Most people think mobility and flexibility mean the same thing and use the words interchangeably. This is incorrect. Mobility and flexibility are certainly linked, but they are not the same. Flexibility is the ability of a muscle (or muscle groups) to lengthen passively through a range of motion (ROM). Mobility is the ability of a joint to move actively through a ROM.
Flexibility is a component of mobility. Static stretching addresses flexibility, but there are several other factors required to address mobility. Mobility is also influenced by joint structure and motor control governed by the nervous system. Mobility is a more global or “functional” capacity that carries over to day to day activities and athletic endeavors. It is an indication of how well and efficiently we move and even helps us ward off injuries.
To manage your injury risk, you want to minimize the gap between your passive (flexibility) and active (mobility) ROM. Your passive ROM is the range ROM at a joint that can be achieved when an outside force moves the body part. For example, if you lie on your back and someone else lifts your leg up to stretch your hamstrings. Your active ROM, however, is the motion at a joint that you can achieve by contracting muscles to create movement. For example, lying on your back and contracting your hip flexors to lift your leg up and stretch the hamstrings. Many people have a much larger passive than active ROM. This increases injury risk. Outside of your active range, you lack control. Lack of control means you lack the strength or coordination to enter and exit the range safely. Sometimes life or sports puts you into these ranges. If you cannot control them, the risk of injury is high.
If you are flexible in static passive stretches but lack mobility, it indicates you probably lack stability or strength.
- Stability = ability to resist force
- Strength = ability to exert force
To improve your mobility most people just do passive static stretches. Unfortunately, this is only part of the picture and often is not addressing the issue that is limiting mobility. In most cases, they actually need to increase stability and strength to showcase an increased active range of motion (mobility). As you will discover by reading this article, stretching can be part of the mobility equation, but the often overlooked and arguably important components of stability and strength need to be addressed.
Static Stretching Misses the Target
Mobility is more effective than static stretching because it targets both movement and control. Your body is hard-wired for survival. It has many mechanisms in place to try and keep you alive. For example, if you diet down to extremely low body fat levels, it will do its best to limit energy expenditure to prevent you from losing essential body fat and dying of starvation. It has no idea you’re deliberately starving yourself to look good at the beach. Another example of this protective nature is that your body will not allow you to get into positions you cannot control. If you lack stability or strength in a certain position you risk injury. Consequently, the body will try and prevent you from getting into this position. This is all done in an effort to keep you safe.
To develop mobility, you must develop the requisite stability and strength in these ranges so that your nervous system allows you to access them. This means your mobility routine is not going to be 20 mins of trying to contort yourself into pretzel-like shapes, holding each stretch for what feels like an eternity. Instead, it will be a combination of stretches, activation drills, and exercises designed to stretch, stabilize, and strengthen you to create lasting mobility improvements.
Mobility Can Increase Strength and Muscle
Most people accept that developing optimal mobility at each joint in the body will manage injury risk. However, most meatheads blow off mobility work and ignore the benefits it can have for increases in strength and muscle mass. This is a big mistake.
Think of it this way, to fully develop a muscle you need to be able to challenge it across its full-contractile range. Nothing too earth-shattering there, right? You’ve probably heard a catchphrase like “Partial range equals partial development” before. Well if you lack the required shoulder flexibility to maintain external rotation into full shoulder flexion then you will not be able to adequately stimulate your lats in their lengthened range. Your lack of mobility will become a bottleneck to your lat growth. Investing some time in achieving optimal mobility creates the potential for better gains.
Improved mobility can also improve performance on specific exercises in the gym. There is an “ideal” ROM at each joint. This is specific to you, but within a relatively narrow spectrum, this holds true for everyone. The exercises you perform in the gym require certain levels of mobility. If you lack the mobility required then you will either be limited to doing partial reps. And remember partial reps equal partial development. Or you will force yourself into positions that shift tension away from the target muscle. If tension is taken off the target muscle then the growth stimulus to that muscle evaporates.
Often when we lack range at a joint, we get it elsewhere to compensate and complete a movement. Forcing yourself into a deeper squat or leg press by finding range through flexing your lower spine is not a good idea. It means the range is coming from your spine, not at the knee. Thus, it does not increase the challenge on your quads but, it does place huge stress on your spine. If instead, you had developed your mobility to allow you to make that deeper squat angle come by allowing the shin to travel forwards to create a deeper knee bend then the challenge to the quads would have increased significantly and you would have saved your spine.
