Earlier this week I shared a podcast interview I did with Finnish MTB coach Jukka Mäennenä. During the interview, we talked about the importance of mobility training for mountain biking and how he was using the CARS method with his riders. Jukka was kind enough to write a follow-up article with a demo video to show you how you can start using this method yourself.
I had the pleasure and honor to talk to James on his podcast recently. Among many things, we touched on a system called FRC which stands for Functional Range Conditioning. While the system is packed with useful things for anyone, whether he is a fitness enthusiast, mountain bike rider or an elite athlete, it comes with plenty of abbreviations.
CARs – which you saw in the title – is one of those. It stands for controlled articular rotations which is a fancy way of saying that you take a joint through full range of motion with full concentration and varying levels of effort.
After the podcast, I felt that I could explain the concept of CARs further in a text format. James liked the idea and here we are with a guest post! The goal is to give you an applicable tool that you can use daily to improve and maintain joint range of motion (ROM for short), feel better and consequently have more fun on the bike.
We already had a short definition of CARs but to understand what we´re exactly dealing with here, a more accurate description is in order.
Basically, CARs are active rotational movements of joints at the outer limits of articular motion. That is a sophisticated way of saying that the goal is to use the whole ROM of a single joint in a controlled and mindful manner. It also includes isolating the joint and paying close attention that you don’t “borrow” any movement or ROM from the surrounding joints or areas. We’ll be coming back to this later.
How CARs separates itself from other mobility exercises and systems is the isolative nature and controlled, even, and slow speed of movement. All of this comes down to creating the movement with the muscles that use the joint in question. No momentum or other types of “cheating” allowed. The degree of tension can vary anywhere between approximately from low 20% to a high 100% full effort.
This means that CARs can and will be hard work! Doing a single repetition with a full 100% effort while reaching for the last millimeters (or quarter inches if you live in the uncivilized part of the world) and degrees of ROM is very challenging and taxing. This itself is strength training and a session consisting of high tension CARs can leave you sore for days in ways you didn’t know existed.
What’s the benefit?
Coach Martin Rooney had a nice quote in one of his seminar lectures: “Don’t do anything for nothing.” At times it’s a good idea to question what you do in training, riding or any area of your life. If it doesn’t carry any obvious benefit, why continue doing it? Of course, just pure enjoyment of doing something etc. is a very good reason. Everything can’t and shouldn’t be quantifiable.
Back to CARs. Why should you be doing them? Here are some of the reasons:
Maintain joint ROM
Increase and maintain joint health and even improve longevity of the joints
Use them as a screening tool
Use them as a part of a possible rehab process
Let’s go over all of the points. Most of you readers have probably heard the phrase “Use it or lose it”. This is especially true when it comes to joint ROM. If you use the full ROM in daily basis with a controlled manner, there isn´t a reason why the joints in question wouldn´t maintain that ROM. This can be seen very well in our modern somewhat sedentary lifestyle. Being able to squat is a prime example.
Everybody can do a nice and often times a beautiful squat as a child. During our school years we start to spend more time sitting in a steadily increasing manner which isn’t exactly conductive for mobility. Later on, at latest during our adult years, we struggle to squat because of poor ankle, hip or knee mobility. The same rationale applies to any shoulder ROM, thoracic spine etc.
When it comes to joints, movement really is medicine. Without movement, joints start to degenerate and lose ROM very quickly. Everyone who has ever had a cast (and most of who have been riding for some years probably have) have noticed this. Active daily movement flushes and moves the synovial fluids which keeps the joint lubricated.
Muscles and connective tissue also adapt to the ROM they’re used in. An important point regarding this is that it takes approximately three times longer for connective tissue to adapt compared to muscles! This means that structural changes in connective tissue can take anywhere between 210-220 days. Steady wins the race once again.
By movement practice, I mean kinesthetic awareness, body control and in general the ability to sense different types of movements in the body. Can you isolate a joint and recognize if the movement is occurring exclusively in that joint? This is way harder than most people think.
Some low hanging fruits that can be pointed out right from the start is moving from the low back while doing hip CARs, twisting and rotating from the t-spine during shoulder CARs etc. Be humble! No one is going to judge you based on the ROM you demonstrate when doing CARs. Use the most ROM you’ve got, but only from the right areas. Later on. this will carry on to better movement skills on and off the bike.
Everyone who’s been training, riding or been physically active for even a bit knows the feeling of sore muscles and maybe even achy joints. CARs work as a nice screening tool when performed regularly, and perhaps even daily. If you feel tightness or ache in a familiar movement, you know that it’s probably a good idea to address it later on before a training or riding session.
