If you’ve found that magical balance between cardio and strength training, congrats! But guess what? You’re not done yet. You need a strong mobility practice, and not just for the sake of preventing injuries. What movement specialists like Kelly Starrett, Doctor of Physical Therapy and author of the bestselling mobility bible Becoming a Supple Leopard, want you to know is that mobility work, when done right, is good for a lot more than easing pain. It could even be the key to a better 5K time, or just more efficient workouts. “People are leaving performance on the table,” Starrett says. “What I’m telling you is that you can go faster. You can lift more weight. And you can do it all for longer.”
What is Mobility?
When it comes to mobility, misconceptions abound, and they tend to spring from inaccurate terminology. C. Shanté Cofield, Doctor of Physical Therapy and founder of TheMovementMaestro.com, is quick to make this point. “Mobility and flexibility are not synonyms,” she explains, and the conflation of the two ideas often leads to pointless exercises. “Flexibility has this very passive connotation. Like, ‘Let’s lay on the ground and hold my leg up in the air for two minutes and try to get as much flexibility as I can so I can touch my toes,’ but the body doesn’t work like that.”
Also surprisingly problematic? “Stretching.” Both Cofield and Starrett cringe at its catch-all usage. “Let’s stop using the word ‘stretching,’” says Starrett. “Stretching literally describes the properties of a rubber band. What we’re really talking about when we define mobility is, Do you have the requisite biomechanics to get into full, normal, physiologic positions? As in, can your body do what it’s supposed to do? Yes or no?”
It’s a question that you may be able to answer for yourself. For example, one of Starrett’s tests involves standing with the knees and feet together and squatting all the way down. An inability to reach the floor without lifting the heels suggests that you lack full range of motion in the hips and ankles. A simple test like this is easy to find online and perform independently, but one-on-one time with a physical therapist or chiropractor will often identify underlying issues that can hone a mobility practice. “A lot of times when someone has mobility deficits there’s a hierarchy,” explains Cofield. “You can be hammering away at your hamstrings forever, but the problem is actually some stability issue at your core.”
Why Mobility Work is Worth Your Time
It can be tempting to shortchange mobilization for the same reason car owners put off regular oil changes: you can get away with it for a while. You can run like a duck or slouch over the spin bike and still feel like you got a great workout, because you are, indeed, working hard.
But beyond risking injury, athletes who consistently “empty the tank” without full range of motion are getting in the way of their own results. “The best example is that person who’s trying to do an overhead squat and they’re just struggling to squat down,” Cofield explains. “That’s energy that’s being used just to fight against their own body. When people gain mobility and they have this freedom of motion and they can just get into the squat they suddenly have this whole reserve of energy to direct into the actual movement and into whatever they’re lifting as opposed to just trying to get into the shape.”
But what if you don’t care about lifting more weight or beating your last 5k time? If your primary goal is to burn as many calories as possible, why do proper mechanics matter?
“When you’re working against your body, you’re not actually performing work,” explains Cofield. “It’s limiting your work. So it’s not like: ‘I’m burning more calories because I’m trying to bend my arm.’ It’s actually: ‘I can’t burn more calories because I physically can’t do more work.’”
Creating a Practice
Incorporating mobility work into your routine comes with a few dos and don’ts. First of all, you need to address the whole body. Starrett makes the point that runners who mobilize only from the waist down often encounter neck and shoulder issues that hinder their training. Going too deep is another common mistake to avoid. If you ever find yourself holding your breath, it means the movement is too provocative and your nervous system is receiving a “Thread Detected” signal.
A comprehensive mobility practice will incorporate pressure and rolling (often with the help of tools like lacrosse balls and foam rollers) to target matted down tissues, the opening up of restricted joint capsules (aka “flossing”) and, for lack of a better word, stretching. However, there’s an important distinction between effective stretching and the kind that frustrates the pros. “You need to activate the muscle at the end-range,” explains Cofield. “You can lay on your back and hold up your leg, but you want to make sure that you’re also squeezing your quad for 10 to 15 seconds and then contracting your hamstring so that you’re getting some nervous system activation.” Cofield says this is like “hitting the save button.”
Starrett and Cofield both recommend that, for every workout, people spend 10 to 15 minutes on mobilization that connects to the day’s activities. “If you deadlifted today, let’s go mobilize the deadlift positions,” says Starrett. “If we get people in the habit of connecting their mobility practice to their movement practice, suddenly those things become intertwined as they should be.” When it comes to putting together specific mobility drills, a coach, physical therapist or chiropractor can provide detailed instruction and guidance, and resources like Starrett’s Mobility WOD, a mobility programming subscription service, and Cofield’s website and social platforms are intended to empower people at home or in the gym.
Mobilize in 6 Minutes
Use these three mobility drills to help restore and maintain normal range of motion in the hips, shoulders and thoracic spine. You’ll need an exercise band, a pull-up bar or squat rack and a mobility “peanut,” which you can make yourself using two tennis balls and some athletic tape.