The Importance of Mobility for a Better, More Flexible You

Joint mobility is essential for maintaining overall physical function, preventing injuries, and promoting a healthy lifestyle in people of all ages and stages in life.

The Importance of Mobility for a Better, More Flexible You
15 min readAugust 24th, 2023
SLWritten By Sara Lindberg

Including mobility training exercises in an overall fitness program enables you to focus on enhancing joint health, muscle control, and movement patterns.

Keep reading to learn why mobility is important and how to incorporate mobility training exercises into your routine.

What Is Mobility and Why Does It Matter?

Joint mobility refers to the ability of a joint to move through its full range of motion without experiencing pain, discomfort, or restriction.

The primary goal of mobility training is to improve the range of motion, flexibility, and functional movement of joints, optimizing how your body moves while reducing restrictions or imbalances that could lead to injury or discomfort.

“Mobility is one of the foundational components of overall physical fitness,” says Landon Uetz, PT, DPT, physical therapist and expert instructor on TeachMe.To. In fact, Uetz says the combination of being strong while moving very well often leads to success in both overall health and fitness as well as higher levels of performance.

Mobility training often involves a combination of stretching, dynamic movements, bodyweight exercises, and drills that specifically target joint range of motion and movement patterns.

Mobility vs Stability vs Flexibility: What’s the Difference?

Before we dive into the benefits of mobility and how to maintain or increase it, we need to understand the differences between joint stability, mobility, and flexibility.

Joint Mobility vs Joint Stability

Joint mobility is all about how much we can move a joint or body segment without any restrictions, whereas joint stability is how well we can control or maintain joint movement and position.

Some joints naturally have more stability than mobility, like the foot, knee, and lumbar spine, while others are designed to be more mobile, such as the ankle, hip, and thoracic spine.

“The body alone has many alternating points of stable joints and mobile joints, and when a mobile joint is stable or a stable joint is mobile, this can cause many problems or injuries to our bodies,” says Nicki Evans, DPT, physical therapist and owner of Stride Physical Therapy and Wellness.

That’s why it's really important to remember that we should never sacrifice joint stability just to get more mobility.

Joint Mobility vs Flexibility

Beyond joint stability and mobility, it’s also good to understand the relationship between mobility and flexibility.

Mobility addresses the active and controlled movement of joints through a full range of motion, such as movements performed using the ankle and hip.

Flexibility, on the other hand, focuses on the capacity of muscles to lengthen and stretch passively through a range of motion. It primarily involves the muscles and their ability to be elongated without causing discomfort or injury.

Flexibility is important for activities that require stretching, such as yoga, or basic daily movements, like bending over to tie your shoes.

Benefits of Improving Mobility

Nicki Evans, DPT and physical therapist says the benefits of improving mobility are plentiful and include maintaining joint health, increasing flexibility, reducing muscular imbalances, improving overall fitness, and better posture.

Enhanced Athletic Performance

Mobility is a critical component of sports competition, since it relates to an athlete’s ability to reach an intended posture or position during activity.

Incorporating mobility exercises into a conditioning program can lead to better movement mechanics, increased power output, and enhanced performance. In other words, athletes with better mobility may have a competitive advantage. They may also help prevent and treat movement impairment syndromes in young athletes .

Reduced Risk of Injuries

When a joint lacks mobility, you may move it less. This can lead to adhesions between the various layers of muscle and fascia, which can increase the risk of injury, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).

Doing exercises that help improve joint mobility enhances your body's ability to move through its natural range of motion, which may reduce the risk of strains, sprains, and other injuries that can occur when joints are restricted in movement.

Improved Range of Motion

There are three joints in particular that allow the greatest mobility and should be a focus of mobility training programs, including the foot and ankle, hip, and intervertebral segments of the thoracic spine.

These joints provide mobility in all three planes of motion, which is critical for optimal movement efficiency.

Decreased range of motion or lack of mobility in these joints can lead to increased injury, loss of function, and decreased performance.

Mobility Training Techniques

There are several exercises you can do independently or with a physical therapist to help you regain mobility.

Depending on the joint needing the mobility exercises, Nicki Evans, DPT and physical therapist, says a physical therapist can perform mobilization via hands-on techniques and then follow that up with a home program of exercises.

Foam Rolling and Mobility

Foam rolling, also known as self-myofascial release, involves using a foam roller to apply pressure to specific muscle groups. This can help release tension in the fascia (connective tissue) surrounding muscles, leading to improved mobility. Roll slowly and focus on areas of tightness or discomfort.

