Hip and Shoulder Mobility: The CARs Solution

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Here’s a challenge: think of a big, strength-producing, body morphing lift that doesn’t involve either the hips or shoulders. Couldn’t do it? And you’re right if you thought, “Hey, Todd, don’t most of them often involve both?” They do, you clever devil, you.


Long, lore-laden lifting careers require joint health and resiliency. Hell, living a decent life when you’re sixty requires joints that move with range and without the painful reminder of the stupid shit we did as youngins. By nature of our construction, and our chosen activities, the hips and shoulders bear the brunt of destructive, degenerative stress. But we need our “knots”, as Dan John says, to move well and lift heavy.


Longevity starts with a few simple hip and shoulder drills, done daily, that instantly improve how our joints move and feel. Enter the controlled articular rotation.


Controlled Articular Rotations: The Definition


 Understanding is enhanced by analogies and pseudonyms—any input that draws a connection between what’s already in your brain and the foreign concept you’re trying to imprint upon it. Exact Joint Turnings is a representative and analogous pseudonym of controlled articular rotations (CARs). The Functional Range Conditioning definition, as espoused by Dr. Andreo Spina, is just as simple:


Active, rotational movements at the outer limits of articular motion.


We’re rotating our hips and shoulders through the biggest range of motion possible with tension and control. Simple. Effective. Impactful.


But why?—what does rotating the hips and shoulders through their biggest possible ranges of motion do?


It all starts with the joint capsule. The joint capsule is the first line of communication between joint and the brain, and rotation is the best way to interact with the capsule. We want our capsules healthy and communicative while also sending info to the brain that our joints can produce, and control, large ranges of motion.


Rotation is the best way affect joint capsules. It’s the only way to explore the joint’s entire range while involving all the necessary musculature. Better capsule, better joint.


You might be thinking, “Hey fella, I just squat, bench and deadlift. What do I need all of this mobility for?” Joints that move well receive better nutrition. Ligamentous soft-tissue structures and joints receive poor blood supply; it’s movement that gets nutrients to these Bad Larrys. Want to do those smaller range of motion lifts for a longer time period? Create a joint with great range.


But wait, there’s more!


There’s a chance you’ll be doing something outside of the gym. I don’t know, let’s just call it ‘living your life’, when all of a sudden shit gets hairy. You’re being your normal, heroic self and helping a little old lady carry her groceries across the street when you trip on the curb and go ass-over-tin-cups onto the sidewalk. Your arm lands awkwardly overhead and slightly behind you. If you never find this range of motion in training, and all of a sudden your joint is taken to it, the severity of your injury is likely to be much worse. You’re probably still suffering an injury, but training in that range so that your brain and body “understand” it can dampen an awkward landing’s injurious effects.


Even simpler—joints that move better feel better. After all the training stress we subject our hips and shoulders to, feeling good is a nice win.


A Grand, Rotary Performance


Hopefully I’ve painted an accurate picture of CARs—they’re the Sistine Chapel of simple joint care. But you don’t need skills comparable to Michelangelo’s brush strokes to influence your bodily canvas. You require only the consistent application of a few concepts. Pull the joint through the biggest range possible, limit motion to that joint, create aggressive tension.


Let’s quickly review irradiation—our tension creation technique—before moving on to performance.




Irradiation, co-contraction or whatever synonym you hold dear, occurs when muscles contract, causing adjacent muscles to contract. Tension, however, isn’t relegated to abundant, belly-busting iron hoisting. No matter how you name it, muscular tension is an important CARs component; we need it also to create mobility.


Irradiation serves our current purpose in several roles—it limits extraneous motion, feeds forward strength to the joint we’re training and teaches joint control.


Full-body tension focuses movement on the joint we’re training. To train one joint at a time, you have to keep the other ones still—or at least mostly still. If not, you’ll “borrow” range of motion from adjacent joints and you’ll limit the CARs effectiveness. We won’t truly expand that joint’s range and control—the exercise will be a farce-laden rotary circus.


