Why Controlled Articular Rotations Should Be a Part of Your Mobility Routine

For pain-free movement in everyday life, controlled articular rotations can be a game changer. Here's how to get started.

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You've probably heard the phrase "use it or lose it" — which implies that if you want to maintain a habit, function, or skill, you have to practice it regularly. Well, that motto is especially relevant when it comes to your mobility. If you're plagued by a twinge in your shoulder or you're unable to drop into a deep squat without falling over, it's time to make mobility (your ability to move a joint through a range of motion with control) a priority. Enter: controlled articular rotations, aka CARs, which improve the dynamic movement of joints.

And while heart health and muscular development may get lots of attention in conversations around fitness, mobility is just as important in your movement routine. Joint health depends on being able to move freely and with ease (especially as you age), and having more freedom of movement can reduce those aches and groans that might interfere with your daily life. CARs target your major joints (such as the hips, thoracic spine, shoulders, and wrists) and methodically develop your range of motion (ROM) within each joint socket. Translation: Your joints move smoothly and without pain, improving your functional fitness and ability to carry out everyday tasks.

No matter where you are in your fitness journey, there's never a bad time to start adding controlled articular rotations to your mobility workout routine. Even if a limited range of motion or joint pain isn't currently affecting your workouts, proactively incorporating CARs into your workout routine can help prevent immobility issues from developing later.

What Are Controlled Articular Rotations?

To better understand the power of controlled articular rotations, let's break it down word-by-word.

Controlled refers to small, incremental movements, which are essential for reaping the full benefits of CARs. That's because these deliberate movements flood the joints with synovial fluid, which acts as a lubricant between the cartilage (the strong, flexible connective tissue that protects your joints) to facilitate movement. The result: You're able to move more freely and with a better ROM(that is, you'll be able to access your full movement potential).

Articular simply means the place where two bones meet — aka the joint.

Rotationsare the specific type of joint movement that's being performed. During CARs, the limb rotates by moving in a circular direction around a fixed joint toward or away from the midline of the body.

So when you put each element together, controlled articular rotations target your outer range of motion, aka the furthest point to which a muscle can extend without assistance.

One commonly held misconception is that mobility is the same as flexibility. Flexibility refers to how joints move passively through a range of motion, while mobility exercises are active movements that boost your uninhibited range of motion around a joint. For a balanced workout routine, make sure to dedicate time to both practices.

Benefits of Controlled Articular Rotations

Think of controlled articular rotations as topping off the motor oil in a car before you take it out for a spin; by doing so, you ensure your car runs smoothly and without any breakdowns or mechanical failures.Controlled articular rotations operate under a similar principle by helping your body function at its peak so you can perform comfortability and most efficiently. That's because "CARs take a joint through its full range of motion to build on control, strength, and mobility," explains Megan Roup, fitness trainer, former professional dancer, and creator of The Sculpt Society. More specifically, controlled articular rotations can help you improve mobility, support joint health, and maintain your range of motion while aging.

Increase Mobility

If you make CARs a consistent part of your routine, you can expect your mobility to improve and hopefully prevent injuries at the same time. A 2021 study found that low-quality movement patterns and mobility increased participants' risk of injury by seven times. Researchers also found that they were able to predict injury occurrence based on the quality of movement patterns with 73 percent accuracy. That's because mobility helps to prime the body ahead of a workout or activity by lubricating the joints to reduce friction, meaning your body is better prepped to handle the movements required of it.

Plus, controlled articular rotations often work one side of your body at a time to help correct movement pattern imbalances and prevent any compensation patterns from developing. "Anywhere there's an imbalance, the rest of your muscles will compensate," Evie Vlahakis, P.T., a physical therapist in New York City, previously told Shape. "Then when you overload [the weaker] group of muscles or a specific muscle, that's going to be the most at risk [for a muscle strain]." And if you don't have the necessary mobility to function in your daily life, your body will compensate in other areas and potentially cause injuries.

The same principle applies to unilateral joint mobility. For example, you might do a standing shoulder CAR on your right side while focusing on keeping your left side stable and squared up. Isolating your right shoulder joint allows you to prevent the left side from compensating and gives you a greater degree of control over those movements on the right side.

