One of the things I’ve always been passionate about is figuring out how my body works best. I’m fascinated with finding new ways to improve it, and that will never change. This year, aside from taking a year off from the stage, it’s been about making sure I have longevity in bodybuilding and optimal health by delving into the world of mobility work.
I wish I had started this earlier in my life. I’ve learned that perfect exercise form, stretching, and recovery, although all important, aren’t quite enough.
Here’s how all this started. Last year after competing at Masters Nationals, I was getting ready for another show a week later. I didn’t do my usual warm ups prior to squats and with only minimal weight on the bar, felt a weird twinge in my lower back. That weird twinge grew into an unbearable pain that had me plopped flat on my back all week. Luckily it improved enough that I was still able to successfully compete the following week.
After the show, I went to a chiropractor who told me it was actually an issue with weakness in my right glute that created a trigger point which I felt in my lower back. And, that it was something that that was going to happen sooner or later. Apparently, I’m not great at activating my glutes. A disgrace to my Cuban heritage!
The thing about any physical injury, no matter how small, is that it usually doesn’t occur due to one event. It’s sort of like the person who has been smoking for 30 years and is diagnosed with lung cancer. It’s not as if the last cigarette gave him cancer. That being said, I most likely hadn’t been efficient at activating my glutes for a long time. And the pain I felt in my back as a result of my glute issue, shows how intricately connected the body is.
I was given several mobility exercises to perform and things started to improve, but I had to do my part and keep up with them, as well as start working my glutes like any other muscle group.
This is what led me to a full appreciation for mobility exercises, and I started to add more exercises for other areas. Powerlifters seem to have an appreciation for mobility work and so do Crossfitters, but in my opinion, bodybuilders are behind the curve on this. As a bodybuilder, it’s important for me (and everyone) to stay open minded and to learn what others are doing in the world of performance. There’s no reason we can’t learn from other disciplines and incorporate that into our own programs.
Sometimes people confuse mobility with flexibility, and although they’re intertwined, mobility is much more robust as far as a performance/movement solution.
According to renowned coach and physical therapist, Kelly Starrett, stretching only focuses on lengthening short and tight muscles. Mobility is a movement-based full-body approach that addresses any issues related to limited movement and performance including short and tight muscles, but also soft tissue restriction, joint capsule restriction, motor control problems, joint range of motion, and neural dynamic issues. A perfect example of the value of mobility exercises for bodybuilders: If you have limited range of motion with the squat, mobility exercises may possibly help you to finally get that deep squat or finally get that shoulder achieving full range of motion.
Now, for my mobility methods…
Lacrosse Ball – I use the Lacrosse ball primarily for my pecs and it’s been very helpful, but you can also use it for your back, glutes and other areas. However, make sure that you’re using it wisely and not just pressing it on a joint. There’s a method to using it correctly based on the specific area.
I had a few minor pec tears early in the year and I believe it had to do with overuse injuries based on training with lots of frequency and high volume. The thing about injuries is that if they don’t heal correctly, despite not having pain, there can still be scar tissue present. Unfortunately, this is one of the ways injuries re-occur.
When muscle fibers repair, sometimes the repair can be misaligned and disorganized (scar tissue). I heard it best described as non-linear tissue segments attached to linear segments, and when you think of the way the pec muscle fibers run across the chest, it makes for a clear visual.
The Lacrosse ball serves to act as self-massage along the length of the fibers and helps in accelerating tissue recovery, breaking up scar tissue and helping to align the muscle tissue.
After each session, I then use two fingers to search for any remaining tight or sensitive areas. I then gently press into that area and do a mild stretch. This is a simple explanation of a not so simple internal process. Any time remodeling takes place, it’s a slow process and one has to be patient.
The benefit to me is the elimination of scar tissue, less chance of injury, increased mobility with chest exercises, and continued progress in the gym.
Foam Roller – I use a foam roller to work on several areas, but specifically for tight regions such as my IT Band, adductors and hamstrings. My legs get very pumped up from leg training and these particular areas tend to remain tight after training.
The benefit is that I find my recovery is faster and the chance of a muscle pull due to overly tight areas is reduced, much like the lacrosse ball for my pecs.
The key is to perform the foam rolling correctly, not to just roll haphazardly anywhere you feel like it.
Here are two exercises I perform for the IT Band and Adductors:
Glutes and Hips –
These are my favorite exercises to release tightness in the hip flexors and to activate the glutes. The first exercise (7 way hip) starts at 1:38 and the second (open chain clam shell) begins at 4:21
This is also quite good for educational purposes:
And last but not least
I perform these glute exercises as part of a warm-up before doing squats and I find it helps me to have a better range of motion in the lowering phase of the squat. I also perform them a bit later in the day on leg days. If I’m feeling any tightness in my glutes or hips, it immediately relieves it.
Stretching– I used to train and just walk out of the gym or maybe do some half-hearted stretching, but now I stretch each muscle group thoroughly immediately after working it and then again at the end of my workout. I stretch on off days as well. Sounds like a lot but it’s not, and it’s good to see my flexibility increasing as well.
The reason I chose to increase my stretching is that my glute issue was also being affected by tight hamstrings and hips. After stretching both, I felt an immediate improvement in my glute. Based on that, I decided to approach my entire body with the goal of increasing flexibility.
Although a lot of this may look boring and tedious, it’s made my body function better. It has improved my squatting, deadlifting and several other exercises, and I’m able to continue to train with a high-intensity level.
As an added note, anything popular, such as mobility exercises, can get a little overhyped and blown out of proportion. Don’t go crazy with your mobility work; do what you need to do (no 20-minute pre-workout mobility stuff) and then get into the workout.
The bottom line: Mobility work is helping me to excel in the gym and I find it to be part of a well-rounded holistic approach.
If you have any issues or want to improve your lifts, look into mobility work. It will improve your squat, deadlifts, and in fact, all your lifts. You’ll have better control of your entire body and you may find your progress accelerates.