Basics of Mobilization


I mobilize every day. Or at least.... most days.... But that's beside the point. What I am trying to say, in a less than elegant manner, is that mobilization is important, and it should be done often. My car, my desk, and my kitchen table all contribute to some sticky spots in my Range of Motion (ROM) that I need to work out on a regular basis. But I have a different set of tools than most of the people reading this, both literal and figurative. I have a pretty strong knowledge of anatomy and access to clinicians and soft-tissue tools that aren't commonplace.

But again.... that's beside the point. The POINT is that you don't need any sort of advanced anatomy knowledge, fancy or expensive tools, or to pay $50 every time you have sore calf muscles. You are perfectly capable of doing regular maintenance on yourself. All it takes is a simple understanding of a few simple principles to get you heading in the right direction. That is what I outline in this post. 


The Basics.

Mobilization is essentially: using stretches or tools to improve your Range of Motion, decrease pain and tissue stiffness, and prepare your body for the rigors of a workout (or life in general). To start mobilizing all you need to do is pick a stretch or a 'mobilization' using a tool, and find a tight or sore spot on your body. For the majority of this article I am going to describe mobilizing with a tool, but keep in mind that stretching (with intention) is still an effective tool in itself. Let's use the quads for example. If I am mobilizing my quadriceps (front part of the thigh) I am going to use a roller or ball and search around until I find a tight spot. Once I do, I know that I can do some work there to improve the stiffness or soreness. I can do this a couple of ways....

Step 1 of the  Tack-and-Floss  method (this would be the  Tack  step). Looks the same as  Direct Pressure  

Step 1 of the Tack-and-Floss method (this would be the Tack step). Looks the same as Direct Pressure 

Step 2 of  Tack-and-Floss  method (this would be the  Floss  step)

Step 2 of Tack-and-Floss method (this would be the Floss step)

  1. Direct Pressure: simply hang out with the mobility tool on the sore spot. Let your legs weight sink into the tool as much as possible. Once you feel the tightness 'release' (which, believe me, is a pretty cool and satisfying feeling), move onto another part of the thigh or even another body part.
  2. Tack-and-Floss (aka Pin-and-Stretch):  this is probably my favorite method and works the best for me. Once you find a tight spot, keep the mobilization tool there while you move your joint through its' range of motion. Using the quadriceps as an example, I would find a tight spot, apply some pressure, and then bend my knee repeatedly until the muscle relaxed or the pain subsided (see pictures on right).
  3. Contract-Relax: this method is very effective in getting your muscle to relax, and I will use it often if my muscles are spasming or just super tight throughout the whole muscle. Just like the other methods, start by finding a tight spot. Once you find it, contract that muscle (i.e. make it tight), and then relax it. Repeat until the muscle relaxes or your pain subsides. A word of CAUTION: if your muscle is super tight or spasmy (not the technical term, but I think you know what I mean), it can sometimes cause your muscle to cramp up (ESPECIALLY the calf and hamstrings). Start slow and work up your intensity gradually.
(This is an example of the Direct Pressure method that I am using on a muscle knot in my calf.)

(This is an example of the Direct Pressure method that I am using on a muscle knot in my calf.)


It sounds simple because it is. The body is a complex functioning machine but that doesn't mean it is complex to operate. There are thousands or ways to mobilize and stretch, but you don't need to worry about the specific stretches or mobs. A simple google search for "quadriceps rolling exercise" and you'll get everything you need. Instead of worrying about the nuances, follow the principles.

Below are a few more concepts that I feel it is important to understand if you want to be a mobility pro.



The breath is how we hit SAVE on the document. In other words, it is how we make sure the mobilizing we do actually makes a difference and lasts more than 10 minutes after getting off the foam roller. It is also our method for monitoring intensity (which you can read below).

I will usually use Tempo Breathing throughout my mobility sessions. Tempo Breathing works extremely well whether doing contract-relax or direct pressure. Here is the tempo that I use:

Breathing Tempo:

Inhale 4-6s, Hold 4-6s, Exhale 6-8s, Hold 4-6s. Repeat until you have reached 2 minutes, or you feel you have made a change.


Monitoring Intensity

If you are holding your breath, it is TOO INTENSE. You should be able to take a big breath in and a big breath out. There is no benefit in adding more pain just for the sake of it, or trying to prove how tough you are. At most, the intensity should be 6-7/10 (10 being maximum intensity you could take without passing out). It should be uncomfortable, but not painful. Feel free to play around with the intensity of the mobilization, but remember that more isn't better.


MINIMUM EFFECTIVE DOSE (how long should I mobilize?)

Everyone is going to respond a bit different, be generally you want to follow these guidelines:

  1. Mobilize until the muscle relaxes
  2. Mobilize for 20 breaths (or 5-10 cycles of 'Tempo Breathing') 
  3. Mobilize for 10 contract relax cycles
  4. Mobilize for 2-5 minutes per body part 
  5. Don't do more than necessary 


When and when not to mobilize

Sometimes, adding a bunch of pressure or stretching can be a bad idea. Always use your head first, and think before you start smashing out your sore muscles. If you are BRUISED, or BROKEN then it is a bad idea to add a bunch of direct pressure to that part of your body. Generally, you can still mobilize when you are sick, but global/systemic sickness (e.g. flu) will probably be a -1 on your mobility tally, and I don't recommend it.


Mobilize Upstream and Downstream

This sounds like it should be complicated, but is one of the easiest ways to mobilize like a pro. Once you find a tight spot, use the mobility tool a few inches above (upstream) or below (downstream) that spot. You can use any of the mobilization methods described earlier, just applying them to a different spot.



While it is fun to have the fancy $90 roller or the  $40 mobility ball, the reality is, none of that is necessary. You can get everything done with a couple of lacrosse balls (<$8 for a set), and a Nalgene water bottle. Here is a quick video on how to create you own mobility peanut from a pair of lacrosse balls.


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Author: Mark Murdoch, Kinesiologist, Chiropractic Student

Have specific training questions? Send me an email. I want to help!

Author: Mark Murdoch, Kinesiologist, Chiropractic Student. Have questions? Email me. I want to help!