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Why Foam Rolling And Stretching Isn’t Helping your client’s mobility (and what to do instead)

foundations Feb 27, 2023

Are you finding that your clients often prefer to just skip their “mobility work?” That they just half-ass their stretching and aimlessly squish their quads, glutes and back on the foam roller without much intention? Well, I would too; that shit is boring, and there is a better way to make progress that is far more exciting for your clients as well.

In this article, we’ll have a look at the most common approaches to mobility, why they generally don’t work the way people want them to, and how you, as the coach, can start elevating the mobility game and start to become known as a mobility expert in your community.

Let’s get into it!

Foam Rolling For Mobility

Let’s start off with foam rolling (or any variation of muscle smashing/SMR - Self Myofascial Release). See, foam rolling is often used as an attempted solution to an ongoing, seemingly endless problem. While it’s been getting a lot of heat lately for being a complete waste of time, I have my own opinions on it that I think help everyone win. There are 2 main reasons why foam rolling is such a popular approach to “improving mobility”.

  1. It feels damn good (sometimes in such a painful way)
  2. It offers immediate and very temporary improvements to range of motion and reduction to the perception of pain (the results here are often only present for up to 4 hours)

Both of these benefits are immediately gratifying, which makes it a very appealing approach. If it works so well, why wouldn’t I use it? Well, the problem isn’t that foam rolling doesn’t work; it’s just that it doesn’t work the way most people actually think it works, and their approach to foam rolling reflects that.

Foam Rolling For Range Of Motion

Our range of motion is governed by our nervous system. In order to create real, genuine, long-term results for our ROM and ultimately reduce the amount of unnecessary stress being placed on our joints and muscle tissue during our training, we need to have greater influence over our nervous system’s response that creates a muscular restriction in the first place. Foam rolling alone does not do this (imagine me intensely and passionately clapping in between each word here). 

There are some fascinating concepts behind this which we won’t dive into right now (the myotatic reflex), but the most important thing to remember is that you must find a way to influence the nervous system. I know that this might sound complex at face value, but I’ve found that the simplest way to look at this is to think of it as “building trust” in the deep ranges of motion. In order to improve your range of motion for a longer period of time, you have to show the body that it can handle the deeper, funky positions you’re looking to get it into. This means you need to foster control and strength. This is exactly why the body reverts back to its previous state so quickly after foam rolling. The surface pressure of the roller offers instant feedback to the nervous system, but the body quickly realizes that no genuine change has been made.

How To Use Foam Rolling With Clients

Now, I’m gonna go out on a hunch here and say that I’m pretty damn sure you’re an amazing coach, and since you’re reading this article, you are dedicated to continuing to grow and master your craft. And I know I’m right…so I also know that you want better pain reduction, ROM improvement, performance enhancement, and results for your clients. So just know that if your clients seem to enjoy foam rolling, there's absolutely no reason to take it out of their rotation. It can actually be a helpful tool in ROM progression. Just make sure you’re making efforts toward developing control and strength in the deep ranges of motion to make any real, lasting progress. The foam roller also has somewhat of a “down-regulating” effect on the nervous system that seems to calm rather than “excite”. This makes foam rolling generally a better method to be used post-workout rather than pre-workout. Either way, I won’t tell you exactly how to use it because I believe that you know your clients best and that every case deserves a unique approach, but hopefully, the facts are clear, and you understand how you can best manipulate the roller to your advantage.

Benefits of foam rolling/muscle smashing/SMR:

  • Reduced perception of pain/physical discomfort
  • Temporarily improved range of motion
  • Temporary reduction of joint tension
  • A good tool for tissue health and maintenance
  • A great tool to help reduce DOMS and improve recovery

*Personally, I haven’t needed to use a foam roller for years, and the majority of our clients have completely ditched theirs as they no longer feel the need for it anymore either. Improving mobility is a fantastic way to have people forget about the roller.

Once realizing that foam rolling is not mobility training, we can start to dive a little deeper and look at the next most popular approach that seems to have no real agenda behind it - stretching. 

