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Mobility: is important for judo?

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by Diego Martin Bessopeanetto

Mobility is our capacity to move freely in the space. Is the displacement of the body, or of some of the segment through space. These movements depend on some factors, such as the joints, ligaments, muscles involved, etc. Our movements are basically divided into two groups:

  • Open chain: The final segment of the body is free, the movement starts from the most proximal segment and is transmitted to the farthest segments. All parts of the chain contribute to the movement, but not simultaneously. The muscle groups act in a staggered or sequential manner.
  • Closed chain: The segments move simultaneously, the muscular groups responsible for the movement of each of the segments also act simultaneously, they do not require as much coordination because the trajectory is defined.

The human body is a totally dynamic unit that is divided into a series of segmental components. Each segment is joined by one or more joints that help, and also restrict the total theoretical ability to move. This concept has been called the degree of freedom theory (DFT) of movement.

Our joints have the necessary angles of movement so that we can do the activity we want, but what if we have some mobility restriction? Surely we will start compensating with other structures and that is where one of the problems comes.

Having good mobility means that we will be able to generate more angle and therefore generate more force, or to better transfer this and generate a better attack. But also, if we are in a defense situation, to defend ourselves better and to try to avoid any occasional traction injury. Remember that prevention, or rather the reduction of the probability of injuries, is multifactorial, we are not going to blame all to the mobility, but in this case, it is the topic to be treated. 

IF YOU DONT USE IT, YOU LOSE IT

As in strength and conditioning training, where if you stop exercising X muscle “you lose it”, the same happens with mobility. For example, if you always move your head to your right and never to the left, when you want to turn it to that side you will find it difficult, since the structures have always become “accustomed” to a movement to only one side. We should spend at least a few minutes exploring the vast joint range of our joints, such as shoulders and hips. Surely you are saying “I do not have all the time in the world to dedicate to this”, it is that it does not take so much time. We can make daily micro stimuli of  5-10 minutes, either general or specific mobility of the regions that will be used later in the session. Although they can also be done after the session, as a cooldown. 

EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED

Chinese Judo National Team doing some mobility exercises at Sotillo Judo Club in Madrid.

One of the most frequent injuries in Judo is low back pain, do you know that many times this pain is caused by stiffness in our hips? Knee and ankle injuries can also occur because of this. As for the upper body, pains in the pectoral, in the elbow, in the wrist, in the dorsal area, can come from stiffness in the shoulders. Or vice versa, poor dorsal mobility can affect the shoulders. 

This is where the concept of “joint by joint approach” comes in. This concept refers to the fact that some of our joints are responsible for generating mobility and others (apart from having their degrees of movement) for generating stability. For example, the lumbar spine is responsible for stability, down the hips are responsible for mobility, knees for stability, ankles for mobility, small joints of the foot, stability.

If any of these joints “fail” in their role, the surrounding joints will have to fill that role, and that’s where repetitive use, like a glass filling with tiny drops of water, come injuries. 

Judokas generally have a skillful side where they perform their techniques. This causes them to perform a high volume of repetitions of those movements always towards the same side and direction. Remember above “if you don’t use it, you lose it”? By always making a movement to the same side it is clear that we perfect it, but we must not lose sight of what happens on the other side, its antagonistic muscle chains (those who perform the opposite work). Nor of antagonistic joint movements. Here just that happens, we always move in the same direction, but when we want to move in the opposite, or the opponent takes us to that “strange” place we can be in trouble. Since we are not going to have so much freedom of movement.

On the other hand, always stimulating the same muscle chain can cause us to have a muscle injury. This can be by “short block” (concentric load / agglomeration), this in the muscles that we are constantly stimulating. Or also in “long block” (eccentric load / distension), since that chain is always trying to control the muscle chain that we are constantly stimulating. This is called Janda crossover syndrome.

It is clear that we are not going to change our favorite side with our star technique, but to try to reduce the probability of some type of injury, generating a balance between movements and muscle chains can help us have a longer sporting and competitive life, and without so many setbacks. 

JUDOKAS ARE NOT CLASSICAL DANCERS

I have sometimes heard that mobility is not necessary for judokas. That the more mobility, the more strength they lose. But do not worry that working mobility you will not become a dancer, although these are really strong. Here we are not talking about being super lax, but about trying to maintain a joint balance that allows us that freedom of movement and the generation of force necessary for a certain situation. Let’s remember again that we can only generate force in the ranges of motion that we have available. The more range, the more ability to generate strength.

On the other hand, freedom of movement can be determined by stiffness in the joint capsule or by muscle (tension of the fascia). This is where we must evaluate case by case what is generating the deficit, in this way we will not waste time working things that are not. There is another variant that is motor control, something quite important. 

