Whether you’re lifting, running, cycling, rock climbing, or performing an elaborate interpretative dance: As long as your body is in motion, you’re doing something right. But a lot more goes in to that than summoning the will to get off your couch and into a pair of sneakers. Below the surface, your joints, tendons, and muscle tissues all work together to make you move. If you fail to take care of those components, pain and poor ranges of motion will prevent you from doing all that moving around much longer.
This is where mobility—which is not a synonym for stretching—comes into play. “Mobility is a combination of flexibility, which measures what your joints and muscles allow, and extensibility, which is the ability of your muscles and connective tissues to lengthen and shorten,” says ACE-certified personal trainer Pete McCall, author of the upcoming book Smarter Workouts. “It’s the way that a joint or tendon moves within its range of motion.” It can also be the difference between hitting a personal best and limping through a workout—or, worse, getting sidelined by injury.
Our mobility is hampered by the nature of today’s deskbound jobs, which limit the range of positions that our bodies have reason to assume. “If you are stationary all day and then do a stationary exercise like running or indoor cycling or lifting, you’re not addressing the issue of mobility, because you’re not using your full range of motion,” says McCall. “Try to play basketball or tennis, and you’ll realize you can’t move laterally.”
Little mobility limitations can turn into big problems, especially when people elect to try powering through, instead of addressing the issue promptly. “If something hurts, you’ll try to improve in a reactive way, which is like tamping down a fire,” says Kelly Starrett, DPT, a co-founder of MobilityWOD. The goal, instead, is to prevent the fire before it happens. “Working with a mechanical problem in your shoulder is like driving a Ferrari with the parking brake on,” he explains, in case you prefer automotive metaphors to fire-adjacent ones. “It’s still a Ferrari, but it’s not performing as it should.”
Fortunately, you don’t need to overhaul your entire workout regimen to develop mobility, which is good, because stuffing additional things into your allotted hour of gym time isn’t always feasible. (Be honest: When was the last time you spent 10 minutes stretching and another 10 minutes warming up before you sat down to bench-press?) Try these simple exercises while watching TV, at the office, or as accessories to your current lifting program. After all, your ability to move is only getting more important. “As you get older, it’s less about how much weight you can lift, and more about how mobile you are,” McCall says. “Because if you can’t move, what’s the point?”
Push-up with rotation
How: Do a push-up. At the top, rotate into a side plank, with one hand planted on the floor and the other raised to the ceiling. Perform five on each side.
When: Before attempting a heavy bench press.
Why: “It enhances shoulder rotation and fires up your spinal stabilizers—two things that will improve your bench press,” says McCall.
Lateral lunge and reach
How: With your feet together, step out to your right into a side lunge, and reach your left hand across your body to touch your right foot. Do 10, alternating sides each time.
When: Before a heavy deadlift, or as an accessory exercise on leg day.
Why: This move allows for greater range of motion in your hip hinge, which helps you pull more with your legs and less with your back.
One-arm high cable row with reach
How: Set a cable machine at shoulder height at a light-to-moderate weight. Slowly pull the cable back with one arm, while reaching forward with the other arm. Do 10 on each side.
When: Before a heavy row or pull-ups.
Why: “It’s a great way to mobilize the spine and surrounding tissues,” says McCall.
How: Hold light dumbbells at your sides, with your elbows bent at 90 degrees. Rotate your left hip and bring your left arm across your body into an uppercut. Do between 10 and 12 on each side.
When: Before heavy pulls or back exercises.
Why: The movement starts in your hip and then extends to your spine and upper body, warming you up for big lifts. Remember how you’re not supposed to swing your elbows during biceps curls? This time, go crazy.
How: Lay on your back, with your spine against the ground and your knees raised to 90 degrees. Grab your knees with your hands, and make big circles at the hip joints, kind of like a supine hula hoop. Do 10 circles in each direction.
When: Before a heavy squat.
Why: It opens your hips and loosens the muscle tissue, allowing you to reach a deeper squat.
How: Place one leg on an elevated surface, like a box or bed. Externally rotate your knee so the outside of your calf is flat and your knee is at a right angle—or as close to it as you can get. Move your standing leg back and lean into the stretch, changing up your angles to find sticking points. Stay in it for a couple minutes per leg.
When: Try this at night to undo a long day of sitting, or before any workout that involves explosive plyometrics or heavy squats.
Why: “This opens up your hips and glutes, which translates to improved jumping and squatting,” says Starrett.
How: Stand with your hand against a pole or wall. With minimal bend in your knee, begin to swing your outside leg forward and backward, increasing the range of motion as you go. Continue for a full minute, then switch legs.
When to do it: Before running, or any heavy leg lift.
Why: This warms up the hip flexors, hamstrings, and quads, and increases range of motion in the hip joint.