Lindy Royer, PT, NCPT, Balanced Body Educator, says you can use foam rollers to add feedback and leverage to a positional stretch or to roll out the tissue prior to stretching. Here is an upper back mobility exercise Royer recommends with a foam roller:

  1. Lie with the foam roller horizontally across the upper back with the hands behind the head—the arms support the weight of the head. Knees bent, pelvis on the floor.
  2. Extend the upper back and chest over the roller to increase the sense of opening the chest as the back extends.
  3. Repeat 5 to 8 times.

Resistance Band Exercises for Mobility

Using resistance bands can help improve mobility by providing controlled resistance throughout a range of motion. This can be especially effective for improving hip mobility and shoulder mobility.

Lindy Royer, PT, NCPT, says bands can provide feedback to increase movement control, thus increasing mobility. She also says resistance bands can add stretch to a movement, but caution must be taken when using bands in this fashion.

Here is one way Royer says you can use a band for chest and upper back:

  1. Start by standing or lying on the floor.
  2. Hold a length of band in each hand with the elbows straight. Light resistance requires a shorter band. Heavy resistance requires a longer band.
  3. Front center with the band slack, open the arms to the side like a “T”.
  4. If standing or sitting, continue this trajectory to take the arms behind you as far as possible. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat 3 times.

Stretching for Mobility

Stretching for mobility involves three different types of stretching: static, dynamic, and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF).

Static Stretching

Static stretching is often incorporated at the end of a workout when your body is warm because it requires holding a stretch position for 15 to 60 seconds to gradually elongate and relax the muscles.

You can use static stretching on most of the body, but it generally focuses on major muscle groups like hamstrings, quadriceps, calves, shoulders, and hip flexors.

Dynamic Stretching

Dynamic stretching involves controlled movements that take your joints and muscles through their full range of motion.

These movements are typically fluid and continuous and can help increase blood flow, improve flexibility, and prepare your body for movement.

Examples of dynamic stretches include leg swings, arm circles, and hip rotations.

PNF Stretching

PNF stretching combines passive stretching and isometric contractions to improve flexibility and mobility.

PNF stretching effectively improves and maintains range of motion, which is the foundation of mobility.

While not as common as static or dynamic stretching, you’ll likely see PNF stretching used in rehabilitation settings and by athletes to enhance range of motion and muscle flexibility.

You can do PNF stretches on your own or with a partner. The most common PNF method is the "hold-relax" technique, where you passively stretch a muscle, then contract it isometrically against resistance, followed by a deeper passive stretch.

Yoga for Mobility

You may see yoga featured in mobility programs. That’s because many yoga poses emphasize flexibility, balance, and mobility. Incorporating yoga into your routine can help improve overall mobility and also provide relaxation benefits.

American Council on Exercise recommends yoga poses that focus on establishing and maintaining mobility throughout the body, including cat-cow variations, bridge pose, supported half-kneeling twist, upward salute to chair pose variation, staff pose, and assisted reclining hand-to-big toe pose variation.

Common Mobility Issues

Your body moves and feels the best when mobility is good. But even the most fit people experience mobility issues. I am a prime example! Hips are my weakness.

I’ve been a runner, cyclist, and weightlifter for 30+ years, and have always battled hip flexor tightness and restricted movement in this highly mobile joint.

Over time, I’ve learned to adjust my workouts and add in mobility exercises through Pilates, yoga, and stretching. While not perfect, my hips move better, have more range of motion, and, in general, I’m able to do the activities I enjoy with minimal issues.

Hip Joint and Tight Hip Flexors and How to Improve Mobility

Tight hip flexors and limited hip joint mobility are common for people of all ages and fitness levels, partly because it is a major mover in your body.

In fact, your hip, which is a ball and socket joint, can move in all three planes: frontal, sagittal, and transverse.

This highly mobile joint is critical for performing 3-dimensional movement and dynamic tasks, making it one of the most mobile parts of the body because it can move in the frontal, sagittal, and transverse planes.

That said, optimal movement is only possible with good mobility. Incorporating exercises like a dynamic hip opener, leg swings, hip circles, pigeon pose, hip flexor stretch, and bridge pose.

