Mobility, Part 2: Ask the Professional

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by Devin Sarno, NSCA-CPT

If your mobility leaves something to be desired, there are exercises you can do to improve it. In our previous article on mobility, we discussed the main joints that should be considered when assessing your mobility. We also talked about how to assess for mobility in each of those joints and what constitutes good versus poor mobility. In this article, we are going to take a closer look at how to improve your mobility in the thoracic spine, shoulders, hips, and ankles.

Starting with the thoracic spine and the rotational mobility test, you must pass the test in both directions. If you fail that test in one or both directions, it’s important to improve your thoracic mobility. One of the most common ways to improve thoracic spine mobility is by using a tool called the “peanut”. This can be purchased, or it can be made by taping two tennis or lacrosse balls together (depending on the preferred density) so that it looks like the shape of a peanut. Once you have your peanut, follow along with the following steps to improve your thoracic mobility.

  • Lay on your back with the peanut placed just above your lower back so that each ball sits on one side of your spine and the middle part of the peanut leaves room for your spine.

  • Place your hands behind your head and keep your abdominals engaged the lumbar spine is not arched.

  • From this position, do 5-10 crunch-like movements by lifting your head and shoulders up and then back down (but still elevated off the floor) while keeping your abdominals tight the entire time.

  • Next, raise your arms up from your side and perform 5-10 repetitions with each arm alternating overhead by extending your arm completely overhead.

  • Move the peanut 1-2 inches up your spine and repeat this sequence.

  • Continue to move the peanut up the spine and repeat the sequence until you are just above the shoulder blades and below the base of the neck.

Moving on to the shoulder joint, the most mobile joint of the entire body. There are a TON of shoulder mobility exercises but this exercise has been found to be very helpful. One thing to consider when addressing shoulder mobility is that there is a possibility that mobility of the shoulder joint might not be the problem. Now I know that might sound strange, but if your shoulders are rolled forward due to tight pectoral muscles, then your shoulder mobility will be negatively affected. Because of this, you may need to target your pectorals to open up your shoulders. One way to do this is to grab a lacrosse ball, get into those pectorals, and try to loosen things up. Now in this case, you should apply the protocol that we covered in our foam rolling post. Find those hot spots, put some pressure on them, and hold for 30-60 seconds to help generate a muscle release. You can also take an active approach by lying vertically on a foam roller so it runs along the length of your spine from tailbone to the base of your skull. Start with your arms lying at your side, perpendicular to your body with your palms up. With your hands remaining on the floor and your abdominals engaged, slide your arms up toward an overhead position until you feel a stretch in your chest. This will help open up your chest and in turn your shoulders. More specifically for the shoulders, you can use the towel stretch. This is going to look very similar to the test we use to assess shoulder mobility, except you will use a towel to help get your hands as close as possible to one another. Follow the steps below.

  • Grab a small towel in one hand and reach your arm up overhead.

  • Bend at the elbow so that the towel is behind you.

  • With your other hand, reach behind you to grab the bottom of the towel.

  • Starting at both ends both the towel, inch your hands closer together to the center of the towel. Hold for about a minute once you get to that deep stretch position.

  • Be sure to repeat on both sides. You can also use a band and just stretch the lower arm, using the upper arms to pull the band over your shoulder for a nice deep stretch.

Making our way to the lower half, the hips are so commonly tight due to the frequent sitting we do on a daily basis, so hip mobility work is essential. The hips are a joint that I like to mobilize more actively. One great way to help mobilize the hips is with a loaded goblet squat. Since the weight is in front of you, it forces you to stay more upright and you can better sit back into the squat with good technique and better depth. Ideally, doing this with a slow negative (slow on the way down) and a pause at the bottom is going to be ideal for getting greater depth with better form. The single leg hip bridge is also going to be beneficial for helping improve hip mobility. Follow along below.

  • Pull one knee toward your chest with one foot planted on the ground so that your knee is at about 90 degrees.

  • Drive through your heel to push your hips up as high as you can without arching your low back.

  • It is important to keep your glutes firing throughout this exercise; make sure you perform 10-20 repetitions on each side.

Lastly, we will focus on the ankles. This joint is most typically what holds people back when trying to reach greater depths in a squat. Stretching, particularly loaded stretching, is probably going to be your best bet when it comes to improving ankle mobility. In this case, you are ultimately trying to increase how much dorsiflexion that you can generate. The standing calf stretch is an obvious one that helps force the ankle into greater dorsiflexion. Put the ball of your foot against a wall while your heel is on the floor. Lean forward to stretch the calf and generate as much dorsiflexion as you can manage. Another stretch that sort of mimics the shin position of a deep squat starts you in a half-kneeling lunge position. Follow along to generate the most dorsiflexion and improve your ankle mobility.

  • Begin in a kneeling lunge position. Your front foot should be completely planted, especially your heel.

  • From there, drive your knee and weight forward so that you are assisting the ankle into deep dorsiflexion.

  • Be sure to keep the heel planted, and make sure to do both sides.

  • You can deepen this stretch by holding a kettlebell on top of the front knee to force the ankle into an even deeper stretch.

You can also floss the ankles by placing a looped band on a low post and looping your foot through the free end. Then walk out from the post so that there is tension on the band as it sits on the front of your ankle. Then you are going to repeatedly dorsiflex and re-extend at the ankle in a slow and controlled manner, working against the resistance and keeping your heel planted.

As you can see, there are a large number of exercises you can do to improve your mobility in each of these joints. One big thing to note is that the change will not happen overnight. You must perform these exercises consistently in order to see significant improvement in your mobility. Do not be discouraged if you still can’t get into a deep squat after 2-3 days of working on your hip and ankle mobility. It will take time and consistency to see improvements in your mobility. You will also find far more exercises than what was discussed here to improve your mobility so do some research, try a few different exercises and see which ones work for you!

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