When you increase your mobility, you will improve your everyday movement, wellbeing and decrease your risk of injury. But what exactly is mobility and why is it important?

What is mobility?

Mobility is the ability to move your body freely and easily, without pain or tightness. For example, if you can get up off the floor or get to depth in a squat, pain-free. When you are fully mobile, every single joint should be able to achieve a full range of motion without discomfort. If there’s a restriction, then you are lacking mobility in that area.

We are all born with the ability to move well. However, the saying “use it or lose it” rings true for mobility. Over time, when we spend too much time sitting at a desk or slumping on the couch, our body becomes accustomed to only moving within these positions. Over time, this creates an imbalance in your muscles, as some muscle groups will tighten and lose strength and stability. Your body then compensates by using other muscles, which may become overloaded and result in an injury.

What is the difference between mobility and flexibility?

Mobility and flexibility are sometimes used interchangeably, but there are key differences.

Flexibility is how well your joint can move passively. For example, how far you can stretch a muscle by using your hands to pull on it.

Mobility is how well you can move your joint actively.[1] For example, how deep you can get into a squat.

Why is mobility important?

No matter your age or fitness level, mobility is important. Being mobile is fundamental to your health as it allows you to complete your daily activities without pain or strain.[2] Although you commonly hear about mobility in the gym, it is most important in your everyday life. Without free mobility, tasks such as getting an item down off a shelf in your kitchen, cleaning your house or getting down on the floor to play with your kids can be difficult, uncomfortable or painful. If you have mobility issues and try to push your body beyond what it is used to do, this tightness may result in a painful injury.

In the gym, good mobility will allow you to correctly perform movements and better engage your muscles. This will maximise your performance and strength gains, as well as reduce your risk of injury.[3] However, if you have poor mobility, you don’t need to avoid the gym until you have resolved you issues – in fact, quite the opposite.

With the right approach, strength training will improve your range of motion and build the muscle around your joints to support them and provide stability. Just because you may not be able to get into a deadlift position or do a deep squat right now, doesn’t mean you can’t train. There are plenty of similar movements which will help you build strength and improve your mobility and overall health.

How to increase your mobility

The first step to improving your mobility is through gentle stretching. Stretching will help lengthen your muscles temporarily and get them ready to perform strength training exercises. Dynamic stretching has been found to be more beneficial than static stretching. These are active movements where your joints will go through a full range of motion and often mimic the activity you’re about to perform.[4] For example, doing a slow and controlled bodyweight squat before a weighted squat workout.

Next, strength training will allow you to build the muscle that supports your joints, making performing everyday movements easier and more comfortable.

The most common mobility issues we encounter are in the ankles, hips and shoulders.

How to increase ankle mobility

Ankle mobility can be assessed using the knee-to-wall dorsiflexion ankle test. This is where you put one foot against the wall and take about half a step back with the other. You then try and touch the wall with your front knee. If you can do it easily, gradually move your front foot away from the wall and repeat the test. If your front foot is less than 10cm from the wall, you have poor ankle mobility.[5]

You can improve your ankle mobility and balance in the gym by doing front foot elevated split squats or walking lunges. Seated or standing calf raises and squatting as deep as you comfortably can will also increase your ankle mobility and strength.

While you work on your ankle mobility, you can increase your your squat depth by elevating your heels, however this is only a temporary fix.

How to improve hip mobility

A lack of hip mobility is especially common for those who have a desk job. If you have tight hips, you might find it difficult to do a deep squat or get down or up off the floor.

There is a large range of hip stretches you can perform before strength training exercises. Which ones are most beneficial for you will depend on where you are experiencing tightness. For example, you may use the kneeling hip flexor stretch or couch stretch to release your hip flexors and a sleeping pigeon stretch, seated glute stretch or a massage ball to release your glutes.

These stretches will support your main hip-strengthening movements in the gym and their variations. For example, the goblet squat, split squat, Romanian deadlift and block deadlift.

How to increase shoulder mobility

You can test your shoulder mobility using the Apley Scratch Test. This is where you reach one hand up, behind your head and the other behind your back. You then try and reach your hands towards each other. There are many strength exercises which require shoulder mobility, but it often becomes noticeable if you can’t put a barbell on your back for a squat.

Stretches which help improve your shoulder mobility include the cross-arm stretch and doorway stretch.[6] Bands are useful for adding in resistance to a stretch. For example, by attaching a band to a pull-up bar and leaning away from the bar with your arms above your head. You can also use the pull-up bar to stretch out your lats by hanging from it.

Most major strength movements will use your shoulders, however you can target them by doing an overhead press, incline press, seated row or single-arm dumbbell rows.[7]

 

Mobility is crucial to your performance in the gym and ultimately, your everyday movement. Improving your mobility will allow you to achieve a full range of motion in your exercises, allowing you to better utilise your muscles and get more out of your sessions. But more importantly, it will make your everyday life easier. When you aren’t suffering from mobility issues, regular tasks such as gardening, playing with your kids and cooking are easier and less likely to cause injuries.

 

References

[1] https://www.bodyset.co.uk/general/what-is-mobility-and-why-is-it-so-important/

[2] https://www.foodnetwork.com/healthyeats/fitness-and-wellness/what-is-mobility

[3] https://fitonapp.com/fitness/mobility-training/

[4] https://www.healthline.com/health/exercise-fitness/dynamic-stretching#stretches-for-warming-up

[5] https://physiofithealth.com.au/knee-to-wall-test/

[6] https://www.healthline.com/health/shoulder-mobility-exercises#safety

[7] https://plexuspt.com.au/blog/training/best-strength-exercises/