Valkyrie Fitness Bit #14: Prehabilitation

Valkyrie Fitness Bits is a twice-weekly series of videos and blog posts covering a single exercise each. Learn to build strength and mobility for your martial arts training, and mix and match your favourite exercises to build a workout that fits your goals and training style.

Prehabilitation

Prehabilitation is ongoing, mobility-focused training that helps to prevent injuries before they occur. It often involves the same kind of gentle stretching, stabilizing and strengthening, and massage work that we see in physiotherapy and rehabilitation, and it targets muscle groups and joints that are subject to the most strain during your training.

Your prehabilitation practice should include a mix of strengthening work that targets the stabilizing muscles around vulnerable joints (for fencers, those are usually the shoulders, hips, and wrists); mobility work that ensures that key muscle chains are working in proper alignment and balance; and diagnostic work that identifies potential problems before they turn into long-term issues or trigger injuries. If you’re training twice a week, you should be setting aside at least 1 hour weekly for prehabilitation.

Tools

We’ll be discussing specific exercises that target the wrists, shoulders, and hips in coming posts. First, here’s an introduction to three tools that you can use for self-massage and diagnosis. The foam roller, lacrosse ball, and resistance band are portable, inexpensive additions to your training arsenal. You can spend a few minutes with one of them as part of your cool-down after training, or use them to begin a dedicated prehabilitation session.

Foam Roller

Prehab with Foam Roller

Foam rollers come in a variety of sizes and styles. We prefer Triggerpoint’s GRID rollers and similar designs that have a rigid core and a relatively thin layer of high-density foam, as they are more durable and provide more even pressure than foam-only models. Foam rollers are a great self-massage tool that lets you gradually work out stiffness and tightness in large muscles and heavily-muscled areas like your back.

To use a foam roller, lay it down on the ground, and rest the area that you want to massage on top of it (e.g. sit with your back laying over the roller, or with the roller under your thigh). Slowly begin rolling back and forth, using your own body weight against the roller to apply pressure to the affected area. Begin by covering the entire target area (e.g. your back from shoulders to hips, or your thigh from hip to knee), with relatively light pressure. You can increase pressure as you warm up, and start paying attention to areas that feel tight, or sore. Make note of which muscles are uncomfortable, and keep track of recurring or particularly severe problems from session to session. These are likely to indicate mechanical issues in your training that can cause injury down the line.

When you hit an area of particular pain or tension, slow down and try to hone in on the source of the problem. You can stop with the roller pressing on the sore spot, and spend a few moments slowly breathing into the discomfort and trying to relax around it. Visualize your muscles melting like warm butter into the floor and around the roller. You can also work in smaller, tighter movements around the sore spot. Use many short rolls that just reach either side of it to work out tightness, and then slowly expand your motions until you’re working the whole area once again.

Lacrosse Ball

Prehab with Lacrosse Ball

A lacrosse ball or similarly-sized hard rubber ball can be used like a foam roller, but to target smaller areas of the body or dig into very localized tight spots. Think of the difference between a massage with the whole hand, or with the thumb.

If you’ve identified a muscle knot or small tight spot during your workout or your foam roller work, you can use a lacrosse ball to massage it directly. Start by placing the ball against a wall and leaning your weight into it to increase the pressure. This will give you a lot of ability to vary pressure on the affected spot. You can also place the ball on the ground and lie/sit/rest on top of it, although the pressure may be too intense for some areas. Begin with the ball on the sore spot, and work in small circles or side-to-side rolling actions along the affected muscle. You can experiment with the direction of your motion to see what brings the most relief — in general, you want to be working along the length of the muscle you’re trying to relax, in line with the muscle fibres. Begin with small movements near the sore spot, and gradually increase the size of your motion until you’re covering the whole affected muscle.

You can also use it for lighter massage and diagnostic work on small areas such as the bottom of the foot. Just as you would use a foam roller, begin with gentle pressure and use to ball to identify tight spots and problem areas.

Resistance Band

Prehab with Resistance Band

Resistance bands such as the Thera-band are a great way to turn static stretches into active resistance work that builds strength throughout your motion. For an in-depth discussion of how to use them in an ongoing conditioning program, we strongly recommend Eric Franklin’s Conditioning for Dance, which is highly applicable to martial arts training as well.

As a supplementary tool, resistance bands are great for diagnosing mobility problems, particularly weaknesses and sticking points in the joints. For example, you can use one to get a good sense of your ankle’s ability to support weight throughout its range of motion. Begin by sitting on the ground with your legs extended, and stretch a resistance band across the ball of one foot. While maintaining steady pressure, slowly extend your foot until your toes are fully pointed, and then retract it until it’s flexed back towards your knee. Repeat this action several times, noting moments of discomfort, “stutters” in what should be a smooth action, or moments when your foot suddenly feels weak or wobbly. Do the same thing with side-to-side motion, and rotation of the foot. You can keep performing these actions with slowly increasing resistance until they smooth out, or use the information you’ve gathered about tight spots and points of weakness as a guide for examining how you stand, walk, and lunge while fighting, and whether your foot position there is affecting your overall stability.

The work that you do with all three of these tools should be very exploratory in nature. Try a new movement or way of applying pressure, and see if it helps deal with the issue you’re working on; make your muscles move smoothly through resistance as a gentle test of their stability and strength; experiment with different styles of self-massage to get your most stubborn muscles to loosen up. There are many ways of approaching this part of your prehabilitation, and it will take time and experimentation to find the methods that work best for you.

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