Physiotherapy’s 3 most effective mobility exercises

That may sound like a bold call, but there’s a good reason why you only need 3 mobility exercises to cover all the bases.

If we look at the function of each joint in the body, improved mobility isn’t always necessary or even beneficial for athletes except in specific cases of reduced mobility, such as after prolonged immobility or a joint fracture.

As an example, shoulder mobility may sound like a good idea but the biggest career-ending issue affecting some sports is…shoulder instability! If we’ve got a joint that’s susceptible to becoming unstable, why would we want to stretch it to extremes?

Other joints just don’t need mobility, like an elbow joint. It’s limited in extension (straightening) by bony contact and in flexion (bending) by muscles getting in the way. Pushing mobility in an elbow won’t move the bony contact out of the way or reduce the size of the muscle, so why bother?

How is mobility different from flexibility?

It seems like a few years ago, gym trainers suddenly stopped talking about flexibility exercises and started talking about mobility exercises. So are the terms interchangeable?

Short answer, no.

Flexibility is the capacity to be stretched by an external force and it’s governed by the passive, or structural, resistance of the tissues. That might be a leg being stretched by the ground as you do the splits, or an arm being forced backwards in a collision with an opponent.

Mobility is the capacity to be moved through range by internal forces and it’s governed by the passive resistance of tissues as well as the ability of the body to generate a force to create the movement. This might be the arm being pulled back in the wind up of a throw, or the trunk bending as you complete a sit up.

Mobility exercises are designed to take the body through its range while being controlled by muscles. It’s a more functional approach to the body’s movement, rather than looking at flexibility which rarely correlates to function.

Which joints need mobility?

As mentioned above, not every joint will benefit from mobility exercises.

Joints that are required to actively move through range and benefit from increased functional range can be targeted with mobility exercises. These include:

These joints can improve their capacity to perform tasks by increasing their mobility.

Other joints won’t respond, or may become irritated and injured, to mobility exercises if they have normal range of motion.

(Note: if these joints are stiff or restricted, targeting them may be necessary and part of a comprehensive approach to management)

The joints that won’t respond, and the reasons why, are:

  • Knees
    • restricted flexion/extension is usually caused by fluid build up in the knee, which can be made worse by forcing the movement
    • twisting movements at the knee are a big risk factor for cartilage injury
  • Cervical spine (neck)
    • forcing range of motion can irritate spinal nerves and sensitive neck joints
  • Shoulder
    • Additional movement in an otherwise normal shoulder can predispose it to instability issues (although some sports require additional range, they also provide the muscle control to reduce the incidence of instability)
  • Elbow
    • As mentioned above, mobility exercises would either compress muscle tissue or bone, which both don’t respond well to being squashed

If you could choose just 3 mobility exercises…

My favorite three mobility exercises it would have to be:

  1. Sumo squat stretch
    • great mobility exercise for hips and ankles
    • it can be very helpful with ankle, hip and knee joint pain as well as lower back stiffness
  2. Cat camel stretch
    • gentle but effective mobility exercise
    • helpful for improving lumbar and thoracic spinal mobility for forward/backwards bending movements
  3. Thread the needle
    • challenging mobility exercise
    • helpful for spinal rotation and hip mobility

How often and how long?

Each exercise is safe enough to perform on a daily basis yet effective enough to lead to a long term change in mobility in key areas – hips, lower back, thoracic spine and ankles.

For best results from mobility exercises, consistency is the key!

That is why it’s important to select exercises that are able to be performed by all levels of mobility and even during an injury flare up. Some more aggressive mobility work can exacerbate symptoms if an area is inflamed and sensitive or exceptionally stiff.

Maintaining good mobility in hips and lower back is crucial to allow the joints of the leg to work in their optimal range, which reduces pressure on hip, knee and ankle joints.

Good mobility in thoracic and lumbar spine can help prevent many chronic neck and shoulder injuries. That’s more important than ever with many of us working from home on laptops and at kitchen benches.

The general benefits of maintaining healthy joint range include optimizing function of the target areas and reducing abnormal pressure on other joints during movement.

There are added benefits to regular mobility work – from a psychological perspective, a daily routine of mobility can help mindfulness and body awareness.

It can also serve as an early warning sign of emerging joint reactions and muscle tightness.