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Functional Movement Essentials: Mobilizers

Co-authored by Julie Marshall

In our continual effort to further educate ourselves and our clients, have you ever wondered why the human body moves? I know the obvious answer is to get from A to B, to achieve the task that is required. If we looked a little more closely, we would realize that when we move, the circulatory system pumps harder; the increase in heart rate supplies more oxygen and nutrients and also removes waste products so we can survive. That’s right, we move to survive. So when it comes to training clients in the past and present, why have we created exercises that involve less movement? Why have we taken something (our body) that is designed to move for its’ own for survival and limited it to the point of dysfunction or destruction in some cases?

Increased technology or progress seems to have created a more sedentary society. People are spending more time sitting at computers, in cars, at office desks and in front of the TV. Our minds are being more stimulated through this technology, but our bodies are not. In Australia, 40 percent of children don’t play sport. They are conditioning their bodies to become sedentary. They are spending their crucial growing and developing years sitting and slouching!

Clients are consistently explaining how they are time limited and task driven. They are physically moving less across the board. Any wonder obesity, injury, pain and disease are at an all time high. More efficient and user friendly exercise strategies are a necessity to help clients overcome these issues. Mobilizers are a key component to this strategy. Let's take a look at the why, how and when of mobilizers.

Changing the Way You Think

For quite a few years now (27, in fact!), science has told us the body recognizes movement and not muscles. Every joint and muscle in your body has the potential to move in all three planes of motion: sagittal (forward and back), lateral/frontal (side to side) and transverse (rotational). In 2001, Gary Gray and David Tiberio stated, “In function, there are five components the body requires to move well. These components help the body to LOAD (eccentrically stretch or decelerate) and UNLOAD (concentrically contract or accelerate) in movement; they are gravity, integration, multi-planar movement, proprioceptively enriched and stability.” This makes up the philosophy of the mobilizers. The mobilizers are a way of “speaking the body’s language,” of giving the body movement that it welcomes, stimulating and moving muscles that in today’s society are often ignored.

The mobilizers can be performed at anytime. For a person who has chronic pain, mobilizers may be their whole program! By simply feeding the body good information, a “change” in the pain levels or improved movement patterns may be the initial goal. They are essential at the beginning of a training session to allow the body to move more efficiently in tri-plane movement, to increase communication of the major complexes and to up regulate (enhance or activate) the stabilization mechanisms of the body. You will be surprised at how these subtle movements increase the body temperature and heart rate of your client in preparation for the session. They are also effective as a warm down, allowing the client to leave you in their optimal functional capacity. In functional programming, a mobilizer is a great way to allow a client to recover in between exercises, continuing to feed the body good information for improved movement. Whether they feel tightness, stiffness, pain or dysfunction, the mobilizers help the body to move and feel better.

All systems of the body are designed to work or talk to each other. The better the communication throughout the body, the better the function of the body.

What happens at your big toe will have an effect on your shoulder and all the joints in between. Wolf states that, “Muscles and joints function in a three dimensional environment and in a synergistic relationship with other adjacent muscles.” The mobilizers encourage and enable this to take place.

In 2006 research, Osar stated “Limitations in hip rotation inevitably lead to compensatory movement patterns and place a strain on surrounding soft tissue and joint structures.” Over time, the imbalance in musculature can:

  1. Make the stabilization mechanisms of the joints become less effective; therefore, the global (bigger) muscles take over and become dominant.
  2. Prevent the body from moving and communicating efficiently.
  3. Create pain or injury due to over use or over lengthening of the muscle.
  4. Cause structural changes.

So if we stop for a minute and think about what these leaders of our industry are telling us and then combine what the body is telling us, it really isn’t hard to understand why we are what we are!

For example, if clients repeat the same movement patterns over and over again everyday, the body becomes dominant or conditioned in this pattern. So someone sitting in front of a computer or at a desk for most of the working day (eight to 10 hours, five days per week) will condition the muscles of the anterior hip complex, thorax and ankle complex to become over active (shortened). This will then cause imbalances in all of these complexes. It is therefore the “brilliance” of the body to be able to adapt to the position or movement in which we are conditioning it. It is not the body’s fault we are in this position for this period of time; it is an occupational hazard!

Incorporating mobilizers into your clients' programs allow the body to “change” or “improve” the imbalances through movement in a subtle and safe manner.

Improvement Through Movement

Throughout our education, we are conditioned to tell the body what to do. Put this weight here, that knee there, squeeze the butt, draw in the navel... we are constantly telling the body how to move. What we haven’t realized is that the body is far smarter than we will ever be. The body knows best, and we need to look, listen and learn from this amazing machine.

Extensive workshops around the world, working with and learning from some of the leading health and fitness professionals, has made me aware that trainers want to know how to improve their clients. However, confusion seems to reign on various subjects such as stretching, isolation training, core training, conscious awareness and more. Rather than create more confusion, let's look at this article this way: No one is wrong or right with their training or programming techniques.

If this article can simplify the current science, research and results we have achieved through practice and convert them to simple user friendly movements, we all win! Success for the client, success for the trainer, success for the industry!

The movement patterns are designed to increase the stabilization and mobility of the joints, having a direct transfer to the body’s everyday movements, activities and performance. We've found the results we are getting with clients to be extremely effective in achieving their goals of decreased pain, injury or body fat or improvements in strength, stability, balance, fitness or mobility.

The most significant goal being reached is our clients are simply moving and feeling better. Once that is achieved, all of the other benefits will follow. If clients feel good when they move, they are more likely to want to exercise!

The Philosophy of Mobilizers in Practice

Below are some examples of mobilizers that work on moving the body’s major complexes.

Sagital Plane Hip Mobilizer

Lateral Plane Hip Mobilizer

Transverse Plane Hip Mobilizer

These hip mobilizers create an eccentric lengthening through the anterior hip and ankle complexes, through subtly moving the hips backward and forward. After completing eight to 10 repetitions or once this movement becomes more fluent, the arms can be added in to increase a greater tri-planar movement. This mobilizer is effective for clients who repetitively sit in chairs, cars or have labor intensive jobs that require repetitive bending or trunk flexion. The advantage of the mobilizer is that you can re-gress the movement (decreasing the movement pattern using smaller movements) and still facilitate a change in the body. Listening to the body and how it responds to the movement will tell you when to progress or regress the client.

Sagital Scapula Mobilizer

Lateral Scapula Mobilizer

These functional scapula mobilizers target the scapular and thoraco region. With the shoulder joint recognizing up to 16,000 different positions, it is vital that this complex has communication and support from the illio femoral and ankle complex. By subtly driving the hips in various planes of motion, we create a reaction through the trunk that entices a loading and unloading of the scapular-thoraco region. This also has an effect on every other joint of the body.

Hip Swings

The Hip Swings create great tri-planar loading and unloading on the ankle complex. When performing the movement, you will also find that the knee, lumbo-pelvic hip and scapula complexes go through tri-plane movement. Poor communication from the foot will create dysfunction or imbalances throughout the entire body. With the average client having limited movement in their ankle complexes, this mobilizer is a must for all clients anywhere and anytime.

Like any tools in our industry, unless they are used, they will be of no benefit. Mobilizers are included in this group. It is up to us as professionals to experience these movements first hand before passing them on to our clients. Once we experience the “change” these movement patterns have on ourselves, understanding “why” we incorporate them into clients' programs will become clearer.

Remember, we can’t fix anyone, but we can create CHANGE!


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  8. O’Dwyer I, CPT. ODonMovement DVD series. Functional Movement Essentials. 2006

Previously published on PTontheNet