I can’t believe it’s been two years now
since I composed the first version of this piece.
Consider this the updated edition.
This iteration isn’t just edits.
There is some new info
for you Joint Mobility junkies.
I have spent a lot of money
and a lot of time trying to get out of pain.
When it was evident that there was no amount of money
that could get me out of pain,
I shifted my attention to figuring out pain (non-neuropathic pain).
Since then, I’ve made significant inroads into understanding the nature of pain…
I won’t detail the discovery here but my understanding of pain
is in no way similar to the now popular “Neuromatrix Theory of Pain.”
(How useful is an over-complication of the simple Black Box Model?)
It is far, far simpler…
but that’s a whole other article.
I used to do isometrics.
I used to do static stretching.
I used to do foam rolling.
I used to do instability training on balls and discs.
One of the last practices that fell away
in my quest out of chronic (or what I call omni-contextual) pain
was “joint mobility.”
To be honest, I don’t even like writing or saying the words.
The main reason being is that it is such an imprecise term.
And each guru has a different definition,
different principles and a different practice of it.
One guru says to do it to maintain Range Of Motion (ROM).
Another says to to do so to nourish the joints.
Yet another says to reeducate the Nervous System.
Well, EVERYTHING reeducates the Nervous System.
Principles are often correct
but when it comes to practice,
those can go off the rails a bit.
One guru tell you to do more and more of it.
Another tells you to make your practice more and more complex.
Yet another tells you to make more precise.
Only if necessary.
“The clarity with which we define a term determines it’s usefulness.”
As I said before, I don’t even use the term, “Joint Mobility.”
I like another term that is a bit more self explanatory:
What makes joint mobility so unique?
Joint Mobility is most often small movement.
What’s so special about small movement?
Well, in the hands of the right practitioner,
performance can go way up
and pain can go way down…
if not away completely.
Some may argue that it is outside of the scope of practice
for a trainer to relieve pain. As for me,
I think it’s outside of the scope of practice
for a trainer to put their clients in pain
(and when you teach your clients to follow their body, they don’t!).
I used to post incessantly on Internet Forums
about how Joint Mobility could instantly eliminate pain
(in some people – especially those who have been in pain less than a year).
That is why I was drawn to it
and that’s why many are still drawn to it.
It makes sense: movement puts people in pain
so movement can take them out of it.
But are micro-movements the only movements that can relieve pain?
As it turns out – No.
As people have been testing their big movements (macromovement or MM),
they are finding out that tested movement is correlated with pain relief.
Doesn’t it make sense, though?
Big movements put people in pain…
shouldn’t big movements be able to take people out of pain..
and isn’t that more specific, anyway?
While the biofeedback based (Gym) Movement Protocol
is not intended to relieve pain
(It is intended to deliver a PR every workout),
we can’t help it if it does.
After all, all exercises that test well are corrective exercises.
There is no need for separate performance and recovery parameters.
When all of your exercise is corrective,
do you really need warmups, prehab, rehab or cooldowns?
Among those following the (Gym) Movement Protocol,
practices such as isometrics, static stretching,
foam rolling, warm-ups and yes, joint mobility,
are becoming things of the past.
What follows are insights from my personal practice of joint mobility
that has allowed me to go from practicing more joint mobility
than probably anyone on the planet
to basically ending my joint mobility practice.
The Micro-Movement (mM) Manifesto
1. Find the minimal effective amount (mEA) of mM practice
If you were to survey movements from everything but fitness, how often would you see isolated micromovements?
Pretty much never.
It seems micromovements are an affectation. Unless mMs are your sport, seek the mEA. This includes finding the mEA of mM practice to acquire the ability to do it and the mEA of practice to maintain it.
2. Test your mM
mMs were the last thing I tested. Why? I wasn’t taught to. I was taught when done correctly, mMs cannot hurt you. Wrong.
Just as macromovements can hurt you, so can micromovements. So test them. Use your biometric of choice to test: for me, ROM is the fastest and most reliable way to administer a self test.
