Stretching is easy, right? Just touch your toes a few times and do a standing quad stretch? Maybe pull your arm across your body and call it a day? Well, as anyone who’s ever had to recover from a sports injury or learn how to Olympic lift can tell you, there’s a lot more to it than that if you want to see real progress.
Properly stretching or mobilizing your body takes time, effort, and, in lots of cases, a few bits of gear so you can work deep into your muscles, ligaments, tendons, joints, and fascia. Here’s what you need to kick your stretching game up a gear.
What to Look for in Good Mobility Gear
Good mobility gear doesn’t have to be expensive; it just needs to be functional. The latest overpriced vibrating foam roller isn’t going to do a better job of loosening out your thoracic spine than a basic one from your local sports shop.
Really, all good mobility needs to be is:
- Safe to use. You’ll be trusting your bones and joints to your mobility gear. If something snaps or breaks while you’re extended, you could really get hurt.
- Sweatproof. Mobilizing and stretching can be sweaty work. You don’t want any gear that can’t just be wiped down after use.
- Small or portable. There’s no reason to start out with gigantic stretching rigs. Go with small gear you can throw in a box next to your couch so it’s always on hand.
- Durable. Most mobility gear is pretty basic stuff: there’s no reason it shouldn’t last years. Go for stuff that’ll stand up to a bit of abuse.
- Within your capabilities. It’s possible to hurt yourself while stretching or mobilizing. Don’t get anything that you aren’t sure how to use or that a doctor hasn’t said is safe for you to use. If you have a bad back, don’t just bend yourself over the first foam roller you find.
As always, you should consult your doctor before starting any sort of stretching plan, especially if you’ve had serious injuries before.
The Mobility Bible: Becoming a Supple Leopard by Dr. Kelly Starett
Forget the questionable name, Becoming a Supple Leopard by Dr. Kelly Starett is the mobility bible. It’s packed with knowledge and, as everyone knows, knowledge is power.
A few months ago, I strained my hip running, so I grabbed my copy of Supple Leopard and jumped (or rather, limped) straight to the hip section. Boom: a half-dozen targeted mobilizations to address my hip problems. Then, 20 minutes of work later, and I was as good as new.
Knowing how and when to use the different pieces of mobility gear is far more important than just owning them. If you don’t already know how to assess your body’s mobility needs, grab a copy of Supple Leopard. It will walk you through everything you need to know.
Becoming a Supple Leopard 2nd Edition: The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance
Becoming a Supple Leopard is a must read if you want to stretch and mobilize effectively.
The Starting Point: A Foam Roller
A lot of people dismiss foam rollers because they’ve just spent a few minutes lying on top of one not doing very much. A foam roller is only as effective as you want it to be. At its worst, it’s an uncomfortable cushion; at its best, it’s a battering ram bursting through your stiff muscles.
Foam rollers come in all different sizes, stiffnesses, surfaces, and materials. When you’re starting out, something relatively simple, like this super-affordable, high-density foam roller from Amazon Basics is perfect. As you discover your specific needs, you can invest in harder weirder rollers.
AmazonBasics High-Density Round Foam Roller, 18 Inches, Black
Foam rollers don't need to be fancy. This one from Amazon Basics does the job perfectly.
For Digging Deeper: Lacrosse Ball
Foam rollers are great for big global adjustments. Sometimes, though, you need something small to dig into super-targeted areas. And, there are few things better for that than a lacrosse ball.
Seriously, you can spend as much as you want on a specialized mobility ball with all the bells and whistles. It won’t be any better than a cheap NCAA-approved ball like this one.
Champion Sports Colored Lacrosse Balls: Orange Official Size Sporting Goods Equipment for Professional, College & Grade School Games, Practices & Recreation - NCAA, NFHS and SEI Certified - 1 Pack
The NCAA knows what they're talking about when it comes to lacrosse balls. No need to go fancy.
To Up the Tension: Resistance Bands
While just trying to touch your toes occasionally or holding your leg behind your back isn’t really going to improve the way you move or keep you injury-free, stretching muscles and joints at their end range is still important. Many great stretches use resistance bands to pull your body into a better position. Think of it as a massage therapist gently pressing your leg up into a hamstring stretch.
Again, we’re not looking for something fancy here. Just well-made, strong, stretchy bands like these from Amazon Basics. I’d suggest getting one green and one purple.
AmazonBasics 40 to 80 Pound Resistance Pull Up Band - 1 1/4 Inch, Purple
Amazon Basics strikes again with their great, affordable resistance bands.
Release the Fascia: Floss Bands
Your body is made up of countless layers of different kinds of tissue. They all have to move perfectly with each other for you to go about your day. The problem is if one of the layers gets tight or stuck, it affects all the layers.
While all the tools above can work, sometimes the best way to loosen up a stiff joint or muscle is to apply steady pressure and move it through its normal range of motion. Again, think of a physiotherapist working their hands into the tissues surrounding your shoulder as they have you reach overhead and across your body.
Unfortunately, because sessions with physios are very expensive, that’s not something most of us have access to on a daily basis. What we can use, however, are muscle floss bands.
These bands wrap around the targeted area and apply steady compression. That way, you can stretch and otherwise work the tissue to release any problem spots. I’ve found them particularly useful for getting range of motion back into my ankle.
WOD Nation Muscle Floss Bands Recovery Band for Tack and Flossing Sore Muscles and Increasing Mobility - Stretch Band Includes Carrying Case (1 Black & 1 Red)
Sometimes you just need to hit everything at once.
I religiously use all the gear above. I’ve been mobilizing for at least 10 minutes every day for the past 6 months, and the results I’ve seen have been incredible. I’ve gone from barely being able to touch my toes to being comfortable hanging out in downward facing dog. Don’t just passively stretch—grab some of this gear and actively mobilize.