Mobility: Workout Smarter, Not Harder

Mobility is not a punchline.

When the personal training session you’re supposed to be filming (for this social media gig) is under threat of cancellation because the original client can’t make it, you do what any reasonable blog writer would do. You volunteer as tribute. Or, more precisely, you’re coerced into it by your team lead. 

“You got this, right?” was the gist of the text. “It’s a Mobility session.”

No, I thought, and immediately the excuses bubbled up — I was already tired and sore from my workout the day before. I am profoundly immobile! I haven’t worked out in a gym SINCE MARCH. And it… it’s a Thursday!

Ok so the day of the week was just my last desperate attempt to avoid my very first session back at the gym, and to top it off, this time it’s with a real live personal trainer. (I’ve been working out since 2003 without one, and let me tell you, it’s been a decades-long mistake. More on that later). In that moment of resistance, I realized I was probably like a lot of VENT Fitness members, facing down their first training session. Was this going to be too hard? Was I going to be uncomfortable? Was I going to look stupid? Because seriously, I’m a washed up 40-something former fitness instructor, with a real appreciation for carbs and beer. More importantly, I haven’t been out in the public since March, and I’ve certainly not been in the gym. 

Seriously?

I reluctantly lace up my black sneakers (the ones without any traction left, but hey, at least they sorta match my pants), because this is the new Pandemic Me, the one who tries to say yes more than she says no.

Maja, breaking down why we start with a chest release. Plot spoiler, it’s partly because I sit at a desk. And you might, too. So read on!

Me, dutifully rolling a lacrosse ball into my pecs and
literally crying about it.

Your trainer is kinda like your fitness parent

My trainer is Maja Malczewski, NASM CPT, CES. (FYI: The letters mean she’s certified through the National Academy of Sports Medicine, the gold standard in personal training as both a personal trainer AND a corrective exercise specialist). I’m scheduled to meet her at VENT Latham at 4:30. I’ve got her number so I text her that traffic could be tricky and with the kids schooling from home, I’m running a little behind. I’m not gonna lie, I was secretly hoping she’d say “ok, let’s cancel!”

“No problem!” is her chipper response, and I can’t help but think there’s gotta be some weird S+M aspect to training — you know, that they enjoy torturing poor hapless people like me, and are enthused at the prospect of making me work out hard enough to barf into the bucket in the corner of the studio (PLOT SPOILER: there is a studio, but no bucket).

 

Parking was easy, and the club manager was on hand to wish me a happy workout, to which I mumbled something about how it was nice knowing her, and that I’d be a different person on my way out.

 

I meet Maja in the STUDIO at Latham, a bright, cheerful room enclosed in glass and accessible by key tag or RFID bracelet. The floor is covered in turf and features a handful of cardio equipment and a selection of kettlebells, weight bars, and some weird tubular things you might recognize as foam rollers. 

 

“We’re going to start by loosening up your upper body,” Maja says, smiling and cheerful from under her mask, and I immediately feel reassured, like maybe I won’t be doing unexpected burpees. (I live in mortal fear that anytime I trust my workout to someone else, they’re going to automatically make me do burpees. No? Just me?). She mentions some upper back muscles that are probably jamming me up, given that I’m sitting at a desk for eight hours a day, and describes in perfect detail some of my biggest complaints. It’s almost like she knows what I do all day, I think, begrudgingly. In that moment, I realize being a trainer is similar to being a parent — your trainer knows the trouble you’ve caused yourself, and the little sneaky things you’re probably lying about. And what’s good for you, whether you know it or not. Thus begins our extended, but wholeheartedly enjoyable, Mobility session.

The Rollga, an oddly Seussical foam roller that reminded me how rough my posture really is.

What is Mobility?

Contrary to how it might sound, “Mobility” is a whole different thing than flexibility or stretching. “It’s the strategic maneuvering and training of muscles to ensure maximum range of motion,” Maja explains. “And with repeated, controlled movements, you can see improvements even within a single set. It’s not just about getting your body into certain positions, but also taking your body out of those positions.” In layman’s terms, “Mobility” refers to the range of motion you have for everyday movements. And this session, unlike other, more intense sessions, provides an excellent first step for returning to your pre-quarantine workouts.

