Mobility: Ask the Professional

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Assessing and Addressing your Mobility

by Devin Sarno, NSCA-CPT

Movement quality includes two very important pieces: technique and mobility. Today we are going to cover the mobility piece in depth. If you are already familiar with the term “mobility”, you might not necessarily be familiar with what it means. Mobility is the term used to describe the range of motion within a joint. Mobility should not be confused with flexibility which applies to muscles rather than joints and refers to range of motion around a joint rather than within it. Unlike flexibility, mobility is not something that can just be addressed with stretching and lengthening of a muscle. Here we are going to discuss why it is important to care about and assess your mobility and what joints you should focus on when looking at your mobility. Next week we will cover how to properly address and improve mobility in these joints.

Mobility is an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to fitness, especially strength training. There are number of reasons why adequate mobility is important. An obvious one is decreasing injury risk. If you have restricted movement at a joint, you are constantly going to be exposed to a higher potential for injury when putting that joint through any range of motion. The more free your joint is, the more positions you will be able to move through without restriction or pain. Being mobile can also help make you stronger. If you can move through a full range of motion while performing strength exercises, you will gain a significant amount more strength than if you can only move through a partial range of motion. While that may seem obvious, let’s take the squat as an example. If you have good mobility, you will be able to squat beyond 90 degrees of knee flexion and go through a full range of motion. If your mobility is poor, you may not even be able to make it quite to 90 degrees of knee flexion. In the case of the poor mobility, you are only strengthening the range of motion that you are able to move through and are completely missing out on the additional strength increases you would gain from the additional 15-30 degrees of flexion with good mobility. Beyond those two major pieces, greater mobility allows you to get more out of your workout and opens up your exercise library significantly because there are much fewer, or potentially no exercises that cause any contraindications.

While you have a large number of joints in your body, when it comes to fitness and mobility there are a few that you should pay particular attention to. One that probably does not get much thought, in many cases because individuals are unfamiliar with it, is your thoracic spine. This is the middle section of your vertebra, between your neck and lower back. Mobility of the thoracic spine is important because given its location it can have a significant effect on the function and mobility of both upper and lower body. If the Thoracic Spine is not adequately mobile, the body will compensate by doing things such as overarching the low back leading to pain and discomfort. Thoracic Spine mobility can be tested with the Functional Movement Screen Seated Rotation, developed by Gray Cook.

  • This test requires one to sit cross-legged on the floor facing one side of a door frame. You will then hold a dowel rod or PVC pipe basically in the front rack position, sit upright with your back straight, and rotate to each side keeping the rod in contact with your shoulders at all times. You should be able to touch the door frame with the rod with each rotation, otherwise you may be limited in your thoracic spine mobility.

Another upper extremity whose mobility is important to your fitness is the shoulder. The shoulder should be the most mobile joint in your body given the ranges that it can cover. However, even if it is your most mobile joint, it might not necessarily be adequately mobile enough to be able to hold or press weight overhead safely. With so many muscles and articulations in the shoulder, there is a lot going on there and therefore a lot that may be causing you limitations. If the shoulder is not as mobile as it should be, then overhead movement can be inhibited and cause issues with any lifting or pressing of that variety. An important piece for shoulder mobility is scapular stability, something you may have heard before. One good way to test for shoulder mobility is the internal/external rotation test.

  • Start with one arm overhead and the other at your side. Bend at the elbow so that the palm of the high hand is on your back and the back of the low hand is also on your back. Be sure to keep your core tight so that you do not arch your back and keep your shoulders pulled down and back. Then you will reach your hands as close as you can get them to each other. Be sure to test the other side as well. Your hands should be within a fist width of each other, if not then you are likely limited in your shoulder mobility.

Then there comes the lower half. The hips are where almost all movement in the lower half starts, they may be the most commonly immobile joint in the body due to all of the sitting most of us do on a daily basis. If you have poor hip mobility, it could cause bad compensation patterns in all of your squat related movement patterns. Most often, these patterns will put extra strain on the low-back. This is especially problematic when we start to squat heavier and loads. The hips are also where most of our power and explosiveness come from, so poor hip mobility will limit performance in sport as well as in lifting weights. While it is important all of the time, it is especially important to properly warm-up and open up the hips if you happen to sit for most of the day at work or in some other fashion. Getting them loose and taking them through the entirety of their range of motion is going to be critical before adding any load. To test hip mobility, you can use the active straight leg raise.

  • Start by lying perpendicular to a doorway so that the midpoint between your knee and hip are even with the doorway. With your arms by your side and head on the floor, raise the leg closest to the door frame with your foot flexed and knee extended. Your hands, head, and opposite leg should remain in contact with the floor. If you meet all of these requirements and the ankle bone of your leg can clear the door frame with the leg remaining straight, you have good hip mobility.

Finally, we have the less appreciated but just as important joint in the lower half: the ankle. The ankles need to be able to dorsiflex enough for the tibia to move forward freely. If not, the body compensates in harmful ways. A lack of ankle mobility most notably causes our upper half to lean forward during squats in an effort to try to reach proper squat depth without the proper ankle mobility to help us out. Poor ankle mobility and dorsiflexion also limits the amount of force that we can generate with our hips which we already mentioned is where most of your power and explosiveness comes from. Good dorsiflexion is particularly important for running and generating force when striking the ground and picking your foot up quickly. Generally speaking, poor ankle mobility will probably limit your performance as a runner. One way to test for ankle mobility is the deep squat test. See below for test set up.

  • Standing 1-foot away from a wall, hold a dowel rod or PVC pipe straight overhead with your arms fully extended so that they create a 90 degree angle with the rod or pipe. Set your feet shoulder width apart and parallel to one another. Keeping the rod overhead, descend into as deep of a squat as you can. Your heels should stay on the ground, and neither your head or the rod should touch the wall. If you can meet this requirements and can keep your head and chest facing forward, then you probably have adequate ankle mobility.

As you can see, mobility is tricky and may not often be something you think about. You may never notice lack of mobility when you are working out because you are used to performing different movement patterns a certain way and have never been told otherwise. You may have been compensating for a lack of mobility for quite some time and had no idea! Before you workout next, be sure to test the mobility of your thoracic spine, shoulders, hips, and ankles. If you do not pass one or multiple tests, then you have some work to do. Stay tuned next week as we discus how to improve your mobility in these three areas.

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