. This will cause your skin to redden a bit, but this is a good thing.
The increased blood flow, following compression, helps heal joints and tissues by flushing blood into areas that may be otherwise restricted by stiffness or dysfunction.
Mobility Project Example — Ankle VooDoo Flossing:
Flexion gapping is a technique for restoring range and function to a joint. You can stretch all you want, but sometimes you need to find ways to open the tissues inside a joint capsule. VooDoo flossing is one way to do this. The other is to use an object to create “gapping” via leverage.
To create gapping in the knee joint, for example, take a towel and roll it up into a thick cylinder shape. Put the towel inside your knee joint and squeeze your leg over the towel.
This will create a gapping effect as it pulls apart your knee joint, allowing blood flow to reach new areas.
This is akin to blowing out the dust in a rusty door hinge. Seriously, think of a door hinge: you can’t get all the dust out until you take apart the hinge and create space.
One can use a towel, a lacrosse ball, create a banded distraction, or use Voodoo floss to create gapping in a joint.
I will often stick a lacrosse ball under my armpit and squeeze my arm to my side to create gapping in my shoulder, for example.
Gapping is best for addressing stubborn pain or joint dysfunction. Stretching has no effect creating gapping, so for many of us, we will not have ever done this work before now.
Mobility Project Example: Creaky Knees Routine (Flexion Gapping at 5 minutes into the video):
The 7 Rules of Mobility
Once you understand the types of techniques used for mobility work, next comes understanding how to make a routine and to train in the long run.
Dr. Starrett describes 7 rules for this exact purpose. I’ve summarized them here in simplified form. They are essential for forming a foundational view of mobilizing and creating a sense of “intuition” about your mobility work.
They are as follows.
Rule 1: Test & re-test
As they say, what gets measured gets managed, and this is the first rule of mobility. Everything you should do when mobilizing should be observable, measurable, and repeatable.
If you have movement restriction or pain in your knees, for example, you should test by seeing how well you can get into a squat position or a lunge. If you feel pain or restriction, then this is a position which you want to work on.
Perform some mobs (mobility techniques) on the tissues you think are contributing to the pain or restriction. Then retest the squat/lunge.
Did your mobility improve? Yes? Good, what you are doing is working.
If you do not improve, then likely your pain or restriction is caused by different tissues. Try some different mobs and test again.
Rule 2: If it feels sketchy, it’s sketchy
While testing and retesting helps your brain remember the improvement and that it can reach new ranges of mobility, you should be aware of anything that feels like “too much” or is just weird.
Mobilizing tissue is unpleasant. However, there’s a difference between unpleasant and harmful. If you think you are injuring yourself, you probably are.
You should not experience regular and easily repeatable “sharp” pains while mobilizing. You should also not experience grinding pain, hot burning pain, or sharp pain, then you are likely making yourself worse and not better.
Kelly Starrett likes to say “Don’t go into the pain cave! Stand at the entrance to the pain cave, but don’t go in.”
In short, if it feels sketchy, it’s sketchy, and don’t continue doing it.
Rule 3: No days off aka 15 minutes a day
Mobility is an ongoing process, and habit. There is no difference between picking up a barbell vs. picking up a pillow: the optimal body positions are the same.
Practice the bracing sequence and endeavor to move with good posture every day, throughout your day to day life, and build these habits in the long run.
Furthermore, do at least 15 minutes a day of mobs. It takes time to change the tissues in your body.
Fascia is dense connective tissue that runs throughout your entire body, and is a major component in mobility. However, according to Dr. Starrett, it takes 6 months of consistent mobility work for some fascia to have changed permanently, and up to 2 years for more stubborn parts of the tissue.
Depending on what you are trying to do, things may go a little faster than that, but the point is that this kind of work takes consistency over time.
Sure, you may miss a day here and there, but the point is to intend to do mobility work every day, and stick to it most of the time.
(I’ll get into how to create your 15-minute mobility routine below.)
Rule 4: Make mobility realistic
Prioritize mobs that simulate real-life situations. If you have trouble raising your arms over your head, like when getting something from a tall shelf, then you are missing an overhead range of motion.
Instead of laying down and mobilizing the shoulder joint or mashing the tissue with your hand down by your side, mobilize with the arm overhead in as-close-to the position you are trying to improve.
