- Spend most of your workday at a desk?
- Have low back, knee, or shoulder pain?
- Want to be able to move more easily in your daily life?
- Want to improve your strength and athletic performance?
If one or more of these rings true, then you should definitely be doing mobility work. It’s an often-overlooked but absolutely vital component of any workout program, no matter if you’re a professional athlete or an Average Joe or Jane. Better mobility can reduce pain, help you move better, and improve your life in countless small but impactful ways.
So what exactly do we mean by mobility work? And how should you do it?
Mobility vs Flexibility
Talk to most people about mobility and they immediately conjure up images of gymnasts and yogis bending their bodies into painful-looking positions. Since the average person has no need or desire to turn themselves into a human pretzel, they stop paying attention. Or they figure that the few stretches they do after their workout is enough.
And they’re right about one thing: unless it’s a training goal you’ve set for yourself, most people will never have any need to contort into advanced yoga positions or do the splits. But those things have nothing to do with mobility. That’s flexibility, and they are not one and the same.
Flexibility is a passive action—it’s the ability to sit unmoving in a certain position.
Mobility is active—it’s about having control over your body through a range of motion. You can probably begin to see how this is a lot more useful. But just in case you’re not convinced, let’s go into detail about a couple of the big ways mobility can help you out.
A lot of the back and joint pain that seems borderline epidemic in the western world can be traced back to poor mobility. And that poor mobility is overwhelmingly caused by one thing: sitting. Our bodies were built for movement, not stillness, and especially not for spending all day in a chair.
When you sit, you’re shortening your hip flexors and weakening your glutes, and both of those things damage your hip mobility. When your hips don’t move like they should, other body parts take over: it moves either down to the knees or up to the lower back. These parts weren’t built to take that extra load, and so you end up with chronic pain.
Unfortunately, most of us can’t just quit our desk jobs and switch to something more active. But we can counteract some of the damage and pain caused by sitting. We just need to spend a bit of time working to improve that hip mobility—and our other joints as well.
If you exercise, participate in a sport, or just want to be able to do everyday things like lift a heavy box or rearrange your furniture, mobility comes into play there as well.
Having good mobility means that you can perform physical tasks with proper form. From barbell squats to picking up a child, having good form means you’re not likely to injure yourself, so you can keep doing those activities and not get sidelined.
As mentioned before, mobility means a wider range of controlled movement. That control translates to power. Think of it as a rubber band that you can pull back further than you used to—when you release it from that new position, there’s a lot more force behind it. This translates to improvement in everything from sprinting and lifting to your weekend golf swing.
“So, what should I be doing?”
We’ve covered some of the big reasons why you should be working on your mobility, now it’s time to go into the how. There are two basic methods for improving mobility, and these can both be applied from head to toe:
1. Soft tissue work
Think of soft tissue work as a self-administered massage. You use a foam roller for larger areas, or a ball for more targeted work (a tennis or lacrosse ball is great for this—you don’t need to buy anything special or expensive). You then lie on the floor or lean against a wall and roll out the area that you’re working on, focusing especially on any point that feels tight or knotted. Take your time and remember to breathe, so that your body doesn’t tense up further and undo the work you’re doing.
The result of this soft tissue work is that muscle adhesions—chronically tight areas of your muscles—are broken up so that blood flow to your muscles increases. This will let you move with more ease over a wider range of motion, as those tight muscles loosen up and relax. The neck and shoulders are a common area of trouble for people and respond well to this kind of mobility work.
Your timing for soft tissue work should be after you’re done with any major physical activity. You can make it part of your post-workout cooldown routine, or—a personal favorite—dedicate some time as you’re winding down for bed.
2. Joint mobilization
Joint mobilization is more active mobility work, and it’s going to feel more like exercise than a massage. This is a process of moving your different joints through their range of motion, often with the aid of a resistance band, in order to find and improve areas where you are deficient. Your shoulders and hips are the big ones to work on here, but also smaller joints like your wrists and ankles. By repeating these exercises regularly, you’re going to simultaneously improve your range and control of motion.
The fact that this is a more active practice makes it ideal to incorporate into your existing exercise routine. Depending on your goals and fitness level, mobility work can be a good warm up, or even a full workout in itself.
A combination of soft tissue work and joint mobilization also makes for a good recovery day activity between workouts, keeping the blood flowing to your muscles so that they can heal and strengthen.
*Some of the links on this page are affiliate links, and I will get a commission if you purchase through my links.
There are too many different mobility exercises to properly cover in one article, but when you’re looking for specifics on what to do—especially when you want to focus on certain parts of the body—there are a few really good places to start:
Mobility WOD has daily mobility videos you can follow along with, as well as a beginner series to get you started.
Functional Movement has a whole library with images and descriptions of individual exercises that you can test out and combine into your own personalized mobility routine.
Gymnastic Bodies has a system of training that takes students of all levels and builds them into some of the strongest, most powerful athletes in the world.
Deskbound: Standing Up to a Sitting World by Kelly Starrett, Juliet Starrett, and Glen Cordoza
Becoming a Supple Leopard 2nd Edition: The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance by Kelly Starrett and Glen Cordoza
Ready to Run: Unlocking Your Potential to Run Naturally by Kelly Starrett and TJ Murphy
Now you have the information, it’s time to use it.
Better mobility doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t just stay once you have it. Think of mobility work as food for your body: you need to keep feeding it every day if you want it to be healthy. But don’t let that overwhelm you because the amount of time it takes to really make a difference isn’t much at all.
Ten minutes. Just take ten minutes out of each day, whenever you can fit it in, and do some of the exercises mentioned above. Focus on one part of the body at a time, and work your way through it a little bit each day. Use the resources mentioned above to build your routine, or find others that work for you.
And most important: enjoy it! If it’s something you look forward to, you’re much more likely to stick with it. Put on some good music, work it into the commercial breaks of your favorite show, track your progress with photos and measurements—whatever will get you engaged and keep you moving forward.
Trust me, your body will thank you.
Christine Hutchinson has combined business with passion, building a career as a freelance health and fitness writer. When she isn’t working to deliver clear, research-based information with a twist of fun, she can be found hiking in the woods, climbing her way through obstacle course races, and nerding out over superheroes and science fiction. You can find her on Twitter @CMHContent.