Where and when a mobility drill is appropriate can be an exhausting decision process. If you don't understand anatomy, neurology and biomechanics (human movement at a micro level) you may or may not have any idea when a mobility drill is helping you vs when you are wasting time at best, hurting yourself at worst.
The easiest way to recognize if a mobility is helping or hurting is the feeling you get when you perform the drill, both during and after. If you have a test-retest understanding of the mobility drill (test to identify a limitation, perform the mobility drill, then retest to see if there is improvement) then you will be able to consistently maximize time spent performing mobility drills. If you don't have this understanding, then it will help for you to understand WHY your mobility drill feels like nothing is changing, why it pinches instead of stretches, or why you feel cramping instead of muscle work.
The most common reason why a mobility drill is wasting your time is because the two structures (say leg and pelvis) are not positioned appropriately. This may be because your set up is wrong, or because your body is unable to attain the position necessary. In the former, watch the youtube video you learned the drill from again. In the case of the ladder, the mobility drill is "too advanced" and you need to begin with a a mobility drill that targets a prerequisite motion that allows your body to get into the correct position.
Here is where we are:
You think your mobility drill may not be helping. You either feel: little to no change, pinching, cramping, compensations from other regions of your body, or a feeling like you can't get into the right position. You want to know if you are wasting your time and how to fix it.
Here is a simple and easy Three Step Process that I use with my patients every day to resolve movement limitations.
Step One: Identify what plane of motion you are mobilizing.
If this term "plane of motion" is unfamiliar to you, here's a breakdown of the three planes of motion.
Sagittal Plane: think your trunk during a deadlift. Forward and back, thats it.
Frontal Plane: think that silly exercise people do sidebending with a plate in one hand to "strengthen obliques"
Horizontal (Transverse Plane): think of a baseball swing like you're hitting bombs.
In step one you must identify what plane of motion you are trying to mobilize because the body uses a hierarchy. Transverse Plane mobility is the most commonly limited, but is only available to the human body if we are appropriately positioned in the Frontal and Sagittal Planes first.
Don't glaze over this section. I realize it is getting dense but this is vital. If you are performing a hip or shoulder internal rotation drill and your pelvis or scapula is not positioned properly in the frontal and sagittal planes, you will be "impinging" on your joint surface. This feels like pinching, cramping, or like everything but the targeted joint is trying to move.
Here is how the hierarchy works:
The human body will move forward and back in the sagittal plane. As it moves forward and back, it opens and closes motion in the frontal plane. As frontal plane muscles engage, they open up joints for transverse plane motion to occur. Let's use an example.
Lets look at the pelvis while it is moving during the gait cycle.
At "initial contact" on the left, the pelvis is flexed forward in the sagittal plane and the leg is out in front, also in the sagittal plane. As the pelvis moves forward to the "loading response" the pelvis stops flexing forward and begins to tilt backward in the sagittal plane, into hip extension.
At the middle of the gait cycle, when the right leg is flat on the floor, the pelvis is extending. At the same time, the back foot picks up off of the ground. As soon as the back foot picks up, we have to remain balanced, therefore the pelvis moves in the frontal plane over the right leg. The sagittal plane hip extension has enabled the pelvis to move to the right in the frontal plane (adduction).
Next, the back legs swings forward, rotating the pelvis over the right leg while the pelvis is fully extended in the sagittal plane and "adducted" in the frontal plane. Adducted means the pelvis on the right is over the right leg in the frontal plane. By swinging the opposite (left) leg forward the pelvis moves around the right leg in the transverse plane.
The pelvis moves (extends) in the sagittal plane to enable frontal plane (adduction) motion that enables transverse plane (internal rotation) motion.
This hierarchy of sagittal-frontal-transverse is true for every joint in our body. Your body uses the hierarchy to create motion, but also to LIMIT motion. Now is a good time to discuss why you are doing a mobility drill in the first place. Clearly you feel some lack of motion, aka, YOUR body has limited (the verb, not the adjective) motion. It probably didn't happen all at once this week, but at some point your body felt it was advantageous to start limiting the motion you are so desperately trying to open up.
Why would your body want to do that?
What if the muscles that create the hip extension that enables hip adduction that enables hip rotation are weak? What if they were injured and not rehabbed appropriately? What if you rolled your ankle on that side when you were five and your body adapted to not rotate over your leg as much?
What the exact event was that created your issue is interesting, but not important. What is important is identifying which plane of motion on the hierarchy you are missing, then restoring that motion systematically through STRENGTH training. Strength training means more to me than reps and sets with progressive overload. It means expanding (lengthening) and compressing muscles, joints, and connective tissues to promote strength improvements. Strength improvements increase energy efficiency and cause the body to adapt and enjoy motion, rather than fear and avoid motion.
That brings us to Step Two:
Step Two: Train the plane of motion you are lacking, abiding by the hierarchy by which your body produces motion.
Example: can't internally rotate your hip? Restore hip extension, then adduction. Your hip will probably rotate with all the internal rotation it needs, but if not, now go back to that "mobility drill."
Step Three: Use it or...
If you don't use it, you lose it. Squat everyday or don't squat at all. Just kidding, squat everyday. You don't need to load a front squat everyday, but you do need to flex at your ankles, knees, hip and compress your abdomen/expand your posterior rib cage everyday. If you don't, it will not be energy efficient and your body will be prone to limiting those motions.
While writing this article it all feels like common sense to me. However, I know the body is complex. I field questions everyday that remind me exactly how complex the human body is. With a specific joint or area, it is much easier to explain how the body works. With that in mind, send your specific questions to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will get back to you asap.