Rule 5: Always mobilize in a good position
Remember the bracing sequence while you are mobilizing. If you have to round your shoulders and bend your neck or over-extend your back in order to do a mob, then you will not get the results you want.
Ingraining poor mechanics and bad positions is counter-intuitive to the goal of becoming more mobile. Always prioritize good spinal mechanics and posture first before exploring different parts of a mob. If you can only reach a certain position when your posture is compromised, then it’s not worth reaching anyway.
Rule 6: Don’t get stuck in one position; explore your business
If you perform a mob you find online, feel free to modify it and explore beyond the limits of the instructions. As long as you maintain good posture, you know your muscles and tissues better than anyone else.
If you can get more benefit by moving into more challenging areas, do it!
If you are mobilizing your shoulder with a lacrosse ball, you might move into the upper lat and ribs with it, or rotate your arm to a different position.
Using the guidelines mentioned in the last section, you can turn any mobilization into a sort of “informed freestyle.” As long as you maintain good posture, do what you think will help you.
Rule 7: Don’t make a pain face
Making a grimace shortens your neck flexors, but it also associates pain with mobility.
Use mobs, no matter how uncomfortable, as an opportunity to practice zen indifference, at least outwardly.
Even if it feels like the house is burning down around you as you explore a challenging bit of tissue, your facial expression should say “it’s no big deal, this is fine.”
Putting It All Together
We’ve covered the 7 rules of mobility so you will know how to think about mobility. We’ve covered the techniques so you know what to look for and what to do.
Now to develop your own habits for mobility work.
When it comes to improving your tissues, consistency is more important than intensity. As we mentioned earlier, fascia takes up to 2 years of consistent work to change.
Kelly’s model for improving mobility is that you need to commit at least 10 to 15 minutes every day to mobilizing.
If you do more, awesome, but at minimum, you need to do 10 to 15 minutes a day.
Also, you should do at least 2 minutes per mob, every time. According to Dr. Starrett:
“research unquestionably asserts that it takes at least 2 minutes to make soft-tissue change, which means that 2 minutes is your minimum therapeutic dose per position.” (Starrett, How to Become a Supple Leopard, Page 154.)
This should result in picking 3 or 4 mobs to make into a 15-minute session.
How should you decide which techniques to do? First, follow the 3 rules of pain:
The 3 Rules of Pain
When prioritizing mobs, pain takes precedence. You might have stiffness in your shoulder, pain in your knee, and low range of motion in your ankles.
Regardless of what else you do, at least 1 or 2 techniques of your session should be for your knee pain every session, until the pain resolves.
Let’s say it again: Pain takes precedence!
3 rules for how to address pain are:
If something is not in the right place, put it in the right place.If something is not moving, get it moving.Work upstream and downstream of the problem.
Now, to be clear, pain does not refer to a serious injury. If you think you herniated a disk, tore a muscle, or dislocated a joint, see a doctor. However, if you tweak something, feel knee or joint pain that is not a serious injury, then prioritize it when creating your mobility prescription.
Once you have identified that an area is painful, go through the bracing sequence and see if it is difficult to get things into the correct place.
If your shoulder hurts, check to see if it is not aligned correctly over your hips due to a lack of range of motion.
Once you have identified any posture dysfunction, start with banded distractions and techniques focused on getting your shoulder into the proper place.
For rule 2, if something is not moving — such as the inability to move your ankle around — get it moving. Sliding surface techniques like smash and floss or pressure wave can be great for this, as well as Voodoo floss to create compression.
Finally, for rule 3, work upstream and downstream. Many of our mobility problems are caused indirectly by other tissues than the ones that actually hurt.
You may have shoulder pain, not because of anything wrong with your shoulder, but because of tightness in your lats, back, or traps. Even a tight hip can result in poor shoulder mechanics if it makes you move funky.
A short description of how this process might look would be this: first, identify any poor posture with regard to your pain. For a shoulder, maybe you can’t get it back all the way during the bracing sequence.
Address this with banded flossing techniques, primarily.
Then, see if your shoulder can move well. Try raising your arm overhead. If your ability to move your shoulder around is limited, address this by lying on a lacrosse ball or smashing the collar of a barbell into your shoulder muscle to break up stiff tissue.
Finally, work upstream and downstream of the issue by doing some techniques for your lats (the muscles on your side, under your armpit) and your upper back and neck.
