Your Guide to Mobility Training

Learn all the health benefits mobility training has to offer — and who may want to add it to their wellness routine in the first place.

Mobility Training
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Just like burpees and running, mobility work can, at times, be put on a pedestal within the fitness world. It's considered a staple active recovery practice, an essential addition to your warm-up routine, and the key to injury prevention. But is improving your mobility — and incorporating mobility-specific exercises into your workout regimen — actually necessary?

To answer all your burning Qs, Shape tapped two experts to break down everything you need to know about mobility training, including what it entails, the benefits, and who may want to add it to their wellness routine.

What Is Mobility Training?

Simply put, mobility is your ability to actively control and access your full range of motion within a joint, says Clinton Lee, P.T., D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a physical therapist and the founder and owner of PhysioStrength in New York City. While all joints need to be mobile, certain joints within your body — including the hips, thoracic spine, ankles, wrists, and glenohumeral joints (which connect your arm and shoulder) — require more mobility than others. These specific joints need to be able to move more freely to help you complete everyday movement patterns (think: squatting down to pick an object off the floor, reaching your arm over your head to grab a sweater off the top shelf of your closet), according to the American Council on Exercise

If you move your joints in all directions on a daily basis, your mobility is likely in good standing, says Lee. But in some cases, mobility training — practicing stretches and exercises that help improve your ability to work through your full range of motion — may be beneficial. Say you work at a desk for 40-plus hours a week and don’t take many breaks to stand up or walk around. In this instance, you’re likely not moving your joints in all directions to their fullest extent, so you may develop some mobility limitations (think: tight hip flexors), he adds. 

A lack of mobility can usually be pinned to two potential causes: mechanical tightness and neurological tightness, says Bethany Cook, P.T., D.P.T., S.C.S., C.S.C.S., a physical therapist and the founder and owner of Be Free MIAMI. With mechanical tightness, your muscles are in a shortened position, so you may not be able to work through a full range of motion around a joint, says Cook. This can develop as a result of surgery, injury, personal anatomy, or even a sedentary lifestyle (thanks, office jobs), she explains. 

Neurological tightness, on other hand, typically occurs after an injury. “You're usually injured at the end of your range of motion, so your brain is telling your body, ‘Hey, I don't wanna get injured again’ and isn’t as comfortable using the full range,” she explains. “Mobility training can be highly beneficial because you're essentially [re-]teaching your body that it's safe to move within that full range of motion that you have.”

The Benefits of Mobility Training

Generally speaking, individuals who go about their days walking, traveling up and down stairs, grabbing items off of high shelves, and simply staying active should have adequate mobility, says Lee. However, adding mobility training to your routine — whether you have some tightness or you want to take the mobility you already have to the next level — can do you some good. 

Boosts Joint Health

Practicing mobility training can help improve your joint health and resiliency, says Cook. “Joints don't have any blood supply going to them — the way they get their nourishment is actually through movement,” she explains. “Movement almost flushes your joint, so what happens is you're getting rid of inflammation and then the new fluid that's coming to the joint [known as synovial fluid] is what's gonna bring the nutrients to nourish it.” And moving your joints through their entire range of motion can ensure you're nabbing this key benefit.

Curbs Your Risk of Injury and Pain

If you’re lacking mobility in any joints, you could be at greater risk of injury — particularly if you’re trying to lift a heavier weight than you’re used to or you’re trying a higher-intensity activity, such as sprinting, says Cook. “If you don't have that actual control over the range of motion, you're definitely gonna be at a higher risk of injuring herself,” she explains.

Plus, having poor mobility in specific joints can trigger pain in other areas of your body. Hip tightness, for instance, can cause compensated movement patterns that ultimately lead to lower back pain, says Cook. And inadequate ankle mobility can bring about pain in your knees or hips, she adds. “Everything starts at the feet, so if you don't have the mobility there, eventually it's gonna catch up to you somewhere else in the kinetic chain,” she explains. 

Improves Everyday Functioning

Without regularly moving your joints through their full ranges of motion, you may have a more difficult time carrying out simple, everyday movements, says Lee. Your shoulder mobility may not be adequate enough that you can reach up and grab a cereal box off the top of your fridge, for example. Or you might struggle to bend down and tie your sneaker if you’re short on hip mobility, he explains. “Mobility is important in the sense that you need to be able to control your joints in order to do functional tasks,” he adds. 

Who Should Try Mobility Training

Again, most folks don’t have to do specific mobility training exercises, especially if you’re meeting the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ recommendation for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week, says Lee. “Most of the general population can maintain healthy, functional mobility profiles by simply spending time performing the activities that are meaningful to them on a regular basis,” he adds. “Regular adherence to these activities will naturally involve taking one’s body and joints through the significant and functional ranges of motion that are required of them. This, in essence, will help promote and maintain mobility.”

Still not sure if you could benefit from mobility training? Simply use your everyday movements as an assessment tool. If you do a bodyweight squat and notice your heels coming up off the floor as you lower down, that could be a sign you have limited ankle mobility, says Cook. Or if you regularly get down on the floor to play with your puppy, take note of how easy — or difficult — it is for you to settle into that position and get comfortable. If you’re feeling stiffness in a certain joint or you’re struggling to relax, you may want to look into mobility training, adds Lee. You can also try any mobility-specific exercise and consider how it feels for your body. “That in itself is going to show you where your restrictions are,” says Cook.

And when in doubt, reach out to a physical therapist who can take stock of your mobility and provide individualized support and recommendations. “Work with someone who can lead you through exercises or assess your body,” suggests Cook. “They can do a head-to-toe assessment and then tell you your specific limitations and give you exercises so you can work on them specifically.”

The Best Mobility Exercises for Your Needs

Whether you have an idea of your limitations and want to address them or you're hoping to figure out where your mobility stands, these mobility exercises can help get the job done.

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