Limited Shoulder Mobility and Exercises to Increase It

Like the hips, your shoulders have the potential to move in all three planes, making mobility in this joint critical. The glenohumeral joint, which connects your arm and shoulder, can take a beating with age, in daily activities, and during sports competitions, leading to reduced mobility.

The good news is you can improve shoulder mobility through a combination of stretching, strengthening, and maintaining proper posture.

Some popular shoulder mobility exercises include arm swings, cross-body arm stretch, external rotation with a resistance band, thread the needle, thoracic extension on a foam roller, IYTW formations, prone, prone swimmers, and standing wall angel.

Ankle Mobility Issues and How to Overcome Them

Another common area that faces mobility issues is the ankle. In fact, limited dorsiflexion, which allows you to pull your toes and foot towards your knee, is one of the biggest contributors to lower leg injuries like ankle sprains, plantar fasciitis, and shin splints, according to ACE. What’s more, when dealing with the ankle, you also need to consider your foot, toes, lower legs, and knee.

To help with ankle mobility, ACE recommends implementing techniques like self-myofascial release with a foam roller or tennis ball with a focus on the connection from the plantar fascia (bottom of foot) to the hamstrings. They also suggest self-mobilization of the ankle joint using an elastic band and dynamic stretching.

Expert Recommended Mobility Exercises

Landon Uetz, PT, DPT, physical therapist and expert instructor, often implements mobility exercises into programs for people who feel they want to improve their flexibility.

“Dynamic mobility addresses flexibility and challenges muscles while working on balance and stability, making these exercises more popular over traditional stretches due to more bang for your buck and efficiency with your time,” he says.

Some of Uetz’s favorite mobility exercises include:

Lindy Royer, PT, NCPT shares mobility exercises for specific body parts, including neck and upper back, lower back and hips, and knee and ankle mobility moves:

Neck and Upper Back Mobility Exercises

Exercise #1

  1. Lie comfortably on your back with a small pad or towel behind the back of the head for support, with the feet flat, knees bent.
  2. Place the arms out to the side in a “T” with the palms up.
  3. Take 3 slow, deep breaths in an out through the nose, allowing the abdomen to rise and fall with the breath.
  4. Turn the head to the right as far as tolerated, and bring the right arm across the body to the left as far as possible, allowing the back of the right shoulder to lift off the floor until you feel a stretch sensation.
  5. Hold for one full, deep breath and return to start position.
  6. Repeat 3 times each direction.

Exercise #2

  1. Sit comfortable on the floor in a cross-legged position, or on a firm chair with the feet flat on the floor.
  2. Take 3 slow, deep breaths in an out through the nose, allowing the abdomen to rise and fall with the breath.
  3. Place the hands behind your head with the elbows slightly wide.
  4. Rotate the upper body to the right, as if pointing the chest towards the right corner of the room.
  5. Allow the head to also turn to the right.
  6. Repeat 3 times each way.

Lower Back and Hip Mobility Exercises

Exercise #1

  1. Lie comfortably on your back with a small pad or towel behind the back of the head for support, with knees bent and the feet wide and flat, arms by your side, or out in a “T”.
  2. Take 3 slow, deep breaths in an out through the nose, allowing the abdomen to rise and fall with the breath.
  3. Gently take the knees to the right, allowing the pelvis to rotate with the knees.
  4. Repeat five times each direction.

Exercise #2

  1. Lie comfortably on your back with a small pad or towel behind the back of the head for support, with knees bent and the feet flat, arms by your side.
  2. Take 3 slow, deep breaths in an out through the nose, allowing the abdomen to rise and fall with the breath.
  3. Rock the pelvis toward and away from you, as if rolling a rolling pin.
  4. Repeat 8 to 10 times.

Exercise #3

  1. Hold onto a railing or countertop.
  2. Stand with the feet wide and toes pointed slightly out.
  3. Keep the eyes straight ahead, and gently lower the hips and pelvis towards the floor as far as possible, using the railing to support you.
  4. Hold in this position and take 2 to 3 breaths. See if you can go a bit lower with each breath. Repeat 3 times.

Knee and Ankle Mobility Exercises

Exercise #1

  1. Lie on your stomach with the hands folded in front of you, forehead resting on top of the hands, legs straight and comfortably wide.
  2. Bend the right knee, bringing the foot as close to the back of the hip as possible.
  3. Reach back with the right hand and gently draw the foot closer to the back of the hip.
  4. Hold for 10 to 20 seconds. If you can’t reach the foot with your hand, use a towel around the ankle to create some leverage.
  5. Repeat 3 times each leg.

