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There’s no secret to getting stronger, but focusing on your mobility can give you a leg up.
In a fitness world obsessed with lifting more weight, showing more abs, and building bigger biceps, a lot of workout enthusiasts forget about—or ignore—the un-sexy parts of fitness. I mean, who wants to post about their nine hours of sleep or gallon of water a day? Meh, I think most of us would rather post our new squat personal records.
That’s right: Today I’m here to talk to you about the importance of working on your mobility, with the help of my friends at Power Athlete. Fitness mastermind and 10-year NFL veteran John Welbourn founded Power Athlete to share goal-oriented fitness programs to keep people in shape for sports, combat, and everyday life.
John and Power Athlete’s resident physical therapist, Dr. Tim Cummings, PT, DPT, talked with me about mobility and how to improve it, and I’m here to share that information with you today.
Mobility vs. Flexibility
A lot of people think mobility and flexibility are one and the same, but according to Dr. Tim, that’s not the case at all. A degree of flexibility is a prerequisite for good mobility, but being super bendy alone won’t help you achieve and maintain positions conducive to good fitness technique.
Dr. Tim posed this question that really made me think: “Why is it that someone can perform the splits, yet lack the ability to sit in a low squat position with their hips below parallel, heels on the ground, and their back straight?”
The answer lies between the qualities of passive flexibility and active mobility, he says.
So what is the difference, then? Well, Dr. Tim says it depends on where you stop on the Internet these days. On the simplest level, flexibility is a muscle’s ability to lengthen without damage; and mobility is a joint’s ability to move through a defined range of motion.
However, it goes deeper than that. “We can create a working definition to distinguish between each if we put all joint, muscular, and neuromuscular passive range of motion (PROM) into the ‘flexibility’ definition,” Dr. Tim says, “while defining any active range of motion (AROM) around a joint or series of joints with the involvement of the muscles and the neuromuscular system as ‘mobility’.”
To pack all that science into an example: When a person can sit down with their legs straight in front and touch their nose to their knees, that’s an exhibit of flexibility. There’s no real muscular engagement going on—just stretching.
Conversely, when a person can drop into a proper squat and hold that position, it shows three things: Their muscles have the requisite flexibility to access that position; their joints (specifically the hips, ankles, and spine) can move through full range of motion; and that their muscles are strong enough to stabilize the joints in the squat position.
So, flexibility is passive, and mobility is active—and a person can be flexible but lack mobility.
Why Mobility and Flexibility Matter
Mobility and flexibility both matter. Depending on who you talk to, you might hear that one is more important than the other. It really all comes down to the intent behind the characteristic. For instance, flexibility could be considered more important for yogis or dancers. For the average person, it could be argued that flexibility and mobility should be had in equal measure.
However, for someone looking to maximize their workouts, mobility gets the nod.
“It turns out that when it comes to performance in the gym, active mobility produces superior results,” Dr Tim says. “A body that has great passive muscle flexibility but is unable to absorb external force appropriately (what Power Athlete calls ‘tensile strength’) is at higher risk of overload injuries.”
And when it comes to optimal performance—on the field, on the weightlifting platform, on the line of duty—active mobility becomes even more important, Dr. Tim says.
Having a normal and healthy range of motion in both the joints and the muscles allows for a margin for error, he explains. “When your arm gets pulled behind your body or you have to unexpectedly stop and cut, that active, strong ROM is what saves you from suffering an injury.”
Upper Body Mobility Exercises
Now that you’ve read about the differences between flexibility and mobility (and the importance of both), let’s dig into some mobility exercises.
Shoulder Mobility Exercises
The shoulder is one of the most mobile joints in the body. But with that impressive range of motion comes compromised stability if things aren’t moving as they should. These shoulder mobility drills will improve your shoulder ROM and help strengthen your shoulder joint in compromised positions.
Prone S Waves
Prone S Waves promote healthy shoulder range of motion and scapular stability by encouraging you to move your shoulders through an extended range of motion under tension.
Similar to the Prone S Waves above, Blackburns require you to move your shoulders through a full range of motion while in the prone position and while engaging your lower body to avoid lumbar hyperextension (over-extending your lower back).
Superman Overhead Press
This exercise is kind of a two-for-one, challenging your mobility in both the shoulders and your thoracic spine. It’s essentially the overhead press movement pattern, but in a prone position, which requires extra scapular engagement and spinal mobility.
Phew. After all those tough shoulder mobility exercises, let’s cool off with a static stretch for the chest and shoulders. This simple stretch opens up the anterior (front) shoulder. Try to keep spinal rotation to a minimum during this stretch.
Thoracic Mobility Exercises
The majority of people today struggle with thoracic spine (T-spine) mobility, thanks to our increasingly sedentary lifestyles. Your T-spine is the section of spinal joints that runs from the base of your neck to the bottom of your rib cage. It’s the only section of your spine that connects to the rib cage, and it’s also the longest section of your spine, consisting of 12 vertebrae. T-spine mobility is extremely important, as it affects lumbar (low-back) stability.