When we chase a range that we don’t own, we often drive tension and force into passive structures rather than the target. This means our joints, tendons, ligaments, and cartilage bear the brunt rather than our muscles. Short-term, this reduces the muscle-building stimulus. Long-term, this leads to injury.
3 Common Mobility Issues
Here are the three most common areas that I see when it comes to people lacking mobility:
- Thoracic Spine
1. Thoracic Mobility
Thoracic spine mobility is an extremely important, and oftentimes overlooked, component to a variety of dysfunctions. Poor thoracic mobility can affect your shoulders, neck, low back, and hips very easily. Unfortunately, our modern sedentary lifestyles mean poor thoracic mobility is very common. Sitting for long times, hunched over computer screens and smartphones, has placed us in a flexed thoracic position and lead to a relatively stiff forward posture. We are becoming a group of modern days Quasimodo’s. This means we lack thoracic extension and rotation.
A lack of thoracic mobility is a precursor to neck, shoulder, and lower back pain. Being stuck in excessive thoracic flexion (known as Kyphosis) means it is likely you will compensate and try to find extra range via lumbar (lower back) extension. This can cause pain, overload the structures of the lumbar spine, and increase injury risk. Poor thoracic mobility will also limit your ability to effectively train overhead movements like presses, chins, and pulldowns. Good luck trying to get big, strong shoulders and back without being able to train those movement patterns properly!
2. Shoulder Mobility
The ability to take your shoulder into full flexion (arms overhead) is crucial to safely train overhead movements. Full shoulder flexion while maintaining external rotation is of the upper arm is optimal. Most people lack this range and compensate by arching their lower back to get into the overhead position. This places a lot of strain on the lower back. This lack of shoulder mobility is often driven by poor thoracic extension which then creates faulty mechanics to reach overhead. By addressing thoracic extension, you can clear up a lot of shoulder mobility issues. Killing two birds with one stone!
3. Hip Mobility
A lack of hip mobility means you will use compensatory strategies to hit certain ranges. Doing so means you run the risk of exposing other parts of your body to excessive strain. The faulty movement mechanics caused by insufficient hip mobility can drive up or down the chain to cause issues. A lack of hip mobility has been shown to contribute to lower back pain, hip osteoarthritis, groin pain, knee injuries, and ankle pain.
Effective Mobility Training
Mobility training is a means to an end. Adequate mobility allows you to train optimally. It creates the potential for you to train for strength and muscle mass in the most effective way possible. Without enough mobility, you will have to compromise on certain movement patterns and find workarounds to challenge muscles in certain positions. You can gain strength and size without great mobility, but you’ll be fighting an uphill battle that carries an increased risk of injury.
When it comes to mobility training, you should do just enough to achieve the ideal levels. Mobility is not the end goal. High quality, overloading training is. Adequate mobility is just a gatekeeper to achieving this. After about a month of dedicated mobility work, even the biggest meathead should be able to scale their mobility routine back to a relatively short protocol. You might need 20 minutes before each lifting session to begin with, but in time that should be down to 5 minutes. Don’t become a professional in warming-up!
As with most physical capacities, it is much easier to maintain something you have developed than it was to develop it in the first place. Consequently, this means the amount of time dedicated to mobility work should reduce as you improve it. It also means more time should be spent on developing areas you are deficient in mobility wise than areas you have the required levels. This does not mean you rest on your laurels for the areas that are currently adequately mobile, but that you do the least required to maintain them. This frees up more time to invest it developing what you lack.
Once adequate mobility is achieved, little and often is a better approach than trying to blitz it and then ignore it. Most people should only need a 5-minute mobility routine specific to their workout that they incorporate into their warm-ups and a 10-15-minute whole-body mobility routine done a couple of days per week to keep on top of things.
3 Useful Mobility Assessments
- Wall Angel
- Thomas Test
1. Wall Angel
The Wall Angel is a great global assessment of upper-body mobility. It assesses thoracic extension, scapular muscle control, shoulder external rotation, core engagement, and deep neck flexor activation. A correctly performed Wall Angel is a sign of good upper-body mobility.