MOBILITY CONTROL

Chinese Judo National Team doing some mobility exercises as a part of the warm up at Asian Championship.

The concept of motor control is defined as the ability of the central nervous system (CNS), the motor pathway and the sensory pathway to regulate mechanisms essential to movement. Regarding this there are some theories of how motor control is generated.

The objective is motor action, which refers to the way in which the person relates to the environment and the demands that come from it.

It’s easy to confuse “mobility” and “flexibility,” but the difference lies in “control.” Being flexible is good, but if we don’t have control over it, it can become a risk factor.

We can have good flexibility to perform a split squat, but what happens in a judo technique? Let’s take the example of Uchi-mata, do you have the effective ability to move your leg upwards with good control and balance? This requires good mobility as you use flexibility with the control component.

THREE IMPORTANT AREAS

When evaluating why we may have some limitation of mobility we then have three options:

  1. That we have some restriction in the passive structures of the joint, that is, the capsule or ligaments.
  2. That we have some restriction in the active structures, that is, of the muscles, shortening, for example.
  3. That we do not have enough motor control to move some part of our body in space in the direction we want. 

By looking at athletes and analyzing injuries, we can highlight mostly three areas of great importance to work on. 

Hip mobility: It is very important to have a good external and internal rotation to avoid injuries to the knee ligaments. Also to avoid pain at the level of the lumbar spine.

Ankle mobility: A good dorsal flexion will allow to release tension on the anterior aspect of the knee. We will also have a better distribution of forces in the leg.

Dorsal mobility: A good extension and rotation of the dorsal spine can avoid many inconveniences in the shoulders when transferring the generated force, and when we work in overhead position.

HOW CAN WE IMPLEMENT IT TO OUR SESSIONS?

As said before, the objective of working on mobility is to reduce the chances of injuries (for this topic) and to have a more body available for the training session or competition that we are going to have. 

First of all, we must know if we have any mobility restrictions to know what we should do, in this case we will go to do more specific exercises. If we are well mobile, but we want to maintain it, we will surely perform more global exercises or perform more variability during the week. In both cases they can be done before, during or after the sessions. Here there is no exact formula, it all depends on the time and how the session is planned. 

In the case that we have to work on some specific mobility, the most coherent thing would be to do it before the session. Again, if you don’t have much time with 5-10 minutes every day you will be fine. Then you will move on to the warm-up and complete the general there. Now suppose you don’t even have those 5-10 minutes. In strength sessions you can use the pauses to perform your exercises. For example, you are in a strength session where you must do shoulder press (and you must work some mobility of the shoulder), in the pause you can do a mobility or corrective exercise until the next set. 

You can also do it at the end of the training session, at that moment we use to relax, lower pulses, activate the parasympathetic system, etc. Here there is no contraindication of when to do mobility exercises. There is a preference, but we can also adapt.

In the second case where we have good mobility, again, we can do the exercises before or after the session. It is always advisable, in both cases, to perform them before training since we are preparing the body for what is coming and we can use that “new” mobility to have more efficient movements during the session. But if you can’t for some reason, it can be done at another time as I said earlier. 

If we want to be a little more methodical when doing this type of work, we can put an order of the areas to work and how to perform the exercises. That is, we will first start from the spine and then move away to the periphery of the arms and legs. For example, I have to work my arm because it always has problems. I will then begin to work on the mobility of the dorsal spine, then I will move to the shoulder, the elbow and finally to the wrist. The same with the lower limbs, we will start with the spine, then hips, knees, ankles and foot. 

This is a job that can be done either individually, each athlete on his own covering his needs, or at the group level led by the responsible person. 

Sagi Muki and Peter Paltchik (ISRAEL National Team) doing some mobility exercises

Working on mobility we get movement… We get freedom. 

Check out also this post about mobility exercises for judo athletes and some of the exercises they include to help their athletes became more mobile.

Bristish Judo suggested some mobility exercises in this article.

REFERENCES

  • A cross-sectional performance análisis and projection of the UFC athlete. 
  • Diagnostics of tissue involved injury occurrence of top-level judokas during the competition: suggestion for prevention.
  • Systematic development of an injury prevention programme for judo athletes: the IPPON intervention.
  • Judo Injuries Frequency in Europe’s Top-Level Competitions in the Period 2005–2020 
  • Assessment of spine mobility and a level of pressure pain threshold in judo contestants. Hawrylak, A., Chromik, K., Barczyk-Pawelec, K., & Demczuk-Włodarczyk, E. (2019).
  • Applying Motor-Control Theory to Physical Therapy Practice: A Case Report Lisa K. Kenyon and Mary T. Blackinton.
  • Anatomy Trains, the muscle chains.

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