An Approach to Mobility (Originally posted May 20th, 2018)
I started from a trashcan level of mobility and have reached full front splits, full pancake, a deep german hang, and calves to the ground in middle splits over a period of about 3 years. While I’m far from an expert, I’ve learned a decent bit over the past few years and the goal of this post is to summarize what I have learned, describe my current approach from an abstract perspective, and then also talk about how I am applying it. If you have any questions or criticisms, feel free to comment them below. I’m still learning and it’s entirely possible to get something wrong. On a similar note, if you know something doesn’t work for you, or it feels like it hurts, don’t do it blindly. Either consult a medical professional or find something else. You only have one body, don’t screw it up.
This approach isn’t any one concept. I’ve learned a lot from Jordan Garcia, Emmet Louis, Antranik, and Tom Merrick among others. It’d be hard to credit every source because I’ve picked up so much here and there. If you see something here that sounds like it’s from somewhere not mentioned, feel free to link it below as well so that I and others can see it and learn from it.
Abstract Concepts #
I don’t have an elegant way to put this, so I’m basically going to bullet the points that guide my mobility training these days. I’m not following this currently everyday because I’ve gotten very busy with an internship, but when I have it has worked fantastically, decent results came quickly, and most of all it wasn’t a miserable or terribly time-consuming approach to mobility training.
- Spend a little time doing mobility every day - whether this is CARs, light stretching, or whatever it may be, take your joints through their ranges everyday if you can. It doesn’t have to take long, but doing this has gone a long ways towards maintaining mobility when I don’t get the chance to heaviliy pursue it or push it often.
- Work mobility like strength training - between 1 and 3 days a week, depending on how often you feel like it, work your mobility progressively to try and improve it. I have seen great results with even just 1 intense day a week and the aforementioned daily light movement/mobility. 2-4 sets per movement has worked well.
- Unlike strength training, go from isolation to compounds - start with individual muscles/joints, mobilize them before going on to a larger stretch that contains it. For example, stretch your hamstrings, calves, and hip flexors before working on front splits. This will help deal with limiting factors in each position.
- Strengthen your end ranges - when you work with a stretch and it’s a main one that you would like to improve, peform contractions in end ranges. I like 20-30s per contraction, specifically beginning with pushing against the stretch and then pulling myself deeper. Perform all sorts of contractions you can think of. Use your muscles to push against the stretch, use your muscles to try and pull yourself deeper in the stretch, actively hold the stretch with no outside assistance. Do isometrics and active mobility work in every way you can imagine in that position. *By building strength there, you’re basically telling your body you can go into this position you may have not had access to before. *
Take-aways: Do some light work everyday. Once or twice a week do 2-3 of auxillary/warm-up stretches for the positions you’d like to achieve followed by 2-3 sets of intense and focused end-range strengthening work on the main positions you would like to achieve. Spending 20 or so seconds on each stretch (auxillary and main) pushing against the stretch, 20 seconds pulling deeper into the stretch with your own musculature, then spend 20 seconds at the end trying to completely get into the position with your own strength using minimal assitance.
So the main contractions you can do (for 20-30s each) per stretch are:
- pushing against the stretch
- pulling deeper into the stretch with your own musculature (still using outside assistance such as letting gravity pull you into a split while trying to open)
- trying to completely get into the position with your own strength using minimal assitance (this would be trying to lift your leg up after doing a hamstring stretch for example)
I’ll only cover front splits in detail, but the same can be applied for pretty much all stretches. I’ll list some auxillary stretches I like for other positions apart from front splits to cover a bit more, but applying the concepts yourself will help you learn more about how it works instead of just putting a lot out there that can be applied without thought.
Front Splits #
- Do a general warm-up to get the blood flowing so you’re not cold. I also like to do some really basic hamstring and hip flexor stretches to feel out the position before spending quality time in it.
- Do 2-3 sets of paired hamstring, calf, and hip flexor work, separating your splits work per side. So for your right leg forward, it may look like this:
- Do 1 minute of end range contractions with the right leg hamstring and calf (the order of stretches mentioned above would be 20s driving your heel down, 20s trying to pull your torso down with your hip flexors, and 20s lifting your leg off the ground), slowly working deeper. You can move between flexed and pointed feet.
- Do 1 minute of end range contractions with the left leg hip flexor (squared hips!) (20s pushing your back leg/foot into the ground, 20s trying to actively open your hips more, then 20s lifting your leg up behind you into the air potentially from hands and knees on the ground).
- Do 2-3 sets of front splits.
- Per split, after the auxillary stretches, slowly work into the splits and spend about 20-30s pushing against the stretch, then let yourself slide deeper by actively trying to open the splits for 20-30s. After this, more time can be spent in the splits just relaxing, but this seems to do the trick for me and some others I have worked with when using 2-3 sets.
Middle Splits #
- Tailor pose - 20s pushing knees down with hands and pushing against your hands by trying to lift your knees, 20s trying to pull your knees closer to the ground, and then 20s with hands off trying to hold them down.
- Horse stance series - I don’t follow the above protocol with this, but I do like this series by Antranik. I use the frog pose occasionally with the above contraction protocol, but spending time in the position before middle splits is the main important thing.
Shoulder Flexibility #
- Butchers block for shoulder flexion - I follow the above protocol pushing my elbows down into the block, trying to lift my elbows up while still on the block, then scooting forward as close as needed to lift up the elbows. just enough actively.
- Floor shoulder extension - 20s pushing against the floor, 20s trying to lift hands, then 20s scooting back enough to lift the hands (can be done with a bar to keep the hands close and not letting them drift). Be mindful of how the shoulders and elbows feel here.
The main purpose of this post was to get the abstract approach I use out there, along with a big and some smaller examples so that it makes sense. A lot of people don’t like training for flexibility because with standard approaches (60s statics all day everyday) it can get boring. I hope this approach makes flexibility a bit more quantifiable and can give at least some people some better results.