Mobility is often confused with flexibility. While both deal with moving a joint through a range of motion, they are two distinct qualities, and here’s why.
Mobility exercises for athletes must involve an aspect of force generation as mobility is being able to control the range of motion of the joint. Flexibility is not mobility as flexibility is a passive range of motion.
I’m going to show you exactly why static stretching may not be the best way to become more mobile and the best mobility exercises you can do as an athlete.
What Is Mobility?
Unlike flexibility, mobility is the ability to actively control the range of motion you are putting the joint through. Flexibility is solely the ability to find a range of motion in relaxed muscles . This makes flexibility a passive measure of range of motion.
This is why static stretching may not be the best practice to improve your mobility. Because static stretching is passively improving range of motion, it may not improve your mobility or ability to actively control these new end ranges of motion.
Why Mobility Instead Of Flexibility?
The problem with flexibility is if you get into these new ranges of motion while producing force (e.g. squatting deeper), you may cause injury as your ability to produce force has exceeded the capacity of the muscles to handle it.
Further, stretching is often prescribed for relieving lower back pain and reducing injuries. However, the sit and reach test (essentially trying to touch your toes with your leg straight but in a seated position) does not predict the future incidence of injury or pain .
This extends further to sport where flexibility doesn’t predict hamstring injuries in soccer of Australian Rules Football . When comparing flexibility to components of fitness such as strength, speed, and endurance, there is no correlation which indicates flexibility is its own distinct trait and does not influence these physical attributes .
Finally, flexibility does not correlate with athletic performance or differentiate between elite and sub-elite athletes . Safe to say, chasing new passive ranges of motion through stretching likely isn’t bringing you any performance or injury reduction benefits.
Strength Training Is A Better Mobility Exercise Than Static Stretching
Mobility exercises for athletes don’t need to involve hours on the foam roller or performing fancy “corrective” exercises. Simple strength training is a form of mobility training that will improve your range of motion.
The idea is you want to develop strength at length. Meaning being strong at long muscle lengths. For example, when comparing a strength training group to a static stretching group over five weeks, both groups improved hamstring and hip flexor range of motion but the strength training group showed greater quadriceps and hamstrings strength .
Another study has shown the effectiveness of eccentric training. The eccentric contraction is known as the lowering phase of an exercise. For example, lowering the barbell during a curl is an eccentric or lengthening contraction of the biceps.
This study found eccentric training for the hamstrings was as effective as static stretching for improving hamstring flexibility . Unfortunately, this study did not measure strength. However, I can tell you now that the eccentric training would lead to far greater benefits in an overall reduction in hamstring injuries and strength.
Eccentric contractions alter what is known as the length-tension relationship . The length-tension relationship simply illustrates the change in maximal force production based on the length of the muscle.
Those who aren’t very mobile generally have short, weak muscles. Meaning maximum force is produced at short muscle lengths. When the muscle is taken past this optimal length and needs to produce a lot of force (e.g. sprinting), the force exceeds the capacity of the muscle resulting in injury.
Eccentric training shifts the length-tension relationship so the optimal length (the length in which the muscle produces maximum force) is now longer. This means you can produce more force and longer muscle lengths reducing your risk of injury.
This occurs by increasing the length of the muscle fibers with blocks of muscle fibers (known as sarcomeres) which is a key adaptation to eccentric training . These subjects would have greater mobility as they have more strength at longer muscle lengths.
Mobility Exercises For Athletes
Now you have the general underpinning behind mobility training, I’ve broken down each key area and mobility exercises for each. This will be a mixture of joints and muscles to have this better organized.
Mobility For The Ankles
Many will stretch their calves for hours with no improvements in their ankle range of motion. Little do they know all they need is some load.
Standing Calf Raise
The standing calf raise machine can be a Godsend for ankle mobility. If you don’t have access to a machine, holding a dumbbell while doing single-leg calf raises is a simple substitute. You will need to elevate your feet on the edge of a step or box so you can get the full stretch at the bottom.