Stretching For Mobility

Alright, alright, alright…don’t even think about jumping on my back about this one. If you know me at all at this point, you should already know that I’m not about to say that there are no benefits to stretching (I mean, for god's sake, I literally said there is a benefit to foam rolling, which is probably the most useless approach to improving mobility). I believe that everything has its pros and cons, and it’s how we choose to use it that dictates how effective it is. So let me clarify even more here, when I say stretching, I’m referring to static passive or dynamic passive stretching*.

Stretching For ROM

As previously explained above, ROM progress comes from the recognition of the nervous system that the human body can manage the deep ranges of motion. This truly only begins to happen for us when we can prove that we can control those particular positions. Maybe this could help paint the picture, how common do you think it is for someone to sit in a pigeon pose for a few minutes, stretch their hip flexors in a couch stretch, stretch their calves to open up their ankles, but still make no genuine change to their overall comfort and depth to their squat? Pretty friggin common…It isn’t until we begin applying engagement, displaying control, and developing strength in our ROM that we start to see those types of changes. Our nervous system has seen that we can handle them and trusts that we won’t get injured, so it grants us access to greater ranges. It’s simple, I like analogies to help me grasp concepts, so think of it this way - similar to how a mother will tell her children, “if you finish your plate, you can have more potatoes”, your body will tell you “if you can control your deepest range of motion, you can have more range of motion”. So I guess range of motion = potatoes…

As always, don’t hesitate to keep stretching into your client’s mobility protocol. It’s a very important piece of the puzzle as it will help set the stage for what needs to come next. But don’t leave it at that, you’re missing out on a lot of potato gains.

*Static Passive = stretching a muscle(s) without actively engaging muscles and without movement (ie. classic pigeon or couch stretch)

Dynamic Passive = stretching a muscle(s) without actively engaging muscles with movement (ie. any passive flow type stretching)

So, let’s go a little bit further and actually give you some tools to use with your clients that will make a legitimate impact on how they feel, how they move, and how they perform. Let’s dive into a few of the individual pillars of the Primal Method, and I’ll even give you a few of our exercises so you can learn why and how you should be doing them.

Mobility Exercises

In a world-class mobility training program, there will be multiple components that are touched on in order to offer the greatest results. *Each of these components makes up a pillar in the Primal Method (we have 5 pillars in our methodology, but I’ve taken one out for this article because all exercises should improve Awareness & Connection) and are strategically placed in order to help lay a foundation for the next. Since I’ll be discussing each component in fine detail in my next article (where I’ll teach you how to build a world-class mobility training program that actually gets your clients results), let’s just cut to the chase and have a look at some exercises you can start using to help your clients right away.

*The Primal Method consists of 5 pillars that are strategically placed in a logical order for fluent mobility progression

  1. Awareness & Connection
  2. Build New Ranges
  3. Stability
  4. Movement Control
  5. Strength

Exercises For Range Of Motion

I probably don’t have to offer you any exercises for the Build New Ranges pillar, but I will anyway because I think the nuances of the exercises actually matter. To increase our range of motion, we’ll want to have a quick impact on the tissues and nervous system. This can be done quickly through short, isometric contractions in a technique called PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation) or through passive-based stretching (you can even do foam rolling here, but it certainly isn’t my favourite approach as it has the most marginal effect on the nervous system so the results may be limited). Even with a static passive stretching approach, it’s important to remember the intention behind what it is that you’re trying to achieve with the stretch. Most people will blindly get into a position and assume they're doing something, but there's likely a better way, so show you one classic static stretch and two PNF-based stretches.