You may still have room for a few techniques after resolving painful tissue, or maybe you don’t have any pain. From this point, simply apply the 3 rules to your stiffest tissues, or to the areas you just want to improve.
For example, if you cannot squat well because your muscles are tight, or you have trouble raising an arm overhead, pick a few mobs to correct the problem.
Personally, when I make a mobility routine for the day, I will use 2 or 3 techniques addressing painful tissue as well as upstream or downstream tissue, and then I’ll do the rest on areas where I have restriction but things are not painful.
Honestly, I would love it if everyone would just read a textbook on mobility like Kelly’s How to Become a Supple Leopard, but that isn’t exactly realistic. Heck, it’s taken me a month and a half of daily work to finish it myself, and this is my day job!
For this reason, I’ve decided to ask you to find your mobs by using the wondrous power of the internet.
Thankfully, Dr. Starrett’s methods and terminology have spread like wildfire since he first published his book in 2011. Most of the time you can find a great mob just by searching the joint or issue, and the mobility technique.
For example, you could search “hip opening smash and floss techniques.” (More on doing good queries below.)
The mobs you find don’t even need to be that instructional—you just need a starting point whereby you can apply the 7 rules of mobility, and the techniques described in this article.
If someone shows you where to put a lacrosse ball to release tension in your knee, for example, you can explore your mobility from there by simply applying the techniques in this article.
All you really need to know is where to put the lacrosse ball to start. Contract & relax, or floss by bending your leg. Then pressure wave across an area of tough tissue.
Regardless of where you find your mobs, there are 3 main points I’d like to emphasize:
Always contract and relax when stretching. You will run into a lot of “stretching” out there in the world — whether at a group fitness class or elsewhere. Contract & relax helps you avoid weakening your muscle, and is scientifically shown to be more effective at increasing end-range flexibility anyway.Mobilize into the positions you are trying to improve. If you are having trouble with your overhead position, then find mobilizations that improve your overhead position. Don’t just do a random shoulder stretch. This is also a helpful way of searching for mobs online. “Banded Distraction mobilizations to improve overhead arm position” would be a great search query.Keep it simple. Pick 3 or 4 techniques, and no more. It takes time to watch videos and learn a new mob, and pretty soon your 15 minutes of mobilization takes 30–45 minutes of watching videos. You’ll eventually have an arsenal of effective mobs committed to memory, but keep it simple and only do 3 or 4 per session in the beginning. It’s better to do a simple session than to skip entirely because you get bored.
The easiest way to find mobs and start doing this work is to sign up for MobilityWOD. MobilityWOD is the product of Dr. Kelly Starrett and his wife, former whitewater rafting world champion Juliet Starrett.
The program takes you through daily mobilizations using all of the same methods as Kelly’s book, as well as everything new they’ve created since that time. Furthermore, you get access to their complete library of daily mobility routines, which includes literally thousands of videos on mobilizations.
Instead of having to peruse youtube finding mobs, you can get it straight from the horse's mouth. It’s also only $9.99 a month for their main program.
MobilityWOD also offers certifications and deeper courses for fitness professionals. Being that Kelly’s work is the foundation of mobility work in the CrossFit community, the MobilityWOD certifications are well recognized, and these are a powerful tool for the arsenal of any trainer or coach.
All humans should be able to perform basic maintenance on themselves. Daily mobility and recovery videos.
Structure of a search query
Whether or not you join MobilityWOD, knowing how to find more mobs can be a useful skill. To do this, you’ll want to have a structure for doing internet searches.
When designing a search query, you need to identify two things:
The area or position you want to improveThe style of mobilization
Identifying the area or position you want to improve simply comes back to the 3 rules of pain: prioritize painful tissue, then 1. If it’s not where it should be, get it where it should be (often the case with joints) 2. If it’s not moving, get it moving (restriction and tightness) and 3. work upstream and downstream of the issue.
These rules should also help you identify the technique you are looking for. For example, if your pain is in a joint, then work on banded distractions that put the joint in a good place. Floss by moving your limb through a range of motion. This covers both rules 1 and 2. For rule 3, work upstream and downstream of the issue, this is where I’ll look for smashing techniques like smash and floss, or pressure wave. A simple way to search for these is to search based on the tool used. For example: “Lacrosse ball techniques for your knees/hips/etc.”
