The Keys to Staying Injury Free: SMR, Mobility and Activation
Article By Drew Spriggs
Watching most people in a gym get ready to train, they seem to fall into one of two categories – jumping straight into moving heavy weights around, or spending up to an hour (!) stretching and doing everything possible BUT training. Given that either of those extremes will result in everything from an increased risk of injury, decreasing time spent actually training (either through injury and taking time off, or wasting your entire gym session warming up) to making you measurably weaker statically and dynamically, everybody should be keen to learn the smarter way to warm up that will decrease risk of injury, increase time spend productively training and increasing power/strength output.
There are 3 phases to successfully warming up: SMR, mobilization and activation.
First up: SMR (self-myofascial release)
This is a concept that everybody seems to know (how often have you seen that one guy endless rolling his IT Bands in the corner on an overpriced foam roller?) but very few implement properly. The aim of SMR is to improve the tissue quality of the fascia, a network of connective tissue that extends from the very top of your head to the tip of your toes. Over time, small areas of the fascia can become inflamed, sore to touch and ‘knotted’ through repetitive exercises, poor posture or very poor recovery methods – without treatment, these pieces of tough, fibrous tissue can lead to scar tissue build-up, neural dysfunction through movement difficulties, pain and even muscle tears. There has been research that shows that bicep tears in strongman are caused directly by knotted bicep fascia – clearly it’s something that we want to take care of quickly to reduce the risk of these problems occurring.
SMR is quite simple – take a foam roller, lacrosse ball or any of the multitude of tools that are available, and palpate the trigger points of the muscle you are targeting – generally quite easy to find as these will be the areas of most pain! If you are unsure of where to target on any muscle, take your implement and roll across the muscle belly until you find an area of pain, then move back and forth across this area until pain starts receding. Conversely, you can find plenty of information about common trigger points all over the web. It’s importantly to roll across the area of pain, as it’s the movement and not just direct pressure that can break up facial adhesions and allow the areas to regain movement and loosen up. Most trigger points should calm down within a minute or two, so there’s not much point spending hours and hours rolling.
One thing to keep in mind is not all foam rolling pain is good; an easy example is the much maligned ITB in some knee pain. The ITB is a thick band of connective tissue that runs on the outside of your leg, and is probably what you will see most people rolling because it “hurts so good”. The problem is that your ITB is MEANT to be tight! Sure, some people will have some sort of dysfunction that foam rolling may assist, but it will always be painful to roll because of its proximity to the superficial peroneal nerve.
Log Clean and Press – triceps (bar collar in rack), brachioradialis (lacrosse ball on wall), erector spinae (hard foam roller), lats (soft foam roller)
Atlas Stones – biceps (bar collar in rack), pecs (lying lacrosse ball), lats (soft foam roller), hamstrings and erector spinae (hard foam roller), piriformis (lacrosse ball).
All of these trigger points are easy to find and common to most athletes. Each point should be worked from 30-60 seconds, or until the pain starts to subside. Total time spend on SMR shouldn’t exceed 5 minutes – plan it out so you start at the feet/calves and work your way your body.
Step 2: Mobilization.
This is often what people will refer to as dynamic stretching. The aim is to put the joint or series of joints through a range of motion similar to the exercise being performed without a significant load – this increases joint range of motion, increases power output, increases blood flow to the joints and prepares the muscles for a much heavier load. As you can target a series of joints/muscles, it is significantly more efficient at preparing the body to end up in these positions with a load – what is referred to as stability. The ‘conventional’ wisdom is to perform static, isolated stretching before performing any lifting, but there is more and more research coming out showing that this actually decreases power/strength output, has little to no effect on multi-joint ROM (ie squat depth) and can actually INCREASE the risk of injury occurring!
