7 Reasons CrossFit Athletes Should Reconsider Their Mobility Training (And why it’s not resolving their pain)

pain training Apr 11, 2023

CrossFitters are some of the most badass athletes I've ever had the pleasure of working with, but unfortunately, most of them are struggling with some funky combination of pain in the knee, hip, low back, or shoulder in some way. 

The problem comes from a lack of movement technique that stems from poor proprioception (movement awareness) and weak range of motion (poor mobility). It seems simple, right? Well, there's more to it that can make all the difference and get you the mobility gains you've been looking for, so much faster.

In this article, we'll be diving into how traditional CrossFit mobility programs fall short in helping you resolve pain and prevent injury and what you should be looking for to see the progress you need. 

Let's dive in!

Pain and CrossFit Training

CrossFit is such a beautiful training methodology–it can be wildly complex with important nuances of movement in the gymnastic and Olympic lifting components. Still, it can also be so progressive in that you can find a way to scale back every exercise to the point that meets you where you're at. There's beauty to the training and so many benefits to the workouts.

One of the main reasons CrossFit gets a bad rap in the fitness industry is the high rate of injuries. As I'm sure you already know, a big reason behind this is due to a simple mathematical equation that seems to plague so many CrossFitters. Movement complexity + a competitive atmosphere - proprioception = risk of injury. Sprinkle in a little (more like a lot) joint restriction, tight shoulders, tight hips, and poor overall mobility, and you have a bitter-tasting pot of pain.

How To Ditch The Pain

The key to reducing said pain is not only by improving the mobility of the joints but also by improving your understanding of where your body is in space as you move. This is your proprioceptive awareness. You can know what position your pelvis is in while squatting, how your scapula is tracking when getting the barbell overhead, or what position your wrists are in when catching a snatch. Mobility and proprioception work hand in hand to collaborate to make the best pain-reducing effect.

Why Most Mobility Programs Don't Resolve Pain

The way I see it, there are seven reasons why most traditional mobility programs don't resolve pain. Let's break them down.

  1. Always Chasing The Symptoms

Training your mobility can be so proactive in the pursuit of longevity and pain/injury prevention. Still, most people will usually begin their journey diving into the spiciness of genuine mobility training AFTER they've discovered some pain, injury, or performance-based issues. 

When pain perks up, it's only a human tendency to pay close attention to the "squeaky wheel." While this approach can help relieve the area causing you discomfort, it's a short-term solution. If your low back hurts, throwing in random mobility exercises after your workout, foam rolling or stretching out the low back will only give you a glimpse of what life is like without that nagging issue. Then it turns around, slaps you in the face, and gives it right back.

  1. Prioritizing The Wrong Things

Historically, mobility has most commonly been approached in two ways: through soft tissue manipulation (foam rolling, muscle smashing, etc.) and passive stretching techniques (long static stretches, banded distractions, etc.). While there is absolutely nothing wrong with using these techniques, they are simply a tiny component of what genuinely helps you move better with less pain. 

I like to think of a mobility program as a recipe. All great recipes have multiple ingredients. When was the last time you ate a bowl of plain rice or just a dry piece of chicken breast (I'd rather die on the assault bike than be forced to death by dry, plain chicken breast)? Like all great recipes have multiple ingredients, all excellent mobility training programs have various approaches that lead you to build strength and control in your deepest range of motion. That's where the pain-free performance is.

  1. They Can Be Boring

Listen, I get it. The last thing you probably feel like doing is training your mobility after a long day. Sitting in a long ass stretch in the pigeon pose for 3+ minutes sounds awful to me, too (I don't think I've ever actually done that, if I'm being honest - there are much better ways)

Most CrossFitters love the grind of a good workout. It's fun moving heavy weights, getting a sweat on, and seeing progress in technique. But what if your mobility training was meant to be just as spicy as your workouts (sometimes even more challenging) and could get you aware of all the different components of your body that have been limiting your progress in the gym and causing you pain as a result? That's what genuine mobility training should do for you. It should be so challenging that it rivals your WODs on the spicy scale.