At the bottom position, hold the stretch for 3-4 seconds before performing the calf raise. This will dissipate any elastic energy and place a loaded stretch on the calves so any new range of motion formed will have the strength to support it.
Seated Calf Raise
The standing calf raise targets the gastrocnemius muscle. The seated calf raise targets the soleus muscle and has a greater impact on your ankle mobility as your ankle mobility is often needed when your legs are bent.
You can use a seated calf raise machine or sit in various half kneeling or squat positions with a plate or kettlebell on a knee as you push the knee past the toes. This will put the soleus under a loaded stretch and you can hold these positions for 3-4 seconds.
Mobility For The Groin
Adductor (or groin) muscles are located on the inside of your legs. People who can perform straddle splits have very mobile hips and groin muscles. Often, it’s the brain stopping you from finding these positions as it deems them unsafe. You can change this through graded strength exercises.
Wide Stance Good Morning
The groin muscles act as hip extensors and are synergists to the hamstrings and glutes. That is why you can have sore inner thighs after various deadlift variations. But to target them to a greater extent, use a wide stance to put them under more stretch.
The wide stance good morning is awesome for this. Place a bar on your back, and arch your lower back while maintaining a big chest position. Importantly, don’t bend over. Instead, push your hips backward to place a stretch on your hamstrings and adductors.
Stop once you start to feel uncomfortable and thrust your hips forward. I recommend sets of 8-10 reps.
Half Butterfly Plate PNF
You essentially have long and short groin muscles. We’ve addressed the long adductor muscles with the wide stance good morning. The short groin muscles are targeted when your knee is bent. This half-butterfly plate PNF exercise is one of the best you can do.
Use a 25 lb or 35 lb plate to start. Lie flat on your back, bend your leg and have the outside of your foot on the floor so your knee is flared to the side. Place the plate on the inside of your knee. Now, relax so your knee sinks, then pull your knee up slightly by flexing your groin muscles. Hold this position for 5-6 seconds and release.
Each time get a little deeper so when you contract your groin muscles, you’ll be doing so at longer muscle lengths. 6-10 reps will work well here.
Mobility For The Hamstrings
It seems more people suffer from tight hamstrings than don’t. But static stretching will only get you so far. The hamstrings are biarticular, meaning they cross two joints. Both the knee and the hip. That means to place the hamstrings through a large range of motion to develop mobility, we must flex the hips and extend the knee.
While the Romanian deadlift is a staple hamstring builder, it also makes the perfect mobility exercise for the hamstrings. The knees are slightly bent while the hips are pushed back putting a huge stretch on the hamstrings.
As you get better and more comfortable at this exercise, you can lower the barbell closer to the floor. However, it’s important that as soon as your hips stop moving back, that you return to the starting position.
Any further descent comes from the lower back in this instance and not the hamstrings. Sets of 6-8 reps with a relatively heavy load is how to get the most out of the Romanian deadlift for mobility.
Straight Leg Band Hamstring
The straight leg band hamstring is great as it only requires a band and doesn’t require any lifting knowledge or experience to do correctly. Simply tie a band to something sturdy at roughly hip height. Lie on your back on the floor with your head closest to the band.
Bring one leg up to hook the band around your ankle. Maintain a straight-leg position and lower your heel to the floor. Then lightly resist the band tension back to the starting position where you will feel a great stretch.
You need to make sure that the band is providing tension at the edge of your flexibility so you may need to shuffle away from the band. Sets of 10-15 reps are great for this exercise.
Mobility For The Hip Flexors
Those of us who sit often run into this problem. Tight hip flexors affect our pelvic position and overall posture. This can cause some serious issues like constant, nagging knee pain and even lower back pain. Here are some ways to strengthen the hip flexors while improving their flexibility and in turn, the mobility of your hips.
Long Duration Isometric Split Squat
The long-duration isometric split squat became a very popular exercise in the athletic training world. For good reason. It promotes tendon adaptations that can repair the damage. But that is not why we are using this exercise. Sitting in the bottom of a split squat lengthens your rectus femoris (quadricep muscle that crosses both the hip and knee) and other hip flexor muscles of the back leg.
