Whether you foam roll during workout warmups or do neck circles whenever you feel a bit of extra tightness, you likely already do some mobility work. But most people don’t make mobility exercises a major focus in their fitness routine. Now is the ideal time to make mobility a focus, especially since many of us are spending more time at home than ever before. Ahead, fitness experts argue the benefits of investing in a mobility practice — from better workouts to fewer injuries — plus share some exercises to help you start from home.
MOBILITY IS NOT FLEXIBILITY
It’s easy to get mobility confused with flexibility, but the two are fundamentally different. “Mobility is having the ability to actively move and control your joints,” explains Grayson Wickham, DPT, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and founder of Movement Vault. “Flexibility is how much you are able to move a joint passively. The key differentiator between the two is active movement.”
For example, whether or not you can touch your toes when standing depends on your flexibility. How deep you can go in a deadlift with good form depends on your mobility. Unlike stretching, which usually involves staying still, mobility work involves moving your body.
WHY MOBILITY WORK IS IMPORTANT
For better or worse, we spend most of our time in positions our bodies weren’t built for. “Most people today spend a lot of time sitting, staring at their computer in poor postures, looking down at their phones, and living sedentary lives,” Wickham explains. “This, in part, causes tight muscles and tight joints — or poor mobility — in our bodies.” (If you’re reading this article on your computer or phone, you need a regular mobility practice, he adds.)
It may help to think of a mobility practice as daily maintenance, Wickham says. Just like everything you own — your house, car, pets — your body needs to be maintained. “The most important thing you own that needs maintenance is the thing that takes you from point A to point B every minute of your life: your body.”
THE BENEFITS OF MOBILITY WORK
There are several key benefits to doing this maintenance work.
1. Reduced Risk of Injury
“Poor mobility can lead to compensation in other areas of your body, which can, and usually does, lead to pain and injury,” Wickham says. By improving your mobility, you decrease your risk of getting hurt — whether it’s by bending down to pick up something heavy or doing squats during your workout.
2. Better Workouts
“If you can’t properly move your body and achieve a specific position, your performance decreases significantly,” Wickham explains. For example, if you don’t have enough mobility in your hips and ankles to perform a squat, you may not get the full benefits from the exercise. Or your hip flexors are tight and painful, you’re not likely to achieve your best possible performance when you run.
3. Fewer Aches and Pains
“When you no longer have tight muscles and tight joints, your body basically fixes itself,” Wickham says. “If you commit, it’s likely you’ll find that nagging aches and pains you’ve been dealing with for years disappear. “When you’re no longer dealing with these low-level aches and pains, tight muscles and tight joints, everything in life gets better.”
WHY NOW IS A GREAT TIME TO GET STARTED
Mobility work provides these benefits anytime. But now that many are newly working from home, spending less free time outside the house, and/or dealing with increased stress, it makes a lot of sense to work on mobility — for a variety of reasons.
- More sitting means stiffer joints. “It’s extremely important to start a mobility practice now due to the current quarantine situation,” Wickham says. More time at home means more sitting, which means you’re likely to notice more tightness and stiffness than usual. If you’re not sure whether you can benefit, Wickham recommends asking yourself: How do your neck, upper back and lower back feel right now? If you’re feeling achy in any of these spots, mobility work is likely to help.
- You can see big benefits with little time investment. “Mobility is like hot sauce: A little goes a long way,” says Chris Ryan, certified strength and conditioning specialist, a certified physical therapist. As little as a few minutes can start to make a difference. “Next time you’re on a conference call, try doing a deep squat; hold for a minute or two to loosen up the ankles and hips,” Ryan recommends. Another option: “Neck circles and ankle rotations while working on your laptop will do a world of good for your cervical spine and ankles,” Ryan says. “Same with your wrists: Take a typing break for 30 seconds to do wrist rotations and bend/extend your fingers.”
- There’s flexibility in timing. Unlike most workouts, you can spread mobility work throughout the day to maximize the benefits. “Set a pop-up reminder on your computer every 30–60 minutes to do one major area on your body for just 1–2 minutes,” Ryan recommends. You can fit mobility exercises in at almost any point of your day, from while you’re waiting for your coffee to brew to while you’re watching TV.
- You don’t need equipment to get started. “You can perform a lot of effective mobility techniques without any equipment at all,” Wickham says. There are a few props that can be helpful, though. A foam roller or lacrosse ball may be useful to help release muscles and fascia before moving on to other exercises. A PVC pipe, dowel or broomstick may also be useful.
MOBILITY EXERCISES TO TRY
Every joint and area of the body can benefit from mobility work, Wickham says. But three key areas where most people have tightness are the hip flexors, upper back and chest. Try these three exercises for better mobility in these areas.
Half-kneeling Hip Flexor Active Stretch
The goal of this active stretch is to contract your hip flexors while stretching them out.
The move: Start in a half-kneeling position (with one knee on the ground and the other foot on the ground in front of you, knees bent at 90 degrees). To increase the stretch, move your back knee away from your front leg. Then, move your body and front knee forward over the middle of your front foot until you feel a stretch in the front of your back hip. Next, move your back hip forward as if you were trying to drag your knee on the ground. Stay in the stretch and contract the glutes of your back leg. You should feel an increased stretch in the front of your hip. Return to the starting position. This is one repetition.
Aim for 10 reps per side, and keep your core engaged the entire time to ensure you do not arch your low back.
Deep Squat With T-spine Rotation
This exercise is a great way to loosen up the hips, ankles and lats, according to Ryan.
The move: Sit deep into a squat, with your elbows pressing your knees outward. Straighten one arm out directly in front of your body. While keeping your core active, twist your upper body to reach your outstretched arm up toward the ceiling, following your hand with your eyes. Bring your arm back to center.
Twist 10 times on one side, then repeat on the other side.
Fascia Release Shoulder/Chest Opener
For this exercise, you’ll need a lacrosse or tennis ball.
The move: Start by lying on your stomach, with one arm out to the side, palm down. Place the ball on your pectoralis major muscle, which is located on the entire front of your chest. Roll side-to-side on the ball in a diagonal motion in 2–3-inch sections. If you find a tight and tender spot, pause and let the ball sink deeper into your muscle tissue.
To increase the pec stretch while rolling on the ball, bring your opposite leg backward over toward your other leg. Repeat on the other side.