If you’ve been going to an affiliate for a while, you’ve likely noticed people pulling out strange props before class- all sorts of bands, balls, sticks, lengths of foam- and then sticking them in strange places. While there may be deeper individual reasons for doing this, most of these people are trying to prep themselves for the workout by making sure their muscles feel a little fresher or joints move a little easier. These implements all fall loosely under the term “mobility tools,” and today we’re going to dive into what they (broadly) are, why people use them, and when they are (and more specifically when they are NOT) appropriate.
The balance of mobility tools fall into a few large categories. “Self-myofascial release” (SMR) tools include foam rollers, lacrosse balls, orbs, sticks, and those crazy pseudo-drill looking things. They are all designed to create some degree of pressure and change in tissues, similar to what a massage would do.
Next, bands, straps, and other tools can be useful to create tension along muscles or “distraction” at joint capsules. This can help you achieve deeper ranges of motion and/or stretch on muscles.
Lastly, some devices are for compression- Voodoo floss bands chief among them, but also stuff like the wild looking Normatec boots that do full limb compression. Generally those are rare and used more by top athletes since they cost a ton and take up lots of space.
The rise in popularity of most of these modalities can be traced to Kelly Starrett, his MoblityWOD series, and his book Supple Leopard. Kelly’s great contribution to the fitness space was to encourage people to become active participants in their pursuit of better movement, less pain, and reduced injury risk, as well as serving to demystify some of the techniques used by “the pros” and put them in plain and accessible language.
Most people use mobility tools because their coach told them or they read somewhere that it will help with their soreness, inflexibility, or feelings of personal isolation in an increasingly digital world… or something like that. Jokes aside, a useful analogy here is the CrossFit athlete as a car. If you want the car to be faster, you can do all sorts of different work on the engine, transmission, exhaust, etc. but the easiest thing to do is make sure the parking brake isn’t on. Lack of mobility and/or flexibility makes positions harder to get into, which means you spend more energy to do so. If your hip or ankle mobility prevents you from squatting to depth easily and you do Karen (150 Wall Balls for time) you will lose to a less conditioned athlete who squats easily.
Beyond that, I like to tell my members that our bodies are “beautiful, but kind of stupid, machines”- they can do amazing things, but often don’t “care” how they get done. If my hips or ankles are making my squat hard, you better believe my lower back is going to try and “help out”- good coaches will correct some of this, but sometimes the problems can be subtle enough to be imperceptible. Simply put, shitty mobility under load and exertion, over time, will equal ouch.
Here’s where things get controversial: mobility tools are not magic bullets, and there are definitely places/times where they are more effective, and ways to use them more or less effectively.
The Possibly Wasting Your Time Camp
I think it’s best to think of mobility tools as one small part of a much bigger mobility practice. Spending 5 minutes before class just gliding over the “ouchy” stuff isn’t gonna do it. In fact, there’s a decent chance you may be misdiagnosing what the problem is or that the “tools” are not sufficient to fix the problem in the first place.
SMR requires an incredible amount of pressure, applied in the proper places, many of which are fairly hard to get to. Foam rollers especially, but even balls and power tools, fail to create the necessary pressure (beyond which our nervous system tends to prevent us from causing ourselves too much discomfort and will self-govern your efforts.) Think of it like trying to do surgery that needs a scalpel, but instead you are using a paint brush- probably won’t hurt, but its not getting in there. There’s lots of other research about the false-positive effect of SMR as it applies to temporary deadening of nerve endings and pain receptors, which make things feel better without actually making them better.
Banded stretching is similar, as increased laxity in joints or tissues is only sometimes what people need, even when they think they need it. At best, you are creating temporary change in joint ROM that may last you through the workout, but not long after. Unless you want to commit to doing 30 minutes of band work before every workout for the rest of your life, you may want to explore other options. At worst, you may be feeding laxity to joints that are already overly loose (feelings of “tightness” are often false positives, which is a whole other topic) and exposing yourself to injury.
The Not Wasting Your Time Camp
The solution? More time spent in challenging positions, targeted strength work for areas that are lagging behind, and better patterning and practice of movements. These will all get you much further than rolling around on a piece of foam (that seems sort of obvious when its put like that, right?) In the end active work- stuff you actually have to do, is always going to beat out passive work (stuff that is done to you, or that you do by lying on something or mushing something on you.)
If you are going to use a tool to improve mobility think about it as creating a little “window” of happiness for that tissue or joint. What you do after you have created that window is key- try and use it to reinforce good joint positions, movement, etc. For example, if you have trouble in an overhead position and use a band to stretch your shoulders, capitalize on the happy shoulders window by doing some overhead carries that will build stability and mobility (flexibility + control) in that position. If you do that semi regularly you will actually see change in what you can do, possibly to the point that you don’t need to stretch your shoulders for 15 minutes before every workout- that’s the goal, right?