Do you know someone that is insanely bendy? Do you know someone that can’t even reach their toes because of their inability to properly move through a full range of motion at their hips or ankles? Do you wonder how some people can easily obtain a certain depth in one exercise or another while you struggle to do so? Is it even safe to exercise if you lack the ability to properly perform a movement due to your minimal range of motion?
A lot of these questions revolve around flexibility and mobility. Are they the same thing? Absolutely not but they are extremely similar so it is understandable as to why these two terms get wrongly interchanged with one another all the time. Flexibility is the ability and ease that bones can move with respect to one another. This is typically based on the tightness of the neighboring muscle groups. In other words, the muscles surrounding a certain bone are the determinant in how flexible that bone is at a joint. Mobility, on the other hand, is classified as having sufficient range of motion for a certain exercise. I would argue that you need to be mobile to be flexible but you don’t necessarily have to be flexible to have outstanding mobility. You see power lifters reaching proper depth in their squats (which means they have good thoracic spine, hip, and ankle mobility in that position) but I’d bet that they’re flexibility isn’t necessarily the best. It’s easy to see how they can get messed up but today we will talk about mobility so you can learn about how to improve yours!
Having exceptional mobility could be the cure to your problems. Being able to move a joint freely through the full range of motion without any pain or blockage of sorts is crucial to all aspects of life. Not only is mobility needed to perform proper form in exercises, but also it will improve your quality of life and allow for you to excel in every day activities, regardless of your age. A 70-year-old woman that I train has the most impressive ankle mobility that I’ve ever seen. Her ankle, shoulder, and hip mobility are all above what the average person tends to have. This allows for her to properly execute multi-joint exercises (a squat with weight on her back, for example) as well as live her life without certain limitations that may be caused if she were to lack range of motion at her joints. If you want to remain independent and free from assistance (whether that be people or walkers/canes), mobility is something that you should start spending a little more time on. It will benefit you in the weight room now, and in your everyday life down the road.
Some of the main reasons that people have trouble obtaining proper mobility include, but are not limited to: jobs, posture, overactive muscle groups, genetics, past injuries joint problems, disease, pain, muscle weaknesses, being uncomfortable in certain positions, and even neurological issues. As a personal trainer, the most common mobility issue that I see is that of the shoulder joint. This prevents adequate overhead mobility and can lead to poor posture, muscle imbalances, compensations causing injuries, and rotator cuff complications. Your shoulders (and surrounding muscles) need to be strong but they also need to have proper range of motion. The shoulder joint is a ball and socket joint, which allows it to move in just about every direction. This is convenient for us but also puts it at a higher risk of injury. So many muscles innervate there so there are different forces pulling on that joint. Muscular imbalances can then pull bones one way or another, and over time, this could lead to the rounding of the shoulders, inability to internally or externally rotate, or pinches nerves in that area. These can all be avoided through proper mobility drills on a regular basis.
The next most common issue that I see when it comes to mobility is at the ankle joint. This joint tends to take a beating. Everyone has rolled their ankle at some point in the life, especially as a child or during a sporting event. The more an more that happens, the most scar tissue builds up around that joint. This is done as a protective mechanism to restrict movement, but that also limits the range of motion when trying to plantarflex or dorsiflex the foot. Limitations in ankle mobility can cause overactive gastrocnemius and underactive soleus muscles, which can be painful as well.
Hip mobility is a very commonly underestimated topic as well. Without proper hip mobility, you aren’t able to get into proper depth when performing squats, Olympic lifts, and even sitting into a chair. This immobility may cause you to feel a “pinching” feeling in the front of your hips. Working mobility at the ankle and hip will help alleviate that, as well as improving flexibility through the groin, quads, and hamstrings.
One last area that I need to touch on is the thoracic spine. The thoracic spine is more of a mystery to some than the other joints that we covered. What the thoracic spine, or T spine, refers to is the portion of the spine that covers an area of 12 vertebrae and is at roughly chest level. Think of it as the middle portion of your mid/upper back. Lack of mobility to this area tends to be from constant hunching over from poor posture and people who sit at desks all day. T spine mobility is crucial to anything overhead, squats, deadlifts, and all Olympic lifts. Releasing this area will greatly improve all lifts, as well as provide you with a more upright posture and potentially less of a chance at neck pain down the road.
When trying to improve mobility, unfortunately, people tend to automatically resort to thinking they need to stretch. Then, they seem to think that remaining stagnant and performing static stretches is their best bet. This is hard to watch as a fitness professional because there are so many more productive means to improve mobility. To keep things simple, the best way to improve mobility is to work on improving the range of motion at the joint that is lacking mobility AND at the joints above and blow that joint. I say the same thing when it comes to pain. If someone is having knee pain, I have them look at the hips (above) and the ankles (below) to see if that can help us determine where the pain is coming from and what the culprit is. The same goes for mobility. If you are lacking mobility at one joint, improve the surrounding joint mobility and it will help you get to where you need to be. Another way to improve mobility is getting comfortable in uncomfortable positions. What I mean by that is that if you lack mobility at a specific joint then you should spend time in position where it becomes a little bit uncomfortable for you. For instance, if you can’t squat to proper depth without feeling a pinching in the hips, sit as far down into the squat as you can, use your elbows to force your knees outward, and hang out there for a bit. The pain should alleviate and if you do that on a consistent basis, your squat will improve. To get better at something, you have to do it more often…strange how that works.
If you are lacking mobility in certain areas, or if you don’t know if you are, reach out. I’d love to send some mobility drills out to you based on your specific needs. Because there are so many motions at each of the joints, I didn’t include the photos on each and every drill that I do but I’d love to help out if you need it. In the meantime, I’ve included specific drills/mobility exercises that I think will be the most beneficial at each joint. Again, these may not work for you based on your problems but look them over, ask me about them (or use the Google machine), and try them out for yourself. Let me know how good you feel afterwards!
(See below for a handful of my go-to mobility exercises)
- 4 way banded ankle mobility
- Active calf stretch
- Achilles stretch
- Ankle rotations (SLOW)
- Eccentric body weight calf raises
- Banded ankle dorsiflexion
- Dorsiflexion PAILs/RAILs
- 90/90 hip flow
- Pigeon stretch
- Frog stretch
- Squatting internal rotations
- Weighted butterfly stretch
- Cossack squats
- Couch stretch
- Leaning lunge and reach/twist
- 10 min squat test
- Frog squats
- Kang squats
- Peanut exercises (I have a routine that I LOVE and it works like a charm)
- Lat stretches
- Banded front rack stretch
- Barbell overhead openers
- PVC Pass through
- PVC external rotation
- Sleeper stretch
- Banded external rotation
- Banded abduction
- Banded front raise