3. Gross to Fine
Whenever we learn movement, we learn in a gross fashion and from there we refine. While your goal may be to differentiate your movement (moving one part without moving another), understand that too fine a motion may be too difficult in the beginning…so start bigger. For example, start with full spinal rotation before you progress to only rotating your thoracic spine.
4. Use Different Shapes
People practice Joint Mobility using some very funky shapes: figure eights, infinities, clover leafs. While there is some benefit to using different shapes, the shapes I recommend are those that start off curvilinear and move towards linear. The least challenging to your tissue is to move in is a spiral. The most challenging to your tissue is a line (and it’s the most specific to how we move). Following that logic, what do you think is potentially more dangerous to your tissue? mMs or MMs? Keep that in mind.
5. Test Your Type of mM: more spiral, more circular or more linear?
Sure, moving the hip tests well, but does moving the hip in all directions test the best? Just because circumduction of the hip has been testing well doesn’t mean hip flexion and extension won’t test better. As a very general rule of thumb, on better days expect to be able to move more linearly. On worse days, expect your movement to be less direct. Over time, expect your “joint mobility” practice to look more and more like active, dynamic and ballistic flexibility training. Isn’t that the logical conclusion of moving from circles to lines?
6. Speed is Dependent Upon Shape
When you move in a spiralic fashion, you will move slower than when you move linearly. No need for multiple speeds. Simply move at the fastest speed you can while maintaining movement quality. Expect that as you build the movement skill your speed will increase. You’ll notice as your speed increases, the shape becomes more linear.
7. Change Direction as Sensations Make Themselves Known
As you approach end ROM, you will feel stretch tension. Change direction with whatever shape (more circular or more linear) you are using. Expect your ROM to increase as you move. If you work to your absolute ROM limits, expect those limits to remain the same or become more limited. If you work at the leading edge of your limitations, expect to become less limited.
8. Have an External Focus
There is mountain of empirical data supporting the use of an external focus vs an internal focus when looking at performance. I personally have run tons of “anecdotal” experiments assessing the efficacy of an external focus on pain relief on both myself and countless others. The results are in: external focus is where it is at.
Yet our gurus will tell us to feel our muscles and feel our joints in order to move correctly. Moving correctly doesn’t require an internal focus. In fact, we are designed to be externally focused and internally governed. Your body lets you know when something is going wrong or about to go wrong. You don’t need to seek a “sensation.” In fact, you need to avoid particular sensations: specifically, those correlated with effort.
9. Avoid the Elements of Effort
Most of us have learned to avoid failure and have set more PRs because of it. Those using the Gym Movement Protocol have learned to avoid those Elements of Effort that precede failure and have PRed every workout. It’s only logical. Let me explain.
Let’s say you are going for a lift and you start to fail. What do you do? You slow down, start tensing harder, you change your breathing, you shift your alignment. If that doesn’t work, you fail…and sometimes throughout this effort, you might feel pain. And sometimes if you feel pain it’s because you caused damage.
Don’t just avoid failure, avoid those things that precede failure – the first being a loss of speed. Applying this to lifting allows for a PR every workout. What would happen if we applied this to our mobility and flexibility/ROM training, as well?
10. Don’t Have a Fixed Rep Count
Your body requires a different number of reps at different times. When performing movement, one of the first signs of excessive tension is a slowing of speed. If your rep speed slows, that may be a good indicator to terminate that set. If your speed increases or doesn’t decrease, consider continuing your set.
11. No Need To Do Them In All Contexts
There are endless body positions including sitting, standing, lying, gait positions, sports positions, etc. Does that mean that you should practice all joint mobility in all positions? Absolutely not. There is lateral transferability of skills. Learn your mMs in one context, apply in all contexts when needed.
12. Have a Good Reason For Doing It
In my opinion, the use of mMs have two purposes: movement acquisition and movement correction. When I teach jiujitsu, I have to break big movements down into smaller movements in order for my students to learn them…but I don’t break movement down any smaller than I have to. I recommend you don’t either – for ANY movement.
When dealing with very special cases of pain relief, I sometimes have to break movement down smaller than I do in my performance practices. Even then, I don’t make movement any more isolated than necessary. In fact, for long term pain, isolated movement is often contraindicated.