Wall Angel Mobility Issues and Drills
|Lack of thoracic extension||Foam roller thoracic extensions with overhead reach for 10 reps|
|Weak scapular retractors||Prone cobra and band pull-aparts|
|Weak external rotators||Side-lying dumbbell external rotation|
2. Thomas Test
The Thomas Test measures the flexibility of your hip flexors. A limited range of motion at the hip might be an underlying cause of knee and lower back pain. A lack of range at the hip will also compromise your ability to perform all squatting movement patterns optimally.
Thomas Test Mobility Issues and Drills
|Tight hip flexors||Couch stretch|
|Weak core meaning Psoas (one of the hip flexors) is having to contribute to stabilizing the spine. Thus, Psoas ROM is limited||Train anti-flexion, -extension, -rotation of the spine with planks, bird dogs, and side planks.|
The 90/90 hip stretch is a good indicator of hip mobility. It is particularly useful at assessing hip internal rotation which is vital for effective leg training. If you lack hip internal rotation you will fail to ‘buffer’ force away from your spine in heavy leg training.
When in the 90/90 position it challenges the front hip in flexion and external rotation and the back leg in the abduction and internal rotation. If you are able to comfortably sit up tall in this position on both sides then your hips probably have enough mobility for all the exercise you plan on using in your leg training.
90/90 Mobility Issues and Drills
|Lack of internal rotation||Use regressed versions of the 90/90 to build back up to the full version. For example, rear leg 90/90 table stretch|
All of these tests represent the required standard. If you pass one of the tests with flying colors it shows you have the ideal range at that joint(s). In this case, it is not a limiting factor for you. Thus, you don’t need to invest lots of time and effort to develop it. Simply do enough to maintain it.
For the Wall Angel and 90/90 this can be done by including them in your mobility routine a couple of times a week. For the Thomas test, this can be achieved by including a full ROM Bulgarian split squat variation in your leg training. The Bulgarian split squat will train the mobility, stability, and strength required to maintain adequate hip flexor mobility. This is an example of using intelligent programming to kill two birds with one stone.
Example Mobility Routines
From an efficiency standpoint, it makes sense to train mobility in the ranges you are about to train. If you follow a body part or upper-lower split, these two pre-workout routines will work extremely well for you.
Pre-Workout Mobility Routine (Upper Body Training Day)
- Foam Roller Thoracic Extension
- Lat Stretch
- Foam Roller Thread the Needle
- Prone Cobra
- Band Pull-Aparts
- Side-lying Dumbbell External Rotations
Pre-Workout Mobility Routine (Lower Body Training Day)
15-minute Daily Mobility Routine (Off Days from the Gym)
To stay on top of your mobility and maintain optimal levels long-term, here is a whole-body routine you can use a couple of days a week at home. Go through this circuit twice:
- Couch Stretch – 30 seconds per side
- 90/90 Stretch - 0 seconds per side
- Foam Roller Thoracic Extension with Pec Stretch – 10 slow controlled breaths over the roller
- Lat Stretch – 30 seconds per side
- Bird Dogs – 6 reps per side
- World’s Greatest Stretch – 6 reps per side
- Wall Angel – 10 reps
- 4-Point Squat – 6 reps
- Kettlebell Windmill – 6 reps per side
Smart Programming and Mobility Training
Doing mobility work before training can open up your range of motion. It is vital to then build stability and strength in these new ranges to make the improvements last or ‘stick’. Your program should be reflective of mobility issues. When it is you begin exercising correctly and exercising correctly becomes corrective exercise.
Mobility training plus smart programming can be a force multiplier. For example, if you struggle with the Wall Angel test and discover you lack thoracic extension, your scapular retractors and external rotators are weak, it is wise to do direct mobility work before an upper-body session. It is also wise to include an exercise(s) that strengthens these issues. Namely, something that requires you to work into thoracic extension, scapular retraction, and external rotation. A face pull would fit the bill perfectly. If on the other hand, thoracic rotation is something you struggle with then programming exercises that challenge this makes more sense for you. In this case, single-arm dumbbell rows would be a better choice.
Your mobility assessments will illustrate what is deficient. It is the key to address these. The assessments basically create a job description of what is needed. You then need to select the exercise(s) that match that job description. Doing so will save you time and lead to more strength and muscle.