Why Should I Care About Mobility – For Athletes

It can be difficult to discern which fitness trends are fleeting fads, and which ones are important science-based developments.  If you had any doubts about the concept of mobility training, rest assured that it can have a critical effect on your performance, recovery, injury prevention and overall quality of movement.

Depending on your sport/workout environment, mobility training may be an old friend (I’m looking at you, Crossfitters, who have been way ahead of the trend in this area, thanks in no small part to mobility genius Dr. Kelly Starrett).  But for the rest of us, what does mobility and stability training even mean?

Mobility:  the ability of your joints to move through their full range of motion with strength and efficiency.  Your output of muscular strength is inherently limited by your range of motion.

Stability:  the support that your connective tissues give to your joints. Your ability to generate power (safely, symmetrically and efficiently) is dependent on the stability of your joints.

What does that mean for me?

A simplified but demonstrative example:  you could build the world’s strongest hamstring muscles, but if you have tight and sticky hips, your compromised range of motion means that you won’t be able to translate your insane hamstring strength into the movement required for say, a squat.  And if you have instability in your hip or knee joints, you won’t be able to use your insane hamstring strength to generate the power necessary for something like jumping.


This concept will translate differently into different sports, but the underlying principle is the same:

Cyclists:  tight hips will inhibit the power of your pedal stroke, and asymmetrical hip function will compromise the efficiency of your pedaling.

Runners and Nordic Skiers:  tight hips and ankles can dramatically limit your stride length, thereby compromising your performance in a way that no strength or speed training can fix.

Alpine Skiers:  tight hips will inhibit your ability to get low in your turns, causing poor balance and also back pain (if you can’t flex properly at the hip joint, your body will compromise by bending at the lumbar spine, which is not meant to bear that kind of load).

What should I do about it?

As with any high-performance machine, regular maintenance is your body’s best friend.  Most of us know that we can’t get away with skipping some sort of stretching or myofascial release (foam-rolling) for our hard-working muscles.  And hopefully all of us know we can’t get away with skipping brushing and flossing our teeth.  When it comes to something as important as your joint health and your range of movement, there’s no reason why you should take it any less seriously.

Performing a full-body range of mobility exercises for just 15 minutes every day will work wonders towards achieving optimal joint health.  Remember, mobility work is not stretching, as you can read more about here.  If you’re not able to join me for one of my mobility workshops, I encourage you to check out the books Becoming a Supple Leopard or Deskbound by Dr. Kelly Starrett, or any of his videos.

How Mobility Training Differs From Stretching

Let’s say you drove your car this morning, and the engine started sputtering and shuddering, causing you to bounce along the road, ending up in a ditch with a flat tire.  Would you fix the tire and continue along your merry way?  I hope not.
But this is essentially what so many of us do when we decide to “treat” our back or neck pain by just stretching our back or neck muscles.  In many instances, our aches and pains originate from something gone haywire in our joints—whether it’s compromised mechanical function or an impingement or other restriction that limits our range of motion and/or the stability of the joint.
Stretching alone will not address this type of issue, because stretching focuses exclusively on muscles.  Specifically, the goal and result of stretching is to elongate tight and shortened muscles.  In contrast, mobility training uses movement to free up restrictions in not only muscles, but also ligaments, joint capsules and any related tissue restrictions.  To relate back to the car analogy, mobility training is doing the work on the underlying mechanical engine issue, rather than just fixing the resulting flat tire.
Let’s say your lower back hurts.  You decide to lie down and do some spine stretches you remember from yoga class, and maybe you even do a couple hamstring stretches, because you read somewhere that tight hamstrings can lead to back pain (true!).  Maybe you achieve temporary relief, but the next day the same cycle repeats.  It’s likely that you’re dealing with some impingement in your hip joint.  (There are endless reasons why our hips get tight, but perhaps the biggest culprit is one that none of us can avoid—sitting.)
Your hip joint is designed for mobility, while your lumbar spine (lower back) is designed for stability.  Obviously, your lower back is capable of being mobile, but it doesn’t respond well to being used as a primary mover.  It simply wasn’t built for that.  But because our bodies are endlessly adaptable, if a tight hip is rendering you unable to move into a particular position, your lower back will pick up the slack and move instead.  You might not even notice this movement compensation at first, but over time your lower back will find a way to let you know that it doesn’t like having to take over the work of your hip joints (hello, pain!).
To this end, your spine and hamstring stretches are unlikely to remedy a hip impingement, leaving you wondering why you’re still in pain after continuing a diligent stretching practice.  What you need in this instance is a daily regimen of hip mobility exercises which will bring back range of motion and loosen up any tissue restrictions.
To read more about what compromised mobility can mean for your body, click here.

Why Should I Care About Mobility?

Do you brush your teeth every day?  It’s not especially exciting, but I’d wager you do it because you know it will prevent disease and decay.  What if I told you that investing 10-15 min/day in mobility training could eventually mean the difference between your basic independence or relying on help to get out of bed, dress, and perform simple tasks?

What is mobility?

In a nutshell, your “mobility” refers to the range of motion of your joints, and your ability to move through your full range of motion with strength and efficiency.  Most of us are lucky enough to be born with optimal range of motion (remember sitting in a deep squat position when you were a kid, or being able to run and jump all day with no pain?).


Over time, our joints have become tight, inhibited or “sticky” as a result of environmental stressors, poor posture, compromised movement and time spent sitting. The tissues of your body actually adapt to the position in which you spend most of your time.  So, for example, if you spend hours every day sitting, the likely result is tight and shortened hip flexors, elongated glutes and weakened hamstrings.  Add to the mix a slightly hunched position that most of us slip into when we’re focused on a computer or phone screen, and the eventual result is tight, shortened chest muscles and elongated, weakened upper back muscles.

What can I do about it?

The good news is that we can use our body’s incredible adaptive ability to our advantage.  A regular routine of mobility exercises can undo years of damage.  You know the old saying “use it or lose it”?  We all could benefit from thinking about our mobility, or ability to move, in that way.  Perhaps “move it or lose it” would be more appropriate.  If you spend most of your days only using 60% of your hip joint’s full range of motion, that joint will gradually develop a stiffness in function anytime you try to move it beyond its accustomed 60%.

A regular practice of mobility work (just 10-15 minutes per day) is all you need to start restoring optimal function to your joints.  (Please note, mobility work is different from stretching. Keep an eye out for the next post, which will explain the difference.)  Our workshops teach the simple, effective and therapeutic movements proven to open up your range of motion, thereby resolving pain, preventing injury, and increasing performance.  If you’re eager to start on some serious hip, knee and ankle mobility right now, give the deep squat a try.  Position yourself in front of a doorframe, countertop, pillar, or other sturdy structure that you can hold onto as you sink your butt towards the ground.  Keep your heels flat on the floor and track your knees back above your ankles (not dipping forward and inward).  Shift your weight back onto your heels (not the balls of your feet) and make sure your spine isn’t rounded forward.  You can use whatever you’re holding onto to keep your spine in a neutral position.  Take some deep breaths and try to relax into the position.  Stick with it and your body will thank you!