Consider this – how many people do you know who struggle to squat to depth who focus all their time and energy on stretching their hamstrings/flexors and yet after weeks and months they add almost no depth? I used to be one of those people, and in 3 months of stretching I added approximately one inch of depth to my squat and it was UGLY whenever I hit those deeper positions. I eventually learned that no matter how loose my hamstrings and flexors got, I simply couldn’t squat deeper because my own body was preventing me as it didn’t know what to do in those positions. Soon after that I ditched static stretching completely and moved into a dynamic warmup for squatting – kneeling hip flexor ‘wiggle’, seated hip external rotation and breathing squats with a ‘bounce’ – 6 months on I’ve added approximately 4″ of depth to my squat, feel incredibly stable at the bottom position of a squat and have even ditched my Romaleos.
Yoke – front/side leg swings x10 (each leg), lying t-spine rotation (10 each side), mountain climbers (5 each leg, both clockwise and anti-clockwise), external shoulder rotations (15 each arm), lying scorpions (5 each side)
Viking Press – hip hinge (15), lying thoracic spine extension against ball (10), banded AC-joint mobilization (5 forward and backward in each plane),
None of these should take a considerably amount of time – they can often be built into a rolling-warmup that should take no more than 3 minutes total.
Step 3: Activation.
This is the step that is often missing when people warm up, and will often be the most beneficial. Now you have joints that are moving freely and great tissue quality, it’s time to get activity in the correct muscle groups to provide joint stability, correct poor movement patterns and have the body working as efficiently as possible.
A large majority of preventable chronic injuries come from incorrect movement patterns caused by inactive/overactive muscles. Let’s go back to the knee pain caused by the infamous ITB. The real cause of the problem is generally not be a tight ITB, but inactive glute medius. The knee has a tendency to shift medially or laterally during movement, so it’s the job of the glute medius to stabilize the knee via hip abduction. Unfortunately in a large percentage of people, the glute med isn’t firing correctly or firing AT ALL. To compensate, the load is transferred to the tiny TFL, which due to its size cannot stabilize the knee. It is however attached to a large piece of connective tissue, the ITB, which it can tighten up to provide knee stabilization. As a result, you’ve got a massively tight and inflamed ITB, massively tight and inflamed TFL and glute med that is STILL doing nothing despite the body ‘functioning’. No amount of foam rolling will reduce the pain as the body will ALWAYS want to switch on the ITB whenever hip abduction needs to occur (walking, running, squatting, etc). To tie this back to our warm-up routine, a fix that can be easily implemented is to force the glute med to activate during simple, isolated movements and eventually progress this to multi-joint compound movements – combined with some SMR and mobilization work the TFL is no longer tightening up the ITB as your body is back to functioning correctly!
Farmers Walk – fire hydrants (12 each leg, two sets), banded hip extension (12 total), band pull apart (20), dumbbell overhead shrug (15), Pallof press (20 each side), rockback breathing (1 minute)
Axle press – rockback breathing (1 minute), scap chin-up (10), push up with scap protraction (10), wall slide with Y raise (10)
Once again, this is a relatively quick step but should always be done before lifting but can also be done in the rest periods between warmup sets; especially if you have existing movement dysfunction. The key is to produce maximum activation with minimal fatigue – speed is often the key to achieving this.
As you can see, warming up correctly doesn’t need to be a chore nor take long periods of time and achieve massive amounts of pain. 5-10 minutes should be plenty of time to go through a basic SMR, mobilization and activation sequence after a bit of practice, and is a great habit to get into if you want to train hard but smart, and decrease the risk of needing months off with injuries!
More examples of the above are available in the Starting Strongman store soon in the book Release, Relieve, Recover – A Lifters Guide to Managing Common Areas of Tightness, Stiffness and Muscular Irritations (Strongman Edition) by Nat Hodges of Cube Coaching.
Drew is a competitive powerlifter and strongman, who realized that strength training had a massive positive effect on other areas of his life. After realizing he was much better at teaching others how to be lift than lifting himself, he decided to step down off the platform and create Dreadnought Strength – an online and in-person coaching business that dedicates itself to allowing regular people to experience the trans formative power of strength training. He is available for online coaching from Starting Strongman