Why mobility training is important for ALL combat athletes
In this article, we reach out to the Head Mobility Coach at CMBT Training Centre Brit Cook to explain the importance of mobility training for combat athletes and how you can start enhancing your mobility for optimal performance.
Combat athletes dive headfirst into their training demands: there’s no reasonable way you could deny that. In theory, the weird thing to conceptualise about combat sports is that we are so willingly, and so enthusiastically, engaging our body in a magnitude of known high stressors. We are basically baiting someone into strangling us, tearing our ligaments apart, snapping our joints, straight up asking someone to just try and knock us out, and, you know… all the other fun stuff. But, when you fight fire with fire, you often spark the start of moans and groans.
So, let’s talk about it. Let’s talk: moans and groans, niggles and knots, and what we can do about it. Building a body so driven on movement and impact needs a stable and strong structure. Counterbalancing high stress combat sports with mobility training can be the yin to the yang you didn’t know you needed.
What is involved in mobility training and why is it important for athletes, specifically those in combat sport?
When we look at mobility training, we’re looking at three independent variables: flexibility, mobility, and stability – and fundamentally they progress in that order.
So, what are they?
If a muscle is holding tension, is tight, sore, or the joint is unable to get to its full range of motion (ROM), we want to stretch the muscle and relieve the joint of this feeling, until it becomes natural for it to be in it’s full ROM without pressure. We can do this by relieving the soft tissue tension via an array of stretching types, getting massage and soft tissue therapy, or using modalities like foam rollers, trigger balls, or massage guns.
After we gain full ROM in a joint via flexibility, we want to strengthen the movement to the joint’s end of range (EOR). If you can access full joint ROM in a passive state - like a stretch - but you can’t when moving, we need to go back to step 1 and change something. Instability in a joint can cause inhibited ROM, meaning sometimes we need to go back to step 1 and repeat flexibility and soft tissue release again.
Lack of mobility through a joint could be a structural variance that we can assist with through flexibility protocols, but it could also mean that the body just doesn’t feel safe. When we stretch a muscle we are training it to be in a lengthened and vulnerable position. This instability in a compromised state can sometimes make the Central Nervous System (CNS) unhappy, and therefore the brain tells us not to go any further or we will be unsafe – cue: pain and restriction. But the CNS is a whole other rabbit hole.
This stability of a joint is where we start to create strength in the joint ROM during, and especially at EOR. This is to create a controlled environment for the body to be exposed to instability it can then adapt to. This provides the breeding ground for joint safety to ensure the same issues we’ve just relieved are not repeated. When we add external forces to the alignment of a stable joint with load or movement, the body leans into its new safe movement pathways.
What might this look like for a combat athlete?
Let’s say you’re an athlete who wants to work on your shoulder mobility. An example of what this mobility structure could look like might be:
Flexibility would include soft tissue release in your upper extremities, and could include a combination of modalities like: pec major and tricep stretching, lat foam rolling, sub-scap trigger ball release, and getting a massage gun to relieve your pec minor traps.
You now need to mobilise your shoulder joint by moving it through its full ROM, giving it its full 180º of shoulder flexion. Every single person should be able to raise their arms straight up over the head, and back down by their side, with no restriction or pain.
The stability of this joint now comes from adapting to external forces we apply to it. When we look at the shoulder joint structurally, we can work on small movements in a controlled setting like rotator cuff movements and other muscle strengthening movements around the joint.
Test your movements in your training. A good test to do whilst drilling is head kicks. How high can you get your head kicks? How much power was behind it? How stable was the standing leg? What about your other side? Follow a mobility flow for 5-6 weeks and each week when drilling take note of differences and improvements.
What are some of the benefits athletes will see from incorporating mobility training into their training routine?
Now that we know the steps of mobility training, you can start to isolate where you need to intervene in your recovery journey. Are you in Step 1 and need to stretch and isolate your joint and its relevant soft tissue inhibitions? Are you Step 2 - can get to full ROM but can’t move it? Are you feeling loose and mobile, but getting stiff and sore in the same places all the time? Are you in full ROM but feeling weak at your end of range?
Identifying your position on the mobility spectrum via these three stages highlights why it is so important to complete step one as efficiently as possible. Only then can we progress and transfer our energy, power and performance back into our drills and training in our sport rather than waste our energy tearing down our compromised body.
What are the short-term and long-term consequences of dismissing mobility training?
The first, and easiest, short term consequence to note is limited movement patterns in the fighters. Like if they favour one side, if they have more/less ROM on one side, and how their static posture correlates to both their fight stance and their dominant positions (especially in Jiu Jitsu).
Long term mobility restrictions can be the root causes of niggles, pains, and injuries. Having limited ROM is, at the least, an inconvenience, but when it comes to pain and discomfort, that’s when quality of life takes a downturn. DOMS are the inconvenience, but injuries bring the pain.
How long does it typically take for athletes to start feeling these benefits?
Assuming the athlete doesn’t have a major injury they’re rehabilitating, we will usually start seeing noticeable, measurable, and continued improvements showing around 5-6 weeks. Consistency is the key here. Maybe we should produce a mobility camp and drill athletes with full-blown mobility regimes...
How can sports recovery equipment help with flexibility and mobility? Are there any products that you recommend?
If you don’t have a foam roller and a trigger ball, I absolutely recommend getting one. Be mindful of the shape, size, and pressure of the roller or ball you choose, so it’s suited to your recovery demands. These tools can take your mobility and soft tissue release to another level when you start to get into areas that you can’t quite isolate with stretching alone. Both can be a little unnerving, especially if you are in pain, but when you feel the relief afterwards it makes a world of difference.