The final result should be something like:
“Banded distractions for hip impingement.”
“Lacrosse ball tissue mashing for knee pain during lunges/squats”
“Voodoo floss for ankle mobility”
I know this might seem like a lot of responsibility, but not to worry, Dr. Kelly Starrett himself offers a large library of free mobility videos already. These can be found on Youtube.
Tonight, Identify 1 or 2 tissues where you want to improve your mobility. Go to a sports store, and buy a lacrosse ball. Now find 3 to 4 techniques online or from Kelly Starrett’s channel to improve your mobility. If you want, it’s also good to have a cheap foam roller for less intense tissue mashing. Most health clubs have these available, so feel free to just use your gym’s gear.
Whether you do stretching or you do tissue mashing on the lacrosse ball, practice as many of the mobility techniques in this article as possible, particularly contract & relax, and flossing if possible.
Now go on Amazon, and order a set of Voodoo floss, and get a loop band of some kind for banded distractions. You can also just use bands at a gym if you have access to loop bands there. I prefer a thicker loop band, as they provide much more force for banded distractions.
Do not underestimate the power of random objects for mobilizing. You can do a lot of work with some household items. For example, I have a metal “liberty” water bottle I often use to foam roll my calves when I’m out and about.
There are a lot of items you can use for mobilizing, but only a few that you really “need.”
I perform 99% of my mobs with VooDoo floss, pull-up bands, lacrosse balls, and a foam roller.
Advanced foam roller
There are many advanced pieces of gear out there, and they all work great for improving your mobility game. However, to be honest, 99% of the work you need can be done with everything listed above. With one exception:
As you get more mobile and your tissues become more pliable, you’ll probably find that the basic foam roller at your gym or that you bought for $10 on Amazon just isn’t cutting it.
For this reason, I strongly suggest “graduating” to an advanced foam roller like a Rumble Roller after a month or two. These are more expensive — usually in the range of $50 to $70 depending on the length — but in my opinion, they are the only way to keep a foam roller relevant after a few months of mobilizing.
Personally, I use the Rumble Roller, which is medium-firm and has “spikes” that help reach into the tissue. It’s available for about $45 on Amazon.
Example 15 Minute Mobility Routine
I thought I’d include one a quick example routine you can use. If you’re feeling resistance to the process of developing your own routine, this is a place you can start.
I’ve picked 4 uncommon, but highly effective mobs to address shoulder mobility, hip impingements, the psoas muscle to release lower back pain, and a tack & twist that works magic for jaw tension.
Jaw Tack & Twist
Take a Lacrosse Ball and press it against one side of your jaw, into the muscles.Twist the ball to take up slack in the jaw.For two minutes, move your jaw around in every direction. Repeat on the other side.
While doing the mob, you might not realize just how much tension you carry in your jaw and face. Once you complete one side, take a few seconds to just notice how much tension is released.
The side of your jaw you just worked should feel way more relaxed and loose than the other.
You can also perform this mob for the muscles in your face by tacking the lacrosse ball to your temples and twisting to take up the slack. Then make any and every funny face you can think of for two minutes.
These mobs have eliminated jaw popping for me.
Barbell Shoulder Smash
The shoulders are my nemesis. As a lifelong martial artist and swimmer, I’ve developed imbalances where the front of my shoulders are stronger than the back, creating stiffness and joint pain.
Smashing techniques help “unglue” all these stiff tissues, and this one, in particular, is my favorite.
This also allows me to demonstrate how versatile many tools can be. Are you at the gym without a foam roller or lacrosse ball? Guess what, barbells are phenomenal, too.
Alternatively, if you don’t have a barbell at home but you want to do this mob, simply flip over and lie on either a foam roller or a lacrosse ball, and move your arm as though doing snow angels.
Anyway, here’s the instruction:
Lie on your side with your arm extended on the ground, and place the “collar” of the barbell on your shoulder muscle. This mob can be performed on the front of the shoulder anywhere from where the shoulder connects to the arm, to the deep tissue where it connects to your pectorals (chest muscles.)Place your foot over the bottom of the barbell to keep it anchored.Roll onto your back, keeping the barbell in place by pressing it into your shoulder muscle using your other arm.Floss by bending your arm 90 degrees at the elbow, and rotating your arm such that your hand goes from the palm facing the ground to the back of your hand facing the ground.