Here are 3 exercises that you can use to build new ranges of motion with your clients:

  1. Strict Static Couch - https://youtu.be/IfmiloFE7XE
  2. 2. Hip Flexor PNF: https://youtu.be/qiW_tKXeyLA
  3. 3. Breathing Frog: https://youtu.be/KUQ44hmXZ0U

Exercises For Stability

Building stability is often a wonderfully awful experience. This is where you first begin to communicate with the nervous system that you’re in charge and that you want to keep those stubborn ranges of motion. It’s where you first start expressing your dominance over the autonomic responses that the nervous system has spent however much time instilling. It’s tough, it’s unpleasant, and it’s amazing. Once you begin to foster stability, you lay a beautifully well-built foundation for movement control. Stability exercises are generally done in the particular ranges of motion that we want to improve and in an isometric manner. Training isometrically helps us teach our muscles to contract and engage more efficiently in the deepest ranges of motion that are often very unfamiliar. Be prepared for some shaking, complaining, and some serious burning, but to feel fantastic afterward! 

Here are 3 exercises that you can use to build ROM stability for your clients:

  1. Deep Lunge Iso: https://youtu.be/PKbqZNikTF8
  2. 2. Tall Frog ISO: https://youtu.be/Lojlxp1U72o
  3. 3. Front Split Liftoff ISO: https://youtu.be/hjcFH9MtvVU

Exercises For Movement Control

Movement control is the next logical step toward building strong, “bulletproof” mobility. Once you have begun communicating with the nervous system about how you plan to take over the world (at least you’ll feel that way once you start developing control), you can step your game up, elevate the stakes, and start to apply movement. With stability, we focus on isometrics to lay the foundation; in movement control, we generally focus on eccentrics, as well as deep ROM activation exercises. This further cements the influence you have over your nervous system's autonomic responses (excitability of the myotatic reflex) and helps you hold onto your results to ultimately show it whose boss (strength, what I actually mean is strength, your nervous system is still pretty much the boss, and it only allows you to do certain things once you’ve actually put the work in to prove you can handle it. We’re just a pawn in the nervous system's game). 

Here are 3 exercises that you can use to build movement control for your clients:

  1. Dorsiflexion Squats: https://youtu.be/oUsc4goHsG8
  2. 2. Shoulder Levers: https://youtu.be/qflmMGmOYpA
  3. 3. Standing Hip CARs: https://youtu.be/oqNJ-TZw5mo

Exercises For Strength

Now we’re really cookin’... With strength comes true opportunity. Opportunity to make sustainable changes to your “baseline” mobility. Where you will have the chance to create a new foundation for what your nervous system “reverts back to” in the future. Now your nervous system truly believes that you can handle deep ROM and will have no problem offering those ranges to you without a second thought. You’ll notice fewer restrictions, less pain/discomfort, improved positions, improved recovery, etc. It’s common for many people to not even realize how much progress they’ve made once strength is built because they will often reach a “new end-range” that provides the same “tight” feelings the old end-range did. Clients will have gained 3 inches of ROM without realizing it simply because of how smooth and fluid it feels. That’s what you want. You want it to be so good that they completely forget how bad it was in the first place. Let’s dive in.

Here are 3 exercises that you can use to build ROM strength for your clients:

  1. Hip Flexion Holds: https://youtu.be/3TANnZcH_VQ
  2. 2. Ankle Reapers: https://youtu.be/FdNJZFhpPfs
  3. 3. Primal Shoulder Checks: https://youtu.be/5p7PnqxAAH

Mobility Programming

At the end of the day, what your clients care most about is the results. How they get those results is up to you as the coach. You can keep the foam rolling and keep that passive stretching approach, but make sure you are doing more than that to offer legitimate, long-term results that your clients will rave about. It won’t necessarily make them look better naked (I mean, indirectly, it might), but it will have them feeling stronger, standing taller, feeling more confident in their body, and feeling so free that they forget they even had pain. 

If you want to become known as the mobility expert in your gym, your community, or your industry…don’t hesitate to join us and let us show you the ways. We’ll teach you every single detail about what it takes to be a world-class mobility coach, how to dive into a tight niche that solves a big problem, and how to take that knowledge and make some solid money with it by helping more people.

If you care about being a world-class coach and elevating the industry by becoming one of the best mobility coaches on the planet, I want to work with you!

Click here to check out the details of the Primal Mobility Certification. 

Matt Phili

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