How to Get Started With Mobility & Flexibility

Flexibility/Mobility 9 min Read

Written by

Keith Hansen

If you find yourself sitting a lot at your desk or lounging on the couch bingeing your favorite Netflix show your posture is probably suffering.

Maybe you notice that your hips are tight, your shoulders don’t move like they used to, and your low back is a bit stiff.

These issues can be addressed through mobility and flexibility training, but you may not know where to start.

This article will briefly cover those two areas by explaining what they are and some exercises you can start doing today to improve your posture so you feel a little less stiff.

What is the difference between Flexibility and Mobility?

Mobility and flexibility are related, but they are not the same.

Flexibility describes a muscle’s ability to move through a total range of motion (ROM), with or without control. A classic example of this is doing a standing toe touch. Flexibility only describes a muscle’s ability to lengthen, and misses many of the important things you need to focus on to improve quality movement.

Mobility describes your ability to move with control. Improving your mobility means improving your ability to pick something up from the floor not just being able to reach it (flexibility).

Improvements in your posture are most notable when you combine flexibility and mobility techniques. It is best to perform the mobility exercise for a muscle/joint and then move into the stretch for that body part.

What is Flexibility?

Improving your flexibility comes from stretching (you knew this!). Flexibility is the ROM available in a joint when muscles are relaxed. Flexibility is influenced by muscles, ligaments, and tendons. 

Humans can be naturally flexible or inflexible depending on factors like how tight or loose your ligaments are, muscle tension, and genetic differences in the way your bones are shaped. The good thing is that flexibility can be improved no matter who you are. 

Overall flexibility is influenced most by the muscle spindle. The muscle spindle is a part of every muscle that detects stretch tension, meaning tension on the muscle when the muscle is relaxed. The muscle spindle is present to keep muscles from getting injured. If a muscle senses it is being stretched too much the muscle spindle will send a signal to contract.

If you’ve ever stretched you’ve probably experienced that you can only stretch a little at first, but in just a few seconds you can stretch a little more, and a little more. This is because the muscle spindle stops sending the signal to contract against your stretching efforts.

Improvements in ROM from stretching are typically temporary. The improvements can become permanent with repeated bouts of stretching because your muscle spindles become accustomed to the tension you place on it.

How to Get Started with Flexibility

There are a gazillion stretches you can do for your body.

Since most of us spend way too much time sitting these days I will focus on the areas you probably need the most help: your ankles, hips, and shoulders.

There are two important things to keep in mind when performing stretches.

First, it shouldn’t be painful. A little discomfort is expected and necessary, but don’t push it so hard that it hurts. If a stretch is painful your body is telling you to ease up a little. Listen to it. If it hurts you won’t be able to relax, and that means you won’t be able to do the second most important thing.

The second most important part of stretching is to relax by focusing on your breathing. Instead of stretching for time I recommend you measure your stretching by your breaths. 3-5 breaths per stretch or side is a good starting point, and you should do 2-3 sets per stretch or side with 30-60 seconds between stretching the same muscles. These breaths need to be long and slow—4-6 seconds in, and 4-6 seconds out. You will notice your body goes deeper into the stretch each time you exhale. When you have reached your maximum stretch you should give it 1-2 more deep inhales and exhales before moving on.

The Best stretches for your Ankles

Find a small step or ledge for this first ankle stretch. Bend your knee a little bit and try to let your ankles sink deeply.

 

The next ankle stretch should be done on flat ground. Keep your entire foot, heel to toe, planted on the ground the entire time.

 

The Best stretches for your hips/Low Back

The standing toe touch is a familiar stretch that I am sure you have done plenty of times before. Ideally you should be able to touch the ground when doing this stretch but you may not be there yet. Make it a goal for yourself and notice how much closer you get to the ground each time you practice.

Below is the seated piriformis stretch. This is a great stretch because you can do it at the office while seated to combat some of tightness being built up in that position.

The next stretch you will want to incorporate is the couch stretch. It’s named that because something about the height of a couch is a great tool for setting up. This stretch is focused on that front part of your hip where your thigh meets your torso.

The Best stretches for your shoulders

This is a great stretch for your lats. Your lats are a muscle that attach to your arm and to your back. Lats can become very tight when you spend a lot of time sitting and stretching the lats will help tremendously with tight shoulders.

Your pecs are your chest muscles and hunching over at the desk can cause them to become shorter and tighter over time. The stretch in the video below is very easy to do anywhere.

What is Mobility?

There are two ways to improve mobility. You can unlock the ROM your body already has by reducing tension through massage, and you can increase the maximum ROM by lengthening tissues via stretching.

Most of us simply need to unlock the ROM our body already has.