Exercise #2

  1. Stand and take the right foot behind you as if stepping backwards with the top of the foot on the floor—you will feel a slight stretch in the front of the foot and ankle.
  2. Gently bend the front knee until you feel more stretch.
  3. For a dynamic stretch, bend and straighten the front knee 10 times, or for a static stretch, hold 10 to 20 secs. You can hold the back of a chair for balance if needed.
  4. Repeat 3 times on each side.

Exercise #3

  1. Stand on the left leg with the right foot slightly in front and a small towel under the ball of the right foot to increase the flexion at the right ankle.
  2. Keep the right knee straight and the heel on the floor and step the left foot forward as far as possible.
  3. For a dynamic stretch, step forward and back with the left leg 10 times. For a static stretch, keep the left foot forward, right heel on the ground and right knee straight and hold for 10 to 20 seconds.
  4. Repeat 3 times each side.

Incorporating Mobility Into Your Workout Routine

Consistency is key when it comes to improving mobility, so you’ll want to incorporate mobility and stretching exercises into your routine on a regular basis. Daily or several times a week is generally recommended for optimal results.

According to Landon Uetz, PT, DPT,, you can perform mobility exercises at the beginning of your workout routine as a warm-up or throughout the day to feel good.

As a warm-up, Uetz says mobility exercises can prepare your body for the upcoming demands of activity since they often look very similar to movements you plan to complete as part of your routine.

While participating in mobility movements, make sure to pay attention to how your body responds.

It's normal to feel mild discomfort, but never push yourself to the point of pain. Stretching should feel like a gentle, controlled pull rather than a sharp or intense sensation.

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Precautions and Considerations From the Experts

At this point, the benefits of mobility training seem endless, so you might be wondering if there are any potential risks or precautions to take when practicing mobility exercises.

Nicki Evans, DPT and physical therapist, says the short answer is yes, but as with all exercise and fitness programs, you need to make sure that what you want to be mobile is supposed to be mobile.

Evans also says you need to take into account your medical history, as some exercises are not appropriate for someone who may have osteoporosis or a history of spinal fractures.

Similar to other exercises for general health and wellness, Utez says there is no significant additional risk to mobility exercises as long as they are scaled and dosed correctly.

More specifically, Uetz says someone who has not been as physically active would not be an ideal candidate for a high-level dynamic mobility exercise that would challenge their balance and control. “Listen to your body, and if you feel a movement isn’t for you, there are lots of alternatives you may transition to,” he adds.

Evans recommends anyone wanting to participate in mobility exercises talk with a professional to determine the appropriateness of the exercises they want to perform and ensure that the movement is performed correctly. “If the movement isn't performed correctly, more harm than good could come from that specific move,” she adds.

Bottom Line

Prioritizing mobility in your fitness routine can contribute to overall well-being, movement efficiency, and reduced risk of injury.

Remember that improvements in mobility take time, so be patient and consistent in your efforts and work on mobility safely and progressively, as overstretching or pushing joints too far can also lead to issues.

If you're unsure how to start, consulting with a physical therapist or certified personal trainer can help you develop a mobility program tailored to your needs.

You can also check out one of these workout apps for mobility training exercises, routines, and tips to help you get started and stay motivated on your fitness journey.

FAQs About Mobility

Is mobility the same as flexibility?

No, mobility is not the same as flexibility, and here’s why. Mobility is how a joint moves through its normal range of motion. For example, good mobility at the ankle joint involves full range of motion including, plantar flexion, dorsiflexion, eversion, and inversion, or up-and-down and side-to-side. Flexibility, on the other hand, refers to stretching a muscle temporarily, like when you stretch the calf muscle after a run. One easy way to spot the difference is to picture mobility as active and flexibility as passive.

Can mobility be affected by age or injury?

Yes, both age and injury can affect mobility. Getting older comes with many changes, including mobility. While not the same for everyone, some of the reasons mobility is affected by age include changes in balance, strength, and gait. Injuries, such as falling, can also lead to decreased mobility, especially in older adults.

How does mobility affect athletic performance?

If an athlete lacks mobility, they may experience reduced movement, agility, coordination, and performance. It can also lead to an increase in injuries. Assessing mobility and designing a sports conditioning program or fitness routine that addresses any weaknesses can help keep joints healthy, allow you to perform better, and improve recovery.

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