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What you need to know so you can improve your mobility (for good!)

If you’ve been stuck performing endless hours of mobility work, with little to show for it, then you need to read this. 


“Mobility work“ is everywhere you look. Foam rolling, bar smashing, band-pnf’ing, lacrosse balling. Everybody has used one of these things (or all of them) at least once in your life to try and improve mobility. We all have one of those tight spots we have tried to loosen up or are trying to improve our ability to reach that difficult position (overhead squats, amiright?)

The common problem is that people get stuck in an endless loop of performing every mobility drill under the sun in order to feel comfortable doing a workout or activity, only to be right back where they started the next day. 


Why does that happen? Are we just condemned to this hellish loop of never-ending mobility work? Is it genetics? Age? 

Sure, some people may be born “tighter” than others, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t improve their mobility. And age is just an excuse if you ask me (you’re never too old to improve). I believe that everybody can improve their mobility in a meaningful and permanent way. You just need to do it the right way. 


You need to stop approaching mobility work with a “throw shit at the wall to see what sticks” attitude. For example, when you perform every mobility exercise you can think of for your shoulders, hoping that your overhead mobility will improve… I’m telling you to STOP IT.


Are you foam rolling your lats because your lats are the main thing limiting you from going overhead? Or are you foam rolling your lats because it feels good and you’ve seen other people doing it?


Specific problems require specific solutions


The “throwing sh*t at the wall and seeing what sticks” approach may work for some people, but not for the large majority. If you want to make a meaningful difference in how you move (and how you feel), you need to figure out exactly what your limiting factor is, and attack it. Making meaningful changes in tissues for improved mobility and strength in new positions takes consistency and time. Which you probably aren’t getting if you keep changing the mobility drills and area of focus every time you are in the gym. You need to assess, not guess. 


I like to break down mobility limitations into one of three different categories:

  1. Soft tissue limitations

  2. Joint limitations

  3. Stability/motor control dysfunctions

Soft tissue limitations

Soft tissue limitations typically are referring to any tissues that span more than one joint. This includes things like muscles, nerves, and fascia (the connective tissue that runs throughout our body). This can also include scar tissue if you have a history of surgery or significant injuries. A common example is tight lats limiting your ability to reach over your head.


Joint limitations

Joint limitations are generally referring to a singular joint and its ability to move. Joints may be limited by arthritis, fusion, adhesions in the capsule that surrounds a joint, among other things. The capsule surrounding your shoulder joint can sometimes get stiff and tight, causing inefficient movement patterns to emerge and limiting your ability to move.


Here is an example of how I would assess your overhead mobility to determine if it is limited by your lats or by your shoulder joint.

Stabilty/motor control dysfunctions


Stability and motor control dysfunctions (SMCD) are a little different than the previously mentioned categories. Typically what I see with a SMCD is that the person has a plenty of range of motion in order to REACH the desired position, but is not actively able to reach the position due to either a lack of strength in the position or a lack of coordination in the muscles required to help you reach that position. Believe it or not, this is actually the most common of the three categories. A great example of this for overhead mobility is the lumbar-locked thoracic rotation test. It tests your ability to move through your upper back, which is extremely important for getting into an overhead position.

I first see how far you can rotate on your own. If you are limited, can you reach the desired amount of motion with my help? If you can, that tells me that you don’t have to stretch out anything, you need to teach those muscles how to coordinate together to get you in the positions you desire, and strengthen those positions.


Do you know what’s limiting your mobility the most?

Is it soft tissues, joint, or a motor control dysfunction? This is the first question you must answer if you want to make true improvement in your ability to move and move well. Combine this with CONSISTENTLY performing specific drills over TIME, and you have yourself a winning recipe for mobility gains. This is why class mobility work most likely isn’t enough to improve your mobility on its own. You have to remember that it is usually designed to get you ready for whatever that day’s workout is, not to target your specific limitations. Random drills performed at infrequent times rarely ever works (I would say never, but only a sith deals in absolutes).


If you have been struggling with your mobility and feel like you have got nowhere after months of effort, you should have an in-depth movement analysis performed by a qualified professional. You need to find what your most limiting factors are, and get a personalized plan to attack those factors. You may be surprised by what you find has been stopping you from getting improved mobility. If you are just throwing shit at the wall…


it’s time to get it together, get assessed, and improve your mobility for good


If you have any questions or are looking to get YOUR mobility assessed, send me a message! I offer in-person and online movement assessments to help you get back on track and targeting the right areas.

Move better. You deserve it. 

Jacob Erbes PT, DPT, CMFA, CFL1

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