On top of this CARs can be used as a more general screening tool if you, your friend or a therapist you work with has some basic understanding of the human body. “Does your shoulder/hip/ankle do what is supposed to do?”
And finally, we come to employing CARs as a part of a rehab process. This is a situation that we’d all want to avoid but sometimes crap hits the fan, as they say. Naturally, you want to listen to the recommendations of a health care professional, but later on in the rehab process CARs can play an important role.
For example, when trying to get back some lost joint ROM, dosage is an important factor. Doing three sets of ten repetitions twice a week or something like that just won’t cut it if the joint is moved barely at all outside of that. CARs can be done easily throughout the day with scalable progression.
One simple way is to use only ROM what is pain-free and slowly trying to increase that and the level of tension during the repetition. Eventually, you want to “milk out” more ROM, slowly and steadily, until you’ve reached the previous situation before the injury.
How to use CARs
Ok, sounds good and all that. How should I do these CARs then and when? Glad you asked!
First of all, the joints that I like to include are:
Yes, there are CARs for just about every joint, including fingers and toes. But we’ll keep things simple here and concentrate on things that give us the most benefit.
Four things should be remembered when doing CARs:
- Isolate the joint as much as possible. You don´t want to “borrow” any ROM from the surrounding areas.
- Full body tension! This is what Pavel Tsatsouline has been teaching for close to two decades now. Tension equals strength when applied correctly. Having a decent amount of tension helps to isolate the joint in question and boosts the tension level in the musculature performing the movement by a phenomenon called irradiation effect. Basically, the muscles that are doing the movement contract harder when the surrounding muscles are contracting. Pay close attention, especially to glutes and abs!
- Use different levels of tension during the sets or repetitions. Light 20-30% tension is a nice way to start the day. Full 100% or close to that is hard work! Play with it and explore the possibilities and effects.
- Pay close attention when going from internal rotation to external rotation or vice versa. This applies to ball and socket type of joints which basically mean shoulders and hips. Squeezing out every available degree makes all the difference.
One nice thing about CARs is that they can be used in many ways and varying situations. First of all, they can act as a warm-up or part of a warm-up before a training or riding session. One set of five repetitions/direction/joint is a good starting point. The level of tension can be anywhere between 20-80% here. It’s probably a good idea to increase the level of tension steadily as the set progressed. Starting full blast is rarely a good idea.
The second thing that I highly encourage is to do them in the morning. After a good night of sleep, the body has been somewhat still for 7-8 hours. Exploring full ROM in all the major joints makes sense in this situation since it wakes up the body and acts as a kind of “reset”. It only takes about 4-8 minutes, depending on the routine, to go through them.
I’ve made a habit of doing my own CARs routine after turning the coffee maker on and waiting for the coffee to drip. Once again around 5-8 repetitions per joint per direction is plenty. The level of tension is pretty low here, around 20-30%.
And finally, you can make it habitual. Waiting for a bus or having a short break from work or between classes in school? Getting up from behind the desk to get some juices flowing? CARs is a good answer for all of these situations. I’ve noticed clear improvements in how my shoulders, hips, and t-spine move and feel after doing CARs routinely.
Here’s a short CARs routine that can be done first thing in the morning or before a training session. Please note that I only perform the routine on one side. Feel free to continue to your other side after that, or alternate sides with every joint.
Thanks for reading so far! Having someone’s attention in this day and age is a rare occurrence. Hopefully, you liked the article and most important of all, found it beneficial.
CARs won’t probably directly make you a better or faster rider or make the bike an extension of your body like it is with Brandon Semenuk. What they can do, however, is better functioning human been – we are humans, first of all… athletes and riders second. This can mean a lower risk of injury and better functioning body which equals more riding time and fun on the bike!
In the FRC community, there’s have a saying: “Do your CARs every damn day!” Don’t take just my word for it, give it a go and see what happens.
Jukka is a 29-year old avid rider and coach from Finland. He’s been riding close to 15 years in several different disciplines but for the past few years, he has focused mainly on Enduro and BMX racing. He is also a published author with a book about cycling that came out this spring. In English, the name of the book is “The Big Finnish Cycling Book”. If you’re interested in learning more about Jukka his blog can be found at www.super-sets.com. The blog is only in Finnish, but you can check out a couple of his articles written in English below.
You can also follow Jukka on Instagram at jukka4130.