  1. Not Addressing The Root Cause

Like #1 (chasing the symptoms), most traditional mobility programs lack insight into the root cause. Not only are they proverbially "beating around the bush," but they are also often missing the critical components needed to address the pain for the long term. To make progress toward pain reduction, the root cause of the pain must be addressed. Or else you're almost just as likely to make the same pain-reducing results as you would by taking some Advil (definitely not something I'd recommend for long-term issues, of course, just trying to make a relatable comparison here). This is why the program you're following should be following a bigger-picture approach to where your pain may stem from and helping you make progress there rather than solely at the site of discomfort. 

  1. It's Random

Just like any other fitness/health protocol, without a strategy, it's just a blind effort. If you want to make real, long-lasting results toward your specific issues, you need a program designed strategically for your particular issues. You have a unique lifestyle, injury, and movement habit history that has created a very distinctive result. Ensure that the program you're following is tailored specifically to you or is, at the very least, supported by a strategic methodology and follows a logical anatomical order.

  1. There's No Education

Something that bothers me to no end is the thought of someone going through a mobility program without learning anything tangible. Sure, the results are what you're after, but how effective are those results if you don't truly understand them in a way that empowers you? What if your symptoms or issues come back in a few months? Are you going to understand how to approach it or how you should be moving to continue building up that foundation? Your program should be a learning opportunity. You should develop more understanding of your body and foster movement awareness that gives you power over your situation.

If you're not learning, it's not a real investment. Although the program should 100% be giving you the gains you're chasing, if you're not learning, those results are just rented. Do your due diligence early and ensure you're getting started with an approach that will leave you with a bigger brain too.

  1. There's No One To Consult With

Most (definitely not all) programs out there don't offer some form of ongoing coaching. While the program itself is a powerful resource to provide you with progress toward your pain, you can miss out on a lot of additional benefits if it's not paired with a coaching experience. What if you're confused about how a movement should be performed? Or if something feels "off" (like your hip is pinching or particular positions/exercises cause discomfort)? Will you have someone there to guide you or help you scale/progress/substitute a movement accordingly? If you feel like you may not need someone in your corner who truly understands mobility training, you may never know what kind of results and long-term benefits you are missing out on. On average, our members at Primal Mobility will continue to live with their results for more than four years after working with us and have the tools and understanding to address any other issues that have shown up. This is the power behind good coaching and following a strategic, strength-based methodology—the Primal Method. The proof is in the pudding, and we're proud of it!

The Primal Mobility Golden Rule

CrossFit is a badass training methodology that pushes you to your limits consistently. Although I personally love it and appreciate the mental resilience it can help build, I also notice that it breeds a "finish the reps, no matter what" type mentality.

Our "Golden Rule" at Primal Mobility is clear and simple. Never Approach Pain.

Let me explain how pain has an impact on your mobility results.

Pain and Mobility Training

Why is that? The human body has a 24/7 personal bodyguard. Just like we have an autonomic (subconscious) system to help us breathe, digest, and pump our blood, we also have a system to keep us safe from injury. This is known as our stretch reflex. Its job is to automatically contract our muscles when we get into ranges of motion that we do not currently have good control over, which helps us avoid exploding our hips/groin muscles when our skis start to separate and move in different directions (ouch). Training our mobility is basically just a game of influencing this stretch reflex through the nervous system. Pain is perceived as a threat and can cause heightened excitability from the stretch reflex, which naturally slows progress, not to mention the fact that pain is also a sign that something is "off" and should be adjusted.

When it comes to mobility training, our end goal is always to improve our strength and control within deep (often new, unfamiliar, and previously unused) ranges of motion. We do this by proving to our nervous system that these ranges are safe and manageable through a combination of active and passive exercises.

Resolve Your Pain

Mobility training is relatively new in the fitness industry, and many CrossFitters are finally starting to catch on; it's one of the most productive and effective approaches to resolving pain and seeing gains in movement mechanics. Remember that not all mobility work or mobility programs are made the same.

Look for programs that offer more than just stretching or long static holds, and some components of coaching as well. This way, you can truly reduce your pain/risk of injury and have a trusted expert there to guide you in the right direction when things get confusing. This is how you save yourself years of wasted effort and reach the point much faster. 

If you're struggling with pain and are ready to learn how to address it so you finally feel confident and can get back to lifting heavy weights without fear, like a boss…book a free consultation with our Head of Coaching, Bekah Oh. She will help you understand what you need to do to reach your goals and point you in the right direction (whether with us or on your own, we want to see you succeed).

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