Our muscles are constantly in a state of tension. This is a requirement for us to be able to sit up without slumping over, and this is called muscle tone. If a muscle has too much tone it is called hypertonic. This can be caused by injury (muscles will tighten to restrict movement) or lifestyle (sitting too much at a desk never gives muscles a chance to relax).

Massaging (called myofascial release) these hypertonic muscles causes them to relax and leads to immediate improvements in mobility. Repeated massage over time leads to lasting improvements in mobility by helping a hypertonic muscle create a lower normal level of tone.

You can make an appointment with a massage therapist, and you can also learn to massage yourself. I recommend using both.

A licensed massage therapist (LMT) is the best way to calm hypertonic muscles because they will target the areas that need attention the most. LMTs have the ability to use multiple approaches to alleviate your hypertonic muscles. I highly recommend working with an LMT every 4-8 weeks to help improve your posture, mobility, and prevent aches/pains. More frequent visits in the beginning can be very helpful.

Massaging yourself, called self-myofascial release (SMF), is typically done with a foam roller ($20), a lacrosse ball, and these days a massage gun (I tested three different models and this was my favorite budget massager). Self-massage is great because you can do it any time, anywhere, for free (after your small initial investment in the tools). It is less effective than working with an LMT, but because of the ability to do it every day for free, it is highly valuable.

You will see the biggest increases in your mobility immediately following massage (either with an LMT or on your own). This is important because it allows you to do SMF immediately before you lift weights, and you can reap the benefits of this improved mobility during your training session.

Myofascial release and stretching improves ROM, but you can lose that range just as quickly as you gained it. This is because these changes are mostly neurological and need to “stick” if you want the new ROM to be permanent. It is imperative to cement the newfound ROM by strength training in that new ROM. 

For example, increasing your ankle ROM by foam rolling and stretching the calves requires some full range training immediately after to make the change stick. By working your joints & muscles in this new ROM you are telling the body that this is the new normal and it better get used to it. After increasing your ankle ROM you would train the calves through a full ROM in a calf raise exercise to allow the muscles to get stronger in that new range. This can be applied to any joint you are trying to increase motion in. 

Other than specific ROM training, most free-weight exercises performed properly will challenge ROM and maintain your new mobility.

Contrary to popular belief, good strength training doesn’t make you a muscle-bound meat-head. Weight lifters have some of the best mobility on the planet.

How to Get Started with Mobility

Mobility exercises are generally focused around massaging your muscles.

A good rule of thumb for these SMF techniques is to spend 2-5 minutes on each area. What you will find is that some areas are more uncomfortable to massage than others, and you may even notice that one side of your body is less pleasant than the other. Spend more time on the areas that are most uncomfortable and take note of how that discomfort eases over time.

The first mobility sessions will be the most uncomfortable and you will find that after just a few sessions it starts to feel good. Just like with stretching you need to be in mild discomfort but never in pain. Being in pain will not allow your muscles to relax and relieve tension.

The Best Mobility Moves for your tight Ankles

 

The Best Mobility Moves for your stiff hips & Low Back

Using your lacrosse ball is a great way to target the muscles that make your hips tight. This can be done to the side of the hip like in the video below and also to the front of the hip if you lie on the ground.

After you have worked the front of the hip it’s time to move onto the back side. Squat down about six inches and place that ball between your butt and the wall. You can also do this exercise while seated in a chair.

The Best Mobility Moves for your tight shoulders

When your bent over the desk all day the muscles in your upper back tend to get locked in that position. You may have noticed that your posture isn’t as good as it used to be and the following exercise is a great way to get it unlocked. It’s time to use that foam roller.

Once you’ve worked the above exercise you should move into foam roller snow angels. This is a great chest opener for the shoulders.

To get a little more targeted on the upper back you will need your lacrosse ball. Find a flat wall, squat down about six inches, and place the ball between your body and the wall. You can massage any of the muscles back there and in the video below you will see how to focus on the upper trap muscles.

What Next?

Once you’ve found the right mix of mobility exercises and flexibility stretches for you it’s time to lock in your newfound range of motion.

You will want to perform basic strength training exercises to train your body to keep this increased ROM.

Check out this article for in introduction to basic strength training exercises. Take note of how much easier the movements are to perform with good technique after some quality stretches and mobility exercises.

Keith Hansen

Keith was an All-State wrestler in high school and in 2007 hung up his singlet to attend Florida State University to pursue a B.S. in business management. He wasn't sure what industry he wanted to be involved in at the time, but soon realized after graduating in 2011 that fitness was the ever-constant activity in his life. Keith began studying to become a personal trainer and in 2013 earned the National Strength and Conditioning Association's Personal Trainer certification. After a short stint as a big box gym trainer he realized he wanted to bring something different to Tallahassee. Keith competes in Powerlifting, Olympic Weightlifting, and Crossfit.