Because you are sitting in this position for long durations, the isometric contraction at long muscle lengths delivers similar adaptations to the rectus femoris that eccentric training would .
Hold this position anywhere from 1-5 minutes. Yes, minutes. I’ve found anything past 60 seconds is absolutely brutal. One set is enough and makes a great warm-up for squat sessions.
Eccentric Lunge Push
This is a lesser-known exercise by brilliant researcher and academic professor Matt Brughelli who was my postgraduate supervisor. The eccentric lunge push is an intense eccentric exercise for the hip flexors.
Start by staggering your feet in the lunge position with your front foot a few inches away from the wall. Place your hands below nipple height against the wall. Any higher and it will be difficult to push as you lower yourself.
Push as hard as you can against the wall and slowly lower your back knee straight down to the floor. It should take you 3-5 seconds. Once your knee touches the floor, relax and return to the starting position for the next rep.
Sets of 3-4 reps are more than enough because of how intense this exercise is.
While technically not a hip flexor mobility exercise, it does target the rectus femoris so I’m going to throw this in here. Start in a tall kneeling position. You can have your toes into the ground or you can have your foot flat. I prefer my toes in the ground for added stability.
From this position, slowly lower yourself by falling back. You must keep a straight line from your knees to your head. A common mistake is breaking at the hips too early. Once you reach the point you can’t control the fall, break at the hips and sit on your feet. Return to the starting position for the next rep.
Sets of 3-6 are all you need.
Mobility For The Shoulders
Shoulder mobility is more than just the muscles surrounding the shoulder. It is heavily influenced by thoracic mobility. As the arms are raised overhead, the thoracic spine must extend. You’ll find those that can’t get their arms overhead have thoracic spines that are stuck in flexion.
I’m only going to provide one exercise for thoracic mobility here as there is no way to load this movement and instead requires plenty of time performing extension and rotation-based exercises.
Thoracic Extension Over Foam Roller
This is a simple exercise to mobilize your thoracic spine before performing overhead movements. There is no point in doing this exercise then not doing any strength training. The idea is to create new ranges of motion then cement them with strength exercises.
Simply arch your upper back over the foam roller while keeping your glutes on the ground and a neutral lower back position. Shoot for 10 reps per set.
Meadows Lat Stretcher
The Meadows lat stretcher is my all-time favorite shoulder mobility exercise. That lats are often forgotten when it comes to the rounded shoulder problem. The lats attach to the front of the shoulder and are part of the problem including the pecs.
This is the only exercise that has given me a noticeable change in my shoulder mobility. Your lats undergo a serious loaded stretch and you’ll feel the blood pooling as the burn kicks in. It’s like a dead hang but you’re able to get the loaded stretch for a much longer duration. When you are in the stretched position, try to relax and let the weight stack pull your shoulders forward.
I like to do 3 sets of 10 reps at the end of a back workout. Never do this as a first exercise as you need to be fully warm to get the benefits of this exercise without the risk of injury.
The DB pullover is just like the lat stretcher except it will challenge your overhead position. Again, do this at the end of your back workout. Simply lie on a bench with your palms supporting the inside of the dumbbell.
Lower the dumbbell behind your head with your arms slightly bent. This will put a nice stretch on your lats. Think about pulling the dumbbell back above your forehead by leading with your elbows to keep the tension on your lats. Anywhere from 10-15 reps is perfect for the pullover.
Chest flys aren’t just for bodybuilding. They’ll increase the length of the muscle fibers of your chest and help develop that open posture of having your shoulders back. You can do these with any equipment you like. Dumbbells, cables, and even machine pec decks are all great choices. What matters is that you get a loaded stretch across your pecs.
Mobility exercises for athletes are more than a handful of static stretches or fancy poses. Mobility is about controlling end ranges of motion, not being able to get there passively. Increasing your mobility will reduce your risk of injury when you are put into these extreme ranges of motion as you can control your limbs.
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