Powerlifters, and Pavel Tsatsouline’s brethren, have long expounded tension’s strength enhancement. The tighter you get, the more force you exert into the barbell, kettlebell, ground, etc. It works for creating joint range, too. We create the neurological juice that allows us to create a lot of range at our chosen joint while also increasing the force we create within that joint.


As we move through broader ranges of motion, forceful contractions send the message that we can control that range and the brain gives an approving head nod. It bellows, ‘you may keep the range, sir or madam.’ That’s why CARs are controlled with tension. Whipping a joint through a range without forcefully contracting does little to teach the body and brain to maintain it.


Each CARs rep should feel like a movement war against yourself. You’re “fighting” to pull the joint through a large range of motion. This creates the teaching tension we’re talking about. If that analogy doesn’t stick, think of trying to drive your limb through the thickest air you can imagine. Visualizing your limb moving through mud also works.


Shoulder CARs: How To


Before you read the description, watch the video to give yourself context.




Start by irradiating a full-body contraction—get tight from your toes to your eyebrows. Once you’re set and rigid, drive the finger tips of one hand toward the floor, then start to slowly pull that arm upward. Make sure that as you flex at the shoulder that you’re shoulder blade moves with your arm. As you find your fully flexed position, turn your arm over and find the biggest possible range “behind” you. Now you’ll simply reverse the first rep—start by extending the arm backward, max out extension, then turn your arm and find as much overhead range as possible before finally finding as much anterior range as possible and returning your arm to your side.


I coach this process by giving folks destinations to aim for. Find the floor, find the wall in front of you, find the ceiling, and find the wall behind you. If you’re striving to achieve these ends while maintaining your irradiated contraction, you’ve completed a good CARs rep.


Do at least three reps per side and increase tension as the set continues. Also, work to increase your range of motion during each rep.


Hip CARs: How To


Again, view the video for context.




Start with the same full-body contraction as during shoulder CARs. Then, internally rotate one leg and pull that leg as far into flexion as possible. Abduct that leg as far as possible—once you’ve maxed out abduction, internally rotate again and extend through the hip as far as possible as you lower the leg to the ground. Reverse the motion by externally rotating the same leg and extending through the hip. Once extension is maxed, bend the knee as abduct the leg and drive the knee as high as possible into flexion. When the leg is flexed at the hip and knee as much as possible, and is in front of the body, lower it to the ground with tension and control.


Do at least three reps per side and increase tension as the set continues. Also, work to increase your range of motion during each rep.


Hip and Shoulder CARs: The When


Most self-directed, goal-oriented folks construct a morning routine that sets their mind and body right for the day. Hip and shoulder CARs are perfectly placed within such a routine, sometime between tossing the covers and shoveling eggs.


In our early waking hours the body lays down new collagen fibers. Movement and force influence how collagen is formed in our joints. Performing CARs first thing in the morning orchestrates how your blastic cells form collagen in your joints. The CARs tension, direction and force “tells” the body that this range of motion is important, develop soft-tissue to maintain it.


Hip and shoulder CARs also improve warm-ups. Tension and force prepares the joint for loading, while striving for range prepares the joint to move well and meet your lift demands.


There’s one more impactful placement—as a mobility filler between sets of big lifts. Squatting heavy? Add hip CARs between sets. Follow suit with your upper-body pressing exercises. Doing so improves the range of motion we build strength while also limiting heavy loading’s range-shortening effects.


What if you could only pick one of these three CARs options? A mad man’s got a gun to your head and he’s not playing any reindeer games. You must only choose one. Choose the morning option. While the other two are certainly useful, and will improve your joints, morning CARs are the most impactful.


What If It Hurts?


Let’s say part, but not all, of your CARs range of motion is painful. Skip over that range. You can still develop the non-painful ranges. Also, get to a good manual therapist. There’s something wrong with your joint, dude.


A Rotational Conclusion


Healthy joints promote long lifting careers; healthy joints also move well. Enhance your hips and improve your shoulders by instituting CARs into your daily routine. You’ll feel, and move, better.

Quick note: I’ll be covering how I utilize CARs and other mobility creating techniques in my Barbell and Beyond Seminar in San Francisco this August 8th and 9th at Advanced Wellness. 

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