Flexibility and mobility are probably the most undervalued components of athletic conditioning. They are often overlooked as they are viewed as “boring” components and the exercises lack the quick and obvious results of your standard dumbbell or HIIT workouts.
However, I believe they are some of the most important exercises you should add to your fitness program, with plenty of benefits inside and outside of the gym.
Flexibility vs Mobility
Before we go much further, it’s important to note the difference between flexibility and mobility. Flexibility refers to the ability of your joints to move pain-free and without stiffness through a range of motion, whilst mobility refers to the strength of the muscle through the range of motion.
Flexibility may require assistance, such as using your arm to stabilize and assist as you move your leg through the motion. Mobility is when you can control the whole range of motion with just the leg and no assistance from the arm.
The two are intrinsically linked though, and most exercises that improve flexibility also improve mobility, and vice versa.
Benefits of Increased Flexibility and Mobility
1. Injury Prevention
Simply put, by increasing its range of motion, a muscle can move further before it gets injured. Flexibility and mobility exercises are probably the best way to prevent injury, especially if you do exercise that’s hard on the joints or involves repetitive movements (running, racket sports).
The low-intensity nature reduces the amount of resistance in the muscle tissue, increasing its range of motion.
2. Full Range of Motion
Exercises that stretch and lengthen muscles can help that muscle achieve its full range of motion. This can help with, for example, your golf swing, tennis serve, Rugby kick, etc, as well as more day-to-day activities such as reaching, bending, and stooping.
A full range of motion will also make it easier to sit or stand in different ways, with looser and less tense muscles allowing for more suppleness and movement.
3. Improved Posture
If you spend your days hunched over a desk or your job involves little movement, you may find your posture is negatively affected. When you focus on increasing muscular flexibility your posture can be improved.
Mobility exercises allow your body to develop alignment and tweak any imbalances. This can help the maintenance of your posture and balance in day-to-day life as well as helping your sporting performance.
4. Muscle Coordination
Research has found that stretching can improve the time taken to carry impulses from muscles to the brain and then back again. This means that your muscle groups can work in a more coordinated manner improving day-to-day activities and sporting performance.
This can also help in the gym. Improved mobility can allow us to perform exercises with better technique. The increased coordination and range of motion allows us to go deeper on those squats and deadlifts and use the correct form on the machines.
How to Improve Your Flexibility and Mobility
Now we know the benefits of improved flexibility and mobility, what can we do to improve them.
The dynamic stretching involved in yoga exercises makes them brilliant for developing flexibility and mobility. The type of yoga you do can vary widely from class to class, however, it almost always places focus on extending range of motion, rotation of joints, and lengthening muscles.
Often yoga poses will promote the rotation and lengthening of often ignored muscle groups, which is great for increasing functionality across exercises and day-to-day life. It can loosen hips, increase upper body mobility, and even work on the flexibility of our feet. And that’s just one session.
Taking a yoga class is one of the best things you can do to improve your flexibility and mobility.
2. Dynamic Stretches
Of course, we don’t all have the time to go to a yoga class and still keep up with our other activities. Dynamic stretching is a great alternative though. A lot of the exercises replicate yoga movements without the emphasis on posture and breathing, but still take you through the full range of motion.
Dynamic stretching may also reproduce common static stretches with added movement. This benefits mobility as your heart rate is higher than in a static stretch, increasing blood flow to the muscles as they stretch.
3. Bodyweight Exercises
Bodyweight exercises can support mobility as they often use more than one muscle to be performed correctly. Unlike weightlifting or using machines, supporting muscles are required for stability and extra range of motion in the exercises.
If you’re a beginner it’s worth researching some regressions of bodyweight exercises, and if more advanced then almost all exercises have progressions too that make them a little more challenging. With each progression, your range of motion will extend.
3. Foam Rolling
Yes, I know it hurts but foam rolling is so worthwhile if you can power through the initial pain. The more painful it is, this is a sign that you need to do more of it. Place particular focus on those that hurt most, as pain is your muscles’ way of saying they need more attention.
The more you do foam rolling, the easier it will get. Be sure to do it slowly, really allowing the roller to release the tension in the muscles.
4. Different Sports
I’ve talked before about how doing different sports can be beneficial to functionality and being an all-round athlete. A lot of sports have repetitive movements which can be detrimental in the long run. The more sports you can do, the more muscles you can train and thus increase the range of motion in multiple muscles.
Exercises & stretches you can do to improve your flexibility and mobility
If you’re looking to increase your mobility, check out some of our recommended exercises and a step-by-step guide to complete them.
A. Dynamic Stretches
- Stand tall and hold arms out to your side
- Swing your arms back and forth, slowly and controlled
- Repeat for about 30 secs, experimenting with different ranges of motion
Great for working shoulders and extending range of motion and mobility in these joints.
- Lie on your back with legs outstretched and place a rolled-up towel around the bottom of one of your feet
- Raise your leg and tug on the towel at the same time
- Once reasonable stretch is felt, lower leg to starting position
- Repeat on same leg 10-15 times, then swap legs
This stretch supports mobility in the hips. This will significantly aid balance and posture, as well as strengthening an injury-prone muscle.
Full Back Stretch
- Lying on your back, bring both knees to your chest with hands together underneath your knees
- Roll forwards until feet hit the floor
- Roll back until head almost touches the floor
- Repeat 10-15 times or as necessary
This stretch opens up the back and extends the range of motion across the upper back muscles. These are commonly used in sports which involve hitting or throwing things.
B. Bodyweight Exercises
- In the standing position, lift one knee towards the chest and move the knee in a circular motion
- Bring knee across body and out to the side
- Repeat 10-15 times before swapping legs
Great for warming up those hip joints. Increasing mobility in the hips can really support stability and balance.
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart
- Lower yourself down in squat position, hinging at the hips
- Lower until your hips reach your ankles (or as low as you can go), ensuring your feet stay flat at all times.
Extends the quads and other hip muscles. Deep squats can also improve mobility in the ankles, supporting posture and stability.
- Lie on your side and bend knees and hips to a 90-degree angle
- Rest top leg on foam roller or towel, and straighten bottom leg
- Extend both arms in front of you keeping your palms together. Lift and rotate your top arm, opening the chest to the ceiling
- Hold in this position for a few seconds and then return to starting position. Repeat 10-15 times or as necessary.
These windmills really open up the spine and support increased mobility in the shoulders and upper back area.
There are a whole variety of benefits to training mobility and flexibility. Not only can they reduce the risk of injury, but also improve balance, posture, and range of motion in everyday tasks.
Bodyweight exercises and dynamic stretches are brilliant and easy ways of increasing your mobility and flexibility. If you are a more serious athlete, then yoga and foam rollers are worth looking at.