What is mobility?
The word gets thrown around a lot but what is it!? It is the ability to take our joints through an active range of motion. Mobility is not flexibility but flexibility can negatively impact mobility.
Let's say you're lying on your back and you want to stretch your hamstrings. You grab a yoga strap and wrap it around your foot and then use your arms to pull on the strap to bring your leg off the ground to stretch your hamstrings. This would help improve flexibility as you are going through a passive range of motion. It's passive because you are using an external force such as the yoga strap to move your leg. Now lets remove the yoga strap from the equation. You are lying on your back and I ask you to raise your leg as high as you can get it without any support. Are you able to lift your leg as high? If not, you would lack mobility and specifically the strength to lift your leg off the ground without an external support.
Someone can be extremely strong but have poor flexibility as there muscles are very tight and so their flexibility will inhibit their range of motion. Generally speaking, improving mobility will start with increasing passive ranges of motion at each joint. Once the flexibility to passively move each limb through a full range of motion is achieved, then you would want to load that pattern and get stronger. When we blend both flexibility and strength, that equals mobility.
On the flip side, someone who is extremely flexible but lacks strength would want to focus on building strength to improve their mobility. For example, if this person has great overhead range of motion and they're hanging off the edge of a cliff, without strength, they won't be able to pull themselves back up to safety.
The three joints that most people should look at when it comes to mobility are the ankles, hips, and shoulders. Each of these joints can move in different ways so it's important to assess each joint individually and even with each joint, assess the different joint actions of that joint. Starting from the ground up, we will look at the ankles first. They can plantar flex (standing on your toes), dorsiflex (standing on your heels), and go through eversion (turning the foot out) and inversion (turning the foot in). Of these four movements, plantar flexion and dorsiflexion will usually negatively impact full body movement if there is dysfunction. Women for example, when they wear high heels a lot whether socially or professionally, there ankle is in plantar flexion. When the ankle is in that position for days and weeks on end, the calf will begin to shorten which will then restrict dorsiflexion. An example of how this can negatively impact movement is when squatting and the heels won't stay on the ground. Whether loaded or just body weight, when they squat down, their heels pop off the ground and they come up onto their toes. If this isn't addressed, eventually they will quit squatting because they aren't squatting effectively or if they continue, they might get hurt. When coming onto the toes while squatting, the load isn't being evenly distributed across the quads, hamstrings, and glutes. Being on the toes while squatting overloads the quads and also puts a lot of stress on the knee joint. The problem here is a lack of ankle mobility.
Next we will look at the hips. As a ball and socket joint, they should be one of the most mobile joints in the body. Considering the location of the hips being right in the middle of the body, if there is dysfunction, that is going to negatively impact movement and quality of life. The movements of the hips are flexion, extension, abduction, adduction, internal rotation, and external rotation. The two that most people will go through during their day are flexion and extension. Flexion is when the hips travel backwards and down like when I'm picking something up off the ground. Extension is when the hips come forward like when I'm standing tall. A healthy hip should be able to flex anywhere between 90-120 degrees. So imagine lying on your back and lifting one leg up off the ground so that your foot is over your hip. If this is limited and a person can't flex their hips because they lack mobility, they will most likely find that movement else where. In the weight room, a deadlift is an exercise where we see pure flexion and extension at the hips during the movement. While bending over or flexing my hips, if my hips lack mobility, I would then most likely flex or round at my thoracic spine (upper back) to make up for my lack of hip flexion. If this is done week over week, month over month, at some point, injury may occur. Do you ever notice how when someone injures their back it's almost always their lumbar spine. You ask them what happened and they respond, "yea, it's L4 or L5" meaning the 4th or 5th lumbar vertebrae. Again, two things will usually happen when their is joint dysfunction. Instead of addressing the dysfunction through corrective exercise, people will either continue doing a movement trying to make it work and possibly get hurt. Or they stop doing it altogether out of fear. The deadlift, performed effectively has great carry over into real life and the benefits out weigh the risks.
Lastly, the shoulders are also a ball and socket joint. The movements at the shoulder are flexion (raising the arm straight up) and extention (bringing the arms straight back) , horizontal abduction (opening up the arms to hug someone), horizontal adduction (hugging someone), abduction (lifting the arm to the side), adduction (bringing my arms to my side), internal rotation and external rotation. Considering all of these movements, one of the more common ones is shoulder flexion or bringing something overhead. In the gym for example, a standard shoulder press is performed a lot whether with machines, dumbbells, barbells, or kettlebells. If I lack shoulder flexion, as a compensation, I will most likely extend at my thoracic spine (upper back) to get the weight directly over gravity which will put a lot of stress on my lumbar spine. Done week over week, month over month, injury can occur. This is an example of where we would want to identify this dysfunction through assessment and then program in corrective exercise to address the issue and improve it, not neglect it.
Are there certain exercises that you know how to do and you want to include as part of your workout routine? Why aren't you doing them? If it's because you're not feeling them the way you think you should or it hurts to do them, it's probably due to a lack of mobility. If this is the case, I would encourage you to get some input from someone at your gym that can support you with assessment. If you can't find that person, you can also go to my contact page on my website and reach out to me. I can support you either in person or virtually with assessment and some exercise options to help improve whatever you may be struggling with!
I would love to hear about any exercises you have struggled with in the past and what you did to make improvements!