Psoas Kettle Bell Smash
This one is uncomfortable and strange, but you will be amazed by the results. Have a kettlebell lying around home or at the gym? You can use this tool in two ways.
To target the psoas by using it to press a lacrosse ball into your lower abdomen.By lying on the handle of the kettlebell to unglue your psoas and the lesser-known iliopsoas muscle that connects your hip to your spine.
For the first technique,
Place a lacrosse ball in the tissue between your navel and your hip, off to the side.Place the bell of a kettlebell over the ball to press it into the tissue.Smash and floss by extending your leg to the ground, and swiveling your hips from side to side. Also contract and relax be flexing your abdominals against the lacrosse ball, then relaxing and letting it sink deeper into the tissue.
If you don’t have a kettlebell, just press the ball into your psoas using your hands.
For Technique 2:
Place a kettlebell on the ground with the handle side up.Lay on top of the kettlebell with the handle slotted into the tissue between your navel and one side of your pelvic/hip bone.Contract & relax by taking a breath and engaging your core, then breathe out as you relax deeper onto the kettlebell.
The Couch Stretch & Super Couch
The most famous and infamous mob in Kelly’s book, the couch stretch is an amazing yet brutal hip opener. This stretch is by far the most powerful for getting those tight hips open and addressing the negative effects of sitting.
You can also turn the dial up to 11 by created a banded distraction, also known as the “Super Couch.”
Word to the wise: this stretch is called the couch stretch because you can perform it using a couch to both lower the intensity, and give you access to a television to distract you from the discomfort. With that said, try to use a wall or flat surface if possible—that may be the only way to perform the banded version of this stretch.
On your hands and knees, back your feet up to a vertical wall or a box.Slide your left leg back and position your knee at the corner of the wall and the floor, with your left shin vertical and against the wall.Squeeze your left glute to keep your lower back stable. Many people overextend their lower back attempting this stretch. Remember to keep your midline stable. Post your right foot on the ground, with shin vertical to the floor.While flexing your left leg and keeping your heel as close to your butt as possible, drive your hips toward the ground. It should be very difficult to open your hips. This should be deeply uncomfortable. As long as you are not experiencing burning or grinding pain, you’re OK.After 30 seconds to a minute, lift your torso into an upright position. If this is too difficult to do without losing midline stability, use yoga blocks or place a chair nearby to use for stability.
Super Couch Variation
Place your left leg through a band such that your hip joint is pulled forward. Force your knee into the corner of the wall and the floor so that the band doesn’t pull you forward.Keeping your butt squeezed and your midline braced, carefully lift your torso into the upright position.
Soft Couch Variation
I strongly suggest using the classic couch stretch, but if your hips are incredibly tight, or you just want to get some quick work in while watching the tube, try the couch stretch on an actual couch.
Well there you have it — now you know how to write yourself a 15-minute mobility prescription.
I know it was a long and in-depth article, but this stuff is just so beneficial and important.
Everyone has mobility problems. I don’t care who you are, if you haven’t been doing this kind of work for years, or even if you have been — I’d bet all my money you have some tissue that could improve.
What I love about Dr. Starrett’s work is that it provides a foundational system by which you can comprehend mobility. It lets you see the “big picture” instead of just seeing random Instagram models rolling out their quads.
Personally, I have deeply enjoyed diving into this topic, and in a mere 2 months or so working on my mobility, I have made huge progress on issues I’ve had for years.
My left shoulder is now pain-free when I do overhead pressing, and I’ve improved my knee mobility greatly. I’m able to nearly sit on my heels which is something I haven’t been able to do since a high school injury.
I’d personally suggest going back through this article one more time and taking notes, especially on the mobility techniques and the rules of mobility sections.
I also strongly recommend joining www.mobilitywod.com, and if you are interested in diving deep on the subject, Dr. Kelly Starrett’s book How to Become a Supple Leopard really is the last book you’ll ever need for this topic.
If you make a habit of just 15 minutes a day of mobility work, specifically targeting the tissues that need it most, I promise you will feel results.
This is the kind of stuff few people ever work on, and therefore, it’s hard to realize what kind of headway you’ll actually make. But once you get started, I think you will be truly amazed at how quickly you improve.
As always, thank you so much for reading, and good luck on your health and fitness journey.