I am a huge proponent of focusing on and improving mobility. I think it’s one of the most important, and often overlooked, aspects of physical fitness, especially when looking at goals and health in the long-term. Most people tend to focus on strength, hypertrophy, or endurance, neglecting to realize that improved mobility would increase the effectiveness of each of those endeavors. Additionally, many people tend to confuse mobility for flexibility, and contrary to popular belief, and typically interchangeable vernacular, they are NOT the same. I cannot stress this enough, but mobility and flexibility are two different, though related, things.
Flexibility is the ability for muscles to lengthen and to allow movement to happen. It’s the passive component of mobility. Being able to pull your leg into your chest or pull your arm across your body, or even someone else pulling on various parts of your body to “stretch” them, are all examples of flexibility. It is externally driven movement, meaning the action is created by an outside, rather than inside, force. Flexibility is a necessity, but it’s benefits are far less important than that of mobility because while more flexibility doesn’t guarantee physical health improvements, more mobility most certainly does.
Mobility is the active control of joints through their range of motion. It is strength and motor control of muscles to move the joints in various ranges of motion and planes of movement. So, while flexibility is a component of mobility, and definitely has value, mobility is the ultimate goal because it is the active component of increased movement capabilities and creates lasting change. This long-term change includes improved movement and strength, reduced restrictions, pain, and chances of injury, and better control of the various joints in your body which will lead to more rapid growth of muscles, if that’s your forte.
If you’re looking to make lasting change to your body, to improve the way you move, increase strength, and exponentially improve the results for your training, mobility should be high on your priority list.
How does mobility improve strength?
Mobility improves strength by allowing your muscles and joints to function as they are supposed to and to their highest capacity. Lack of adequate mobility can cause poor posture and movement restrictions, which can have a negative affect on the length-tension relationships of your muscles.
Put simply, the length-tension relationships of your muscles are the balance between two (or more) opposing muscles acting upon a joint. If one muscle “rests” in a longer position than the other, as a result of poor mobility/posture, or muscular imbalances, your ability to develop and produce force will weaken.
For instance, if you tend to have an excessive anterior pelvic tilt (think of your pelvis as a cup with the front tipping down) you will have hamstrings and glutes that having a longer resting tension and quads and hip flexors that have a shorter resting tension. This will result in an inability to efficiently use your hamstrings and glutes, which will cause a reduction in power, force, and stability during any given lift. This is why having the ability to control your joints and access the necessary ranges of motion for common movements is so important for strength.
How does mobility improve hypertrophy and muscle growth?
Similar to the effect that length-tension relationships of muscles have on strength, they also affect hypertrophy. If you want to grow a muscle to its greatest extent, then you have to be able to fully lengthen and shorten that muscle and create intense muscular contractions. This means training a muscle through its full range of motion with large amounts of contractile force, and typically means having the ability to access wide ranges of motion through the joints of the body to do so. Without the ability to access a joints full range of motion, you will never be able to fully grow the muscles that surround that joint.
If you have shoulders that are overly tight, not allowing you to move into shoulder flexion properly (think upper arm behind the torso), than growing your chest and anterior deltoids will be difficult. Because you are unable to access that range of motion through mobility, you will likely compensate through other joints of the body during movements like the bench press, moving tension from the specified muscles, like the chest and shoulders, to muscles that are stabilizers, like the wrist extensors. This will lead to a reduction in power output and stability, and increase the likelihood of pain and/or injury.
If you are looking to improve your strength and athleticism, make sure you are giving your mobility, especially any restrictions you may have, the time and attention it deserves. Doing so will drastically increase your ability to produce force and stabilize your joints, leading to a stronger, more resilient body.
How does mobility reduce the prevalence of pain and likelihood of injury?
As stated before, a lack of adequate mobility for a given exercise or movement will undoubtedly cause compensation. This compensation will shift tension to muscles and joints that are unable and/or unprepared to take the load and forces that are placed upon it. These compensations can, in the moment or over a period of time, either cause injury, and pain or discomfort.