Cat Cow Pose
This one might look funny, but trust us, it does wonders for your mid-to-upper back. Breathe in as you round your T-spine (cat) and exhale as you release and transition into the extension (cow) portion of the pose.
Iron Cross Stretch
This mobility exercise promotes spinal rotation and stretches your glutes and iliotibial (IT) band, the ligament that runs along the outside of your thigh from your hip to your knee.
The scorpion stretch is essentially the opposite of the iron cross stretch. Instead of lying supine (face up), you’ll lie prone (face down) and try to touch the toe of one leg to the ground on the other side of your body without excessively lifting your shoulders from the floor.
Deep Squat Hold With Thoracic Reach
This is an advanced mobility exercise, so use a support such as a pole or a wall if you need it. After sinking into a deep squat, place both hands on the ground in between your feet. Focus on keeping one hand flat on the ground while reaching up to the sky with the other to stretch and rotate your spine. This one’s also great for your hips.
Wrist Mobility Exercises
If you’re like most people, you probably never really thought about your wrist mobility. However, your wrists are in fact one of the areas you should focus on most—poor wrist mobility can cause you to dump a front squat, fail a clean-and-jerk, or struggle with overhead squats.
Aside from those complex exercises, wrist immobility even shows up during isolation exercises like biceps curls and triceps extensions. Try these mobility exercises to loosen up your wrist joints.
Forward Wrist Leans
This drill will help you develop the mobility you need for a strong front-rack position with a full grip on the barbell. Mobilizing your wrists in this way may also reduce pain during overhead pressing motions.
Side-to-Side Wrist Leans
The wrists don’t have a ton of side-to-side motion, but they do have some, and practicing it will help when it comes to full wrist rotation.
Wrist Wall Walks
This exercise is similar to forward wrist leans in that it challenges wrist flexion, but it also adds an element of shoulder mobility. You might feel this drill all throughout your arms—if you do, that’s a good sign you should do it more often.
Lower Body Mobility Exercises
Hip Mobility Exercises
Our hips suffer the same fate as our T-spines: hours upon hours of sitting every day. This causes our hip flexor muscles to tighten, our hip extensor muscles (glutes, hamstrings) to lengthen, and our hip joints become accustomed to a chronic 90-degree angle.
Eventually, our hips “forget” how to move through the full range of motion they’re intended for, and there are consequences for the lower back as well. These mobility exercises will help you regain range of motion in your hips and crush your favorite barbell exercises.
Hey, desk workers, we’re looking at you: Stretch out those tight hip flexors with Samson lunges. Holding your arms overhead adds a little extra oomph to the stretch in the front of your hips.
World’s Greatest Stretch
This is called the world’s greatest stretch for a reason! Not only does it just feel phenomenal on the hips and spine, but it moves your hip joints through a range of motion that targets all of the muscles that move your hips.
Banded Quad Stretch
The challenge here is to not over-extend your lower back while stretching your quad. That’s the purpose of the band: to allow you to find the right ROM that deeply stretches your hip flexors without compromising stability in your spine.
This stretch will change your life. This feel-good pose promotes flexibility in the hip adductors (muscles used to squeeze your legs together) and abduction at the hip joint. Abduction is how you move your leg out to the side of your body.
Ankle Mobility Exercises
Just like the wrists, so many people neglect their ankles when it comes to mobility. It’s not exactly hard to overlook your ankles when your hips need so much work, but you’ll be surprised at the improvements in your lifts (especially squats) if you work on your ankle ROM.
These drills will help you develop better dorsiflexion (toes up), plantar flexion (toes pointed), and rotation in your ankle.
Knee to Wall Stretch (Ankle Dorsiflexion Stretch)
This is one of the most useful exercises for increasing ankle dorsiflexion. By holding onto or pressing into a sturdy object like a pole or wall, you can challenge your ankle joint to move a little further than you might without that assistance.
Downward Dog Calf Stretch
In addition to promoting ankle dorsiflexion, this mobility drill is also a nice calf stretch and T-spine opener.
This double whammy of a drill both stretches the back of your ankles and strengthens your anterior tibialis, the muscle that runs along the front of your shinbone. Together, these two mechanisms promote strong improvements in ankle mobility.
Mobility Routines for the Everyday Athlete
Doing the above mobility drills is a great way to improve your range of motion throughout your whole body, but keep in mind, this list is far from exhaustive. There are countless mobility exercises for all joints. The ones most beneficial to you depend on your problem areas and your goals.
In addition to mobility exercises, you can improve range of motion and flexibility in some other ways. Massage guns, for example, can loosen tight muscle tissue and fascia, and help you gear up for a workout that requires deep ranges of motion. Other mobility tools, such as foam rollers, muscle sticks, and crossover symmetry systems, are also helpful in the right scenarios.
However, nothing beats well-designed workout programs with proper exercise selection, like Power Athlete’s Iron Flex, which shows you how to move well in life and in workouts.
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