Maintain Joint Health

"Joint health affects our overall health, so maintaining joint mobility helps keep you active and decreases the risk of injury or pain as you age," says Roup. And joint health is impacted by many disorders, including rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and even wrist pain. Even if you're not experiencing one of these conditions, healthy joints are essential for moving and grooving, whether you're running, jumping, dancing, or just going about your daily life.

Reminder: Your joints make certain types of movement possible because of where they connect in the body and the surrounding tissues, including muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Regular movement and mobility work help keep joints healthy by increasing your range of motion and practicing better form. As always, if you're experiencing acute or chronic pain anywhere in your body, talk to your doctor for a plan of action.

Preserve Range of Motion as You Age

"Most people experience a decrease in range of motion naturally with age," explains Roup. "This happens for a variety of reasons including inactivity, injury, chronic pain or loss of muscle." You might also experience stiffness and loss of muscle agility and strength, thanks to thinning cartilage and a drop in synovial fluid.

However, mobility exercises may counteract this. If you plan on continuing your favorite spin, HIIT, or strength class for years to come, CARs and stretching can be a major investment in your mobility longevity.

3 Controlled Articular Rotations to Add to Your Mobility Routine

Ready to mobilize? Consistently putting controlled articular rotations into your routine — even just a few times a week — can lead to all the above benefits. Here, Roup demonstrates a simple CARs mobility routine she developed that can be completed in 5 to 10 minutes. Try this mobility routine before your workout or in the morning before you start the day. When performing each CAR, go slow and be deliberate. You want to feel the entire movement throughout each joint.

How it works: Use this dynamic warm-up to target mobility in your hips, spine, and shoulders. Repeat the circuit three times, performing each move for 10 repetitions (in both directions if applicable).

You'll need: A yoga mat is optional.

Hip CARs

A. Start on all fours with hands under shoulders and knees under hips and neutral back. This is your starting position.

B. Engage core and lift right leg up as you bring it toward right tricep, keeping right knee bent at a 90-degree angle.

C. Bring right knee back in line with right hip, maintaining the 90-degree bend in right knee. Right ankle should be in line with right knee and right hip, right knee, and right ankle should all be at the same height.

D. Finish the rotation by rotating right hip so that right ankle is directly above right knee, with sole of right foot facing the ceiling.

E. Lower right knee to ground with control, landing under right hip in original starting position.

F. Repeat the move in the opposite direction, raising right knee behind you to be in line with right hip, and continuing the rotation in reverse. End back in tabletop position. That's one rep.

Do 10 reps. Switch sides; repeat.

Back CARs

A. Start on all fours with hands under shoulders and knees under hips and neutral back. This is your starting position.

B. Inhale and tuck chin toward chest. Draw belly button toward spine and slowly round one vertebra at a time, articulating each individual vertebra until you reach a rounded spine. The sacrum — located at base of lower back — should drop as you roll down through each vertebra up to neck flexion.

C. Reverse at base of neck, slowing arching spine one vertebra at a time and lifting chest and tailbone while lowering belly button toward the floor. Continue until you reach an arched spine. Tailbone and sacrum rise last.

Do 10 reps.

Shoulder CARs

A. Start by sitting on heels or in a kneeling position with shoulders stacked over hips and knees, arms at sides. (You can also do this standing.)

B. Brace core and slowly extend right arm in front of you to shoulder height with right palm facing in and right thumb leading. Continue to lift right arm high overhead with right biceps near right ear and pinky finger side of hand facing forward.

C. Pause at the top of the movement. Internally rotate arm so pinky finger faces back of the room.

D. Leading with right thumb, sweep right arm behind you and down to complete a full circle, finishing with right arm at side.

E. Reverse the motion: leading with right pinky finger, extend right arm behind you and raise until the end of your range of motion.

F. Externally rotate right arm so that right palm faces up. Leading with right pinky finger, continue to raise right arm until it's fully extended overhead, with right biceps next to right ear.

G. Lower right arm down, still fully extended and with right palm facing in.

H. Finish with right arm down at side, back in your starting position. That's one rep.

Do 10 reps. Switch sides; repeat.

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