If you have immobile ankles your chances of dealing with pain or injury in the knees and hips will dramatically increase. Whether you’re squatting, running, or simply going through your daily motions, immobile ankles will undoubtedly cause issues at some point. Because your ankles are unable to move in the necessary ranges of motion that are expected, other joints will have to make up for it. Joints like the knees are not intended to be as mobile and have the same movement capabilities as the ankles, so forcing the knees to do the ankles work is a recipe for pain and injury.
That’s why I always recommend avoiding ankle braces and ankle restrictive shoes to athletes and the general public alike. The brace and/or restrictive shoes will reduce your ankle’s ability to bend, rotate and move making joints up or downstream, like the hips, knees and feet, make up for it when they’re not made to function in that capacity.
If you’re tired of dealing with pain and injuries, or just want to preemptively avoid them, giving ample attention to improving your mobility needs to be a focal point of your training. It will ensure that each one of your joints is able to function in its intended manner and remove the need for compensations elsewhere, giving you the ability to move freely without pain. This doesn’t mean that you need to spend hours a day stretching, and in fact, for most people I would avoid the typical, passive style stretching altogether.
Implementing Mobility Training into your Current Program
The most common complaint that I hear from people when it comes to training and improving mobility is that they “don’t have time”. I understand it, life is busy and mobility training doesn’t hold the same glory that “traditional” training does. That’s why it’s important to not only prioritize your mobility, but to figure out where you’re current mobility needs are and how to fit mobility training into your typical week.
Mobility training can be done in a variety of ways:
- You can set specific training days to focus solely on mobility, increasing the amount of time and focus you can place on your mobility. This allows you to place a high emphasis on your mobility training, giving you the opportunity to attack all areas of mobility in each session without being restricted by time constraints. This is typically the most intensive approach to mobility training, and a great way to really go after some of your weaknesses and make rapid progress.
- You can perform a daily mobility routine that is shorter and less intense than having specific mobility focused days, and focuses on hitting key areas of the body, like the hips, spine, and shoulders, interspersed with a few exercises that work on specific weaknesses. This is a wonderful approach for those who are either already pretty mobile and are taking a preemptive approach, or those who want to build a daily habit of moving and caring for their body. If I have a client who is in intense pain and/or having a serious issue, I will typically send them home with 3-5 exercises to do daily until the pain is reduced and mobility improves.
- You can perform mobility at the beginning and/or end of your workout. This is a great route for those who have a solid command of their body and mobility already and are looking to improve their performance in the gym, without spending much time independently on mobility. I always recommend doing your mobility work prior to your workout, rather than at the end, if you only have time for one or the other. This will ensure that it gets done every time and defend against the excuse of not having the time or energy at the end of a workout.
Regardless of you who you are, where you’re currently at, or what your fitness and health goals are, you should be making mobility a priority. The specifics of your situation will determine what sort of approach you should take and how intensive it should, but as a general rule I would try to dedicate at least 2 hours every week (more is better) to maintaining and improving your mobility. The goal with mobility training isn’t to sit and stretch for hours at a time, but rather to be intentional about the work that you do, and focus on the areas that need it most. It should be challenging and should require a high level of effort if you wish to make lasting change. Like they say, “if it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you” and mobility is no different, so do yourself a favor and get serious about your mobility today!
If you’re looking to improve your mobility, effectively reducing pain and the chances of injury, while increasing the effectiveness of your current workouts, check out this FREE fully body joint assessment that will walk you step by step through the process of self-assessing you current mobility capacities. The joint assessment will give you feedback on your specific needs and help guide you in your mobility training. In addition, it will give you a baseline to easily measure your progress against, letting you know if your mobility work is actually working or not. If you are interested in improving your mobility and living a pain-free, strong life, this is your first step! And if you need additional guidance in building a mobility program specific to your needs, or want to work with me one on one to rapidly accelerate your results, leave a comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.