Mobility has become a fitness buzzword in recent months, but there are so many takes on what it actually means and how best to apply it to your fitness regime. Here I break down the trend into the need-to-knows and the how-tos for a quick no-nonsense guide to improving your mobility (and knowing why and when it is important to do so).
What is mobility?
Mobility is essentially a fancy word for movement. Most of us are equipped to get from A to B, but along the way some muscles may be too weak to fire optimally and others may be so overused they make that movement more challenging than it should be. Without drawing attention to these imbalances, long-term movement patterns can be very seriously affected.
Now when I say seriously, this doesn’t mean you’ll walk like Quasimodo, but it does mean you could very well hit a plateau at the squat rack because tight hips and weak glutes are preventing you from transferring your weight effectively. The real danger here is that you practise poor form as a result, which over time could lead to an injury that takes you out of training and requires greater rehabilitation.
That’s where mobility comes in – in a way, it’s a form of prehabilitation, recognising the potential for injury and putting processes in place to prevent both injury and plateau. So far, so smart. But where and when does mobility fit into your routine?
The evolution of warming up
Ideally, dedicated mobility drills will come at the beginning of a session. The days of static stretching before an intense workout are well and truly over. And for good reason! By stretching the muscle before cardio or weight lifting, you risk conditioning that muscle outside of its normal range. As the muscle is weaker when lengthened outside of your normal working range, you could strain that muscle in the process.
Instead, mobility involves dynamic movement and opening that is far less extreme than static stretching, and also allows the body to work as one, forming a skeletal and muscular chain for optimal engagement from head to toe. Some mobility drills could even be mistaken as an exercise in itself. For instance, it’s now accepted that activating the glutes with bridges, band work, crab walks and similar will help to awaken the muscles that may otherwise fail to fire correctly during bigger movements like squats and deadlifts.
How do I mobilise effectively?
So now you know the what and the why, we turn to the how. In my own mobility training, I think of activating every muscle from the toes straight up to my shoulders. Here’s how…
Add the following mobility drills together for a five-minute warm-up and see how it affects your form and movement in your next workout. My guess is you’ll be pleasantly surprised, and you won’t think twice about taking those five minutes to set yourself up for a safe, smart and strong workout. I’ll provide context for each of the drills, but you can skip straight to the exercise itself by reading the italics.
Think about those hundreds of proprioceptors and nerve endings in your feet, each one working to send signals to your brain about how to move. Yet your feet spend most of the day crammed into shoes, not necessarily able to feel the changes in surface beneath them. It makes sense then to liberate your feet and alert them to the sensory fireworks of the workout ahead.
Before you lace up your trainers, stand in bare or socked feet and practice lifting all your toes while pressing as much of your foot into the floor as possible. Hold for a few seconds, then press the toes firmly into the floor while relaxing the arches. Perform 5-6 reps, trying to separate the toes more each time you plant them down.
Side note: You can also improve toe mobility during downtime by weaving your fingers between your toes while you sit crossed legged on the sofa, or during yoga/meditation.
Next, hover for a moment on the backs of your heels then roll as high onto your tiptoes as possible. Again, 5-6 reps should suffice. Finally, rock between the outer and inner edges of your feet, mobilising your ankle joints and surrounding ligaments.
Box jump day? Your odds of injury just diminished substantially, so dare to jump a little higher!
Strong glutes & happy hips
The most common muscular imbalance I see is overused quads and hips and underused glutes. This is a consequence of a society where extensive sitting is encouraged – if you work in a desk-based job, you’re almost guaranteed to spend a minimum of 10 hours a day on your backside. Getting up and down uses your quads, so we naturally spend all day pushing and barely any time at all pulling. That means the back of the legs eventually suffer, and your hip flexors are squished up for so long that they get used to it, becoming tighter and less cooperative in the process.
The fix is pretty obvious: release your hips and activate your glutes. Do it at the beginning of your workout. Improving mobility around the pelvis and alerting the muscles in your derriere that there’s work to come will help you more effectively carry out compound lifts and transfer your weight during leg work like squats.
Place the right knee directly against the wall with the shin running upwards along the wall. Place your left foot on the floor so the knee is as close to 90 degrees as possible, and squeeze the butt as you press the top of your foot into the wall to gradually increase the stretch in the right hip. Hold for at least 45 seconds on each side.
Now lie on the floor with the right foot planted and the left ankle gently resting on the right knee. Send your hips into the air by squeezing the glutes (the left hips will get a gentle stretch here, too). Do 12 slow reps, rolling one vertebra at a time from top to bottom, then pause at the top and do 20 quick pulses at the top inch of your range. Voila! Repeat on the left.
Spinal & shoulder integration
Mobility in the spine varies so much from person to person. There is plenty of kyphosis around – a pronounced inward curving of the upper back due to slouching or rounding your shoulders. However lordosis – a hypermobile lumbar spine resulting from arching in the back, common after pregnancy – can be equally problematic when it comes to lifting weights safely.
In both cases, I recommend overhead shoulder sweeps to stimulate alignment signals from the base of the spine to the top. Hold a resistance band or lightweight bar (a broomstick or mop handle is perfect) with a shoulder width grip, arms fully extended and in line with the centre of your chest. Now sweep your arms all the way up and behind until the band or bar touches your back. You may need to nudge your hands wider until you can do this comfortably without bending your elbows or moving about in your torso. Do 6-8 sweeps, aiming to close the gap between your hands each time.
Now this is important. The final move in your mobility warm-up depends on whether you’re more kyphotic or lordotic (see first para of this section for clarification). If you’re kyphotic, hold the bar or band above your head with straight arms and bend your knees into a deep squat. Try to keep the elbows extended and as close to your ears as possible as you lower down. At the base of the squat, pull your shoulder blades together to send your arms slightly behind your head while keeping your weight firmly grounded through your heels. Stand and draw the elbows back by the ears. Repeat 6-8 reps and you’ll notice the shoulders open significantly.
If you’re lordotic with hypermobility in your lower back, steer clear of the above. Instead, go to hands and knees on the floor and finish your warm-up with 6-8 cat cow stretches, emphasising the cow movements by drawing the navel in and holding with a 4 count exhale. By switching on your abs here and counterbalancing the naturally exaggerated arch of your lower back, you’ll take the important baby steps required to push your lumbar spine into proper alignment for the rest of your session and beyond.
I add this section in for the many people who complain about wrist pain during exercises performed on your hands – another symptoms of our monotonous movement habits, with our wrists hyperextended in typing or texting position for unnatural lengths of time. If this applies to you, you can reduce discomfort and improve your endurance in exercises like planks, press-ups and pikes by regularly applying gentle pressure in your wrists’ other planes of movements.
On hands and knees, take a few light press-ups with the backs of your hands on the floor and your fingertips rotated inwards towards each other, then backwards towards you.
I hope this post helps give you purpose during your all-important warm-up and get more from your strength and conditioning sessions. If you’re local to SW London, I’d love to see you in my weekly weightlifting class to help you build on your good work and further improve your mobility, form and strength while sculpting lean muscle for a supercharged metabolism. Join the class on Thursdays at 8pm in Raynes Park/Wimbledon – find out more here or drop me an email to enquire.