13. Move What’s Not Moving
Seeing what is moving too much is easy. Maybe that’s why corrective exercise experts focus on it. They do so by stabilizing what’s moving too much with contraindicated levels of tension. This path is a downward spiral of immobility. Conversely, when you move what isn’t moving, what is moving too much often moves quite a bit less.
Take me for example: from my years as a martial artist throwing punches and kicks, I run in a very inefficient pattern by rotating through my spine. As opposed to me stiffening my spine, I might work on arm extension which would allow me to disperse force without rotating my spine.
In many cases, there is a probably a good reason why something isn’t moving. Just because an issue requires correction doesn’t mean it requires correction today. Remember – test to see if moving what isn’t moving is actually good for you.
14. Progress your mM
If a mM tests well, more than likely you can modify it to test better.
The simplest modifications are adding speed or load.
15. More Diagnostic, Less Therapeutic
The practice of Joint Mobility has largely been therapeutic. I use it for another purpose: diagnostics. Fitness is bloated with assessments. Let me simplify it for you.
Everything is an assessment.
True…but are you going to assess everything?
So let me give you one thing to assess…but first let me ask you some questions.
What is your function?
Where do movements occur?
Joints (almost exclusively) which is determined by the shape or form of the joint where the movement occurs.
What might be a good measure of function?
Joint Motion / mobility / micromovement
Hold on to this thought.
More to come.
16. Move Smaller, See better
Sometimes the easiest way to see what isn’t moving is to practice moving everything independently. This may be the biggest benefit. Moving better has allowed me to see better.
17. It Isn’t About the Nervous System
I can’t tell you how many people, including those in the movement, do the same “joint mobility” warm-up or the same pre-lift joint mobility primer workout after workout, month after month, year after year.
If you’re doing or having to do the same thing over and over again, here’s a clue: it isn’t working!!!
If the goal is to do the drill, forget the drill, why are your still doing the drill?
Because the drill isn’t sticking.
Why isn’t the drill sticking?
Is it because you have a nervous system deficiency?
Most likely not.
If the goal of joint mobility is to move what’s not moving,
what resists motion?
The nervous system?
Sure. Sometimes, the nervous system inhibits motion.
But would the NS inhibit motion that tests well?
What else resists motion? Dunno?
Think like a massage therapist for a moment.
Tissue resists motion.
What allows for motion also resists motion.
How much musculoskeletal change
are you going to get doing unresisted micromovements?
Might that be why you’re still doing
your Dad’s joint mobility?
How do you get musculoskeletal change?
You already know the answer to that.
Increased load and/or speed with sufficient volume.
But does that mean just do standard joint mobility loaded or as fast as you can?
18. Integrate your mM
More than likely, you didn’t lose motion in an isolated fashion. A you didn’t move in one area, you did move in others. What I mean to say is, you developed dysfunction in macromovements. Often the quickest way to restore function is through macromovements.
Use the list of joint motions below as a diagnostic.
What can you not move?
Then see if adding these motions (which test well) into your standard exercise practice doesn’t eliminate your need for joint mobility…and let me know how it works for you.
What follows below are some (not all) of the joint areas in the body and how they move. You can practice these open chained, close chained, bilaterally or unilaterally.
flexion, extension, abduction, adduction, transition between those
flexion, extension, abduction, adduction
dorsiflexion, plantarflexion, eversion, inversion, transition between those
flexion, extension, rotation in a flexed position, transition between those
rotation, flexion, extension, abduction, adduction, circumduction
anterior, posterior and lateral tilting, transition between those, forward & backward torsion
rotation, anterior, posterior and lateral translation, transition between those, flexion, extension, lateral flexion and extension, transition between those
retrusion, protrusion, elevation, depression, lateral translation, transition between those
upward and downward rotation, elevation, retraction, protraction retraction, transition between those
rotation, flexion, extension, horizontal abduction and adduction, abduction, adduction, circumduction
supination, pronation, flexion extension, transition between those
flexion, extension, ulnar and radial deviation, transition between those
opposition, reposition, flexion, extension, abduction, adduction
flexion, extension, abduction, adduction, transition between those