Another really cool tool that the sports recovery industry has been doing some great work with in the last few years are massage guns. These have been godsends for athletes with excessive DOMS, as the gun oscillates at different speeds and intensities against your muscles. Whether you choose a high speed, to apply pressure, or you just find relief in the vibration of the gun itself, the only thing you need to do is move your hand and you can target your muscles with far less effort than actively rolling on the foam roller/ball.
The VRS Massage Gun has multiple heads on it to target knots and niggles in the different areas and textures of muscle and fascia of the body, which can be so helpful in relieving tension on the fly. I personally really like the VRS gun in particular because it doesn’t vibrate my hand off as I hold it!
Mobility increases our everyday quality of life by how it frees the body of restriction, discomfort, and pain. By having hands-on, easy to implement modalities to take those unnecessary and unwanted strains away, that can accelerate our recovery, we’re benefiting ourselves and our performance. I know that if I can get same day relief, I’ll absolutely choose that every time.
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What are some exercises you recommend combat athletes start with if they’re new to mobility training?
In my experience, the biggest tension spots in a combat athlete are their traps, almost every section of their back, pecs and shoulders, hip flexors, hamstrings and adductors, and feet/ankles. Here are a few good movements to get those joints moving a little more freely.
Either seated or lying on your belly, get the massage gun into your knots. Alternatively, lay on your back on a trigger ball and make small movements with your arm to move your muscles over the ball. I find this far more stable and specific than rolling my body over the ball.
Aside from stretching, the foam roller can definitely be your new best friend - if your new best friend takes your breath away and you like to curse at them sometimes. A good way to increase your awareness of your back tension is to do a full vertebrae roll out. This is done by pause-rolling over the foam roller slowly, almost cm by cm, from the glutes all the way up to the traps. The VRS foam roller is a really gentle roll for this one as it is quite wide so you get a good stretch as your back extends over it, and it has a low vibration setting on it that can ease the tension and promote circulation as you’re going along.
There are so many options when it comes to the back as there is so much space and so many muscles and angles to work with. You can also use a trigger ball here in the same fashion as your traps, to get more specific with your tension spots, otherwise get a teammate to get the VRS massage gun into it!
Pecs and Shoulders
For your pecs lay face down, and for your rear delts lay face up; get your trigger ball into your tension spots, and move your arm in small movements around the body. Rather than rolling onto the ball and and pressing down, let your muscles moving do the ‘rolling’ for you. Work smarter not harder.
When you’re quite tender or when you’re completely gassed from training, the VRS massage gun can be a really good alternative to physically rolling out because you only need to hold the gun to get into the nasty spots, no energy exertion required.
Laying down, the VRS Vibrating Trigger Ball is a really calming option for gentle soft tissue relief post-training as you can just lay down and move as you feel the tension go. Again, a foam roller or regular trigger ball would work fine here too, and the VRS gun is always a good alternative if you wanted to sit down and hit them with a bit more force. These bad boys are usually pretty nasty when doing mobility work: the hip flexors are strong and tight because they have so much work to do to perform our daily functions, let alone the strain we add from training demands.
Hamstrings and Adductors
These guys are what I like to call the “Chat Stretches’ – the ones you can easily do whilst chatting to your mates. Zero levels of contortion required. A few simple ones are single leg quad, single leg hamstring, double leg hamstring, butterfly, long adductor, and piriformis. These are really common and you’ll often see people kind of just moseying their way through these absentmindedly as a ‘warm up’.
Think about how much reliance you have on your feet on a daily basis. From how hard your big toe works to keep you stable, to how strong your ankles need to be to support your weight and movement. Interestingly, most combat athletes are conditioned to have strong feet, but their foot mobility is severely limited, their ankles click and crack like popcorn, and their feet simply roll in, out, or are unstable. Standing on any kind of trigger ball and applying pressure whilst gently rolling is one sure-fire way to question your pain tolerance, but it has incredible effects upstream on the body. If you’ve got foot mobility, strengthen and stabilise it by adding in banded anterior tibialis flexion and calf presses - full ROM up to the toes.
If you can’t touch your toes without your hamstrings seizing up, use a strong band (or your BJJ belt), loop it around your foot, lay on your back, and pull the foot towards you. If you want to deepen your adductor stretch, lay on your back, loop your foot, keep the leg straight, and let it fall out to the side. There are a wide variety of stable stretches you can do with bands.
Combat athletes are committed to their craft. The craft they’ve tried and tested day after day. The craft that pushes their body’s capabilities unquestionably further and further to a new breaking point each time. The craft that has their body’s niggles starting to hint at them, “I am very uncomfortable with this. I’m not ready for this yet.”
Our athletes are no strangers to post-training niggles and DOMS in places they didn’t even know there were muscles, but resilience and pure grit seems to be the common theme in our sports, so, naturally, it’s easy to turn the blind eye. Stretching, foam rolling, trigger ball release, and massage gun use won’t reboot your CNS completely and make it all go away, but it can accelerate your recovery immensely, and with consistency, it can increase your mobility, your performance and output, and reduce your chance of injury.
In the gym, during the sports we train, within our recovery protocols, and respective of our individual bodies, we are each going to strain and adapt uniquely to the stressors and recovery protocols we feed them. When we listen to our body, and take advantage of the incredible resources we have to allow it to adapt and heal, then we can see advantageous markers on the mats and in our performance, but more importantly, off the mats and in our everyday lives.