“We’ve all had to adjust,” Maja says as she nonchalantly informs me I’ll be using a lacrosse ball to open up my chest. “Expecting to come back to the gym and workout in the same manner and intensity you were six months ago is just unreasonable.” She points out that, coupled with wearing a mask, a requirement per New York State, there are some necessary adjustments that members should make before coming back to the gym at full throttle.

“You hear all the time that if you’re sore, you must be getting stronger,” she says, after listening to me complain under my breath as she gently guides me through a series of chest opening, self-guided myofascial releases. “But the key to really building strength is to train muscles all around.” These lacrosse ball extensions aren’t the most comfortable, but I can immediately tell that my pecs are tight, and, more importantly, I feel better and more mobile (cha-thing!) when we’re done.

You need more foam

Next, it’s onto the foam roller to loosen my upper back. I get to use what looks like a prop out of a Dr. Seuss movie — it’s like an extra thick pool noodle carved with divots called a Rollga, and it’s designed to dig deep into your fascia.

Foam-rolling is essentially self-massage. As we work out, muscle tissue lengthens and contracts, and in the process, muscle and the fascia tissue can become “knotted.” By applying pressure to certain tight spots, we allow the muscle to relax and release, allowing our joints to move the way they’re supposed to.

“When you hit a tough spot, sit with it for a bit,” Maja explains, and I work my way through some very slow rolls that miraculously loosen a long-standing trouble spot behind my shoulder blades, a tricky spot that’s always tight from — you guessed it — sitting at a desk all day. 

Why do you need Mobility?

We’ve all had those moments when moving was a challenge. Was it fresh out of bed in the morning? After sitting too long on the couch? After a particularly hard workout? If you’re like me, maybe you’ve chalked it up to just “getting older.” Or, maybe you really do just have a bad back. Maja can attest that often, these hitches and anomalies — the bad knee, the troublesome shoulder — can be addressed through this gentler, strategic training. “You find the troubles usually start somewhere else,” she explains, as we discuss my own lower back and hip hangups. And while we can all agree our bodies are made up of thousands of interlocking muscles and ligaments, unraveling the source of your movement dilemmas can often lead to what seems to be a completely different area of the body. Hip and back issues can originate in the toes, Maja explains. “It’s incredible to realize how interconnected your body really is.”

In my case, I was introduced to something I’d never heard of, the TFL. The tensor fascia latae is a hip-area muscle that works in conjunction with your iliotibial band and others to produce hip movements and plays a key role in postural support. But it can cause pain in the hips, pelvis, and lower limbs. “Everyone always blames the ITB,” Maja said. “The TFL is the muscle related to those same areas of dysfunction, and by addressing it and your overall hip mobility, you’ll see that you’re squatting stronger, lunging better, and experiencing less discomfort.”

Hip mobility drills, and you can tell… my hips ain’t that mobile.

Joke’s on me: my shoulders should be touching the wall.

The Takeaway

I mentioned I’ve spent almost 20 years working out without a trainer (some of you may know me as a group fitness instructor). But in this single session with Maja, she identified some of the little idiosyncrasies that I thought were “just the way it was.” Maja was able to point out several of my “bad habits” that have led to lasting muscular effects on my everyday functionality. That tricky knee that gives me trouble when I squat? I can help retrain my legs by “gripping the floor.” (I tried it, it was miraculous). A set of banded internal rotations and bridges on the wall helped me activate this newfound TFL and my glutes, leading to less pain in my low back during exercises (like kettlebell swings) that typically give me trouble.

The bottom line? This is the perfect place to (re)start your journey in fitness. After six months of quarantine, and with our doors just recently opened, it’s the ideal time to reset yourself with a Mobility session or two. And even after 18 years of fitness myself, I have so much to learn. I’m grateful there are professionals just like Maja to take the guesswork out of why this or that hurts (and I have no doubt she’d make me do burpees if I told her I’d be up for it) — and let’s be honest: at this stage, it’s not about the hardest workout I can do, it’s about the smartest.

You can email Maja here and follow her on Instagram.