Mobility is one of the most common aspects of health and fitness that people want to work on. People who like lifting heavy weights know that mobility helps them get into positions of better mechanical advantage, thus allowing them to lift heavier weights while also being safer. People who do a lot of running and/or cycling know that the repetitive nature of what they do tends to lead to predictable tight areas and compensation patterns, and working on their mobility helps them mitigate that. Martial artists appreciate mobility to allow them to safely get into more extreme body positions during training and competition (either by their own design … or in Jiu Jitsu sometimes by their opponent’s design). Even people who are not really “gym junkies” enjoy mobility because it makes them feel good and it is usually a less scary starting point than strength training.
Considering the above, it should not surprise anyone that we get asked about mobility a lot. One thing I usually try to convey is that using more than one method of mobility training is almost always a good thing – and that typically the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. If you really want to improve your mobility, then including several methods is really the way to go. Here are five methods that I like and use a lot; they are not the only ones out there, but they serve me well and I think they’ll serve you well also:
1) JOINT ROTATIONS
Many of us were first exposed to these in PE class or team sports growing up. As simple as they are, they are also one of the most valuable methods of training mobility. Remember that the goal of mobility is TO BE ABLE TO MOVE – so if your mobility training doesn’t include some actual movement then you might need to re-evaluate what you are doing. Joint rotations are pretty simple and generally involve moving your joint through a complete range of motion at a pre-determined speed. Simply standing up and moving your arms in big circles is an example. These can be done at a variety of speeds, with ultra-slow and controlled being one of the most valuable. In fact, there is one continuing education organization in the fitness industry that is credited for making this technique become extremely popular. That organization is called “Functional Range Systems” and they call this technique CARs or “controlled articular rotations.” FYI an “articulation” is a synonym for a “joint.” One benefit of this method is that it reaches the deepest aspects of the joint, which is often a culprit for reduced mobility.
2) SOFT TISSUE WORK
Many people use the term “soft tissue work” interchangeably with “foam rolling” – on one hand I understand that, because foam rollers are the most common piece of equipment used for this method, but I do my best to not use the terms interchangeably because there are many other great tools that can be used as well. This method is beneficial because it can pin-point specific areas within a muscle or muscle group that are holding excess tension, and you can use pressure and gentle motion to help reduce the excess tone in that area. If you think about a rope with a knot in the middle of it, you’ll never get the knot untied just by pulling on the ends of the rope (which is what many other stretching techniques do). To get the knot untied, you need to work specifically on that point – and that is where foam rollers, lacrosse balls, and other mobility tools can help.
3) STATIC STRETCHING
This is sort of the opposite of the soft tissue work above. Static stretching is another technique (like joint rotations) that many people were exposed to at a young age. It essentially involves getting into a position where you feel a stretch and holding it for an extended period of time. The length of time you’ll hear that you should hold a stretch varies wildly; you’ll hear everything from only 10 seconds up to 10+ minutes with some people being quite dogmatic about it. What I typically do is hold for shorter lengths if it is in my warm up (maybe 30 seconds) and hold much longer if it is after my workout or if it is a dedicated time specifically for mobility (several minutes). Another good option is to hold for a certain number of deep breaths – sometimes when you just look at the stopwatch you actually do not relax much, so the stretch is ineffective. If you focus on taking 10 slow, deep breaths then your body can often relax into the stretch better.
4) ISOMETRICS / POSITIONAL STRENGTH
If you are working to improve your mobility it is imperative that you train to actually be able to USE your new ranges of motion. If you are not strong in a certain position or range of motion, then that position is of little value to you. Said another way, being able to better control or be stronger in a certain position is absolutely a valid form of mobility training, and a pretty damn good one at that. For example, recently I worked with someone who told me they “struggled with their balance” during lunges. To help with that, I decided to have them do an exercise that was isometric (holding still) in one of the most difficult parts of the lunge – the very bottom. I had them get into a lunge position with their knee on the floor, and then stand up only one inch until their knee hovered a tiny bit above the ground. I only had them hold it for 10 seconds, but that was enough to offer a legitimate challenge. After a few sessions of doing these, people usually see great strength improvements in that particular position, and all of sudden their balance is way better too. There are a few reasons for this, one of which is obviously that their body has spent more time in that position, so of course it is going to get better at it. Another part of the answer though, is that if your body does not feel strong or stable in a certain position, it tends to “squirm around” looking for somewhere else that might feel more stable – this “squirming” might feel like poor balance, but can actually be your body avoiding what it perceives as a lack of strength.
5) STRENGTH TRAINING THROUGH A FULL RANGE OF MOTION
People who have trained with me even for a short time know that I am a stickler on this. I firmly believe that the majority of your strength training should be done through a full range of motion, and that “partials” should only be included as a conscious choice from time-to-time. What should be avoided is starting of a set with the intent of doing a full range of motion and letting it deteriorate into partials (this is almost always due to ego … trying to get more weight, more reps, or both). Having the discipline to lift through a full range of motion and to control both “end ranges” of the motion will do more for your mobility than almost anything else. Remember, at the end of the day mobility training should help you ACTUALLY MOVE, and the stimulus to your body is amplified when lifting weights compared to no outside resistance, and so the combination of full range of motion with external load is one of the most powerful ways to train your mobility – you just need to make sure to exercise discipline when it comes to full range of motion and control of end ranges.