Mobility and flexibility often are used synonymously but they’re quite different. Flexibility refers to the range of motion around a joint, whereas mobility refers to range of motion within a joint.
Flexibility applies to muscles, specifically length of muscles. Mobility applies to joints and is used to describe motion. If someone lacks flexibility, stretching is recommended. A lack of mobility naturally calls for mobilization of the joint.
But while most of the fit world talks about flexibility pretty regularly, mobility is often neglected. But that's a shame since a lack of mobility causes pain in other areas due to the body’s ability to compensate—at least before that compensation causes injury or pain. For instance, a lack of ankle mobility produces knee pain. A lack of hip mobility causes lower back pain. Losing mobility in the thoracic spine produces neck, shoulder, and lower back pain. All of these things can keep you out of the gym in the short- or long-term.
The good news is that in each of these three areas, it’s possible to test mobility and improve it through movements. Here's how to do just that.
1. Thoracic Mobility Test
The Seated Rotation is part of the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) created by physical therapist Gray Cook and widely used by trainers. The Seated Rotation tests thoracic mobility. Sit cross-legged on the floor, back straight, and leaning slightly forward. One foot should be on each side of a doorjamb. Hold a dowel rod above the chest in front of the shoulders. It should touch the collarbone and the front of the shoulders at all times. With back straight, rotate to each side, attempting to touch the rod to the doorframe. Maintain an upright position and limit leaning toward the door or bending the spine. The goal is to touch the rod to the wall while keeping it level and in contact with your chest, with the spine remaining straight and upright. If you can’t, it’s time to work on thoracic mobility. (Check it out at about 6:19 in this video.)
HOW TO IMPROVE THORACIC MOBILITY:
Popularized at Mark Verstegen’s EXOS training centers, this involves taping two tennis balls together to form a “peanut” shape. Lie on your back with the balls under your spine just above your lower back with you hands behind your head. Perform five crunches, then raise your arms over your chest and alternately reach over your head for five repetitions with each arm. Move the balls up your spine 1 to 2 inches and repeat the crunches and arm reaches. Continue moving the balls up your spine until they are just above your shoulder blades and below the base of your neck. Check out the video here.
2. Hip Mobility Test
The Active Straight Leg Raise, another part of Cook’s Functional Movement Screen, is a good test of hip mobility. Lie on your back perpendicular to a doorway with hands at your sides, palms up, and head on the floor. The midpoint between the knee and hip should be aligned with the doorframe. Lift the leg closest to the doorframe, keeping the foot flexed and knee extended. The other leg and head remain in contact with the floor and the arms don’t move. If the ankle of the lifted leg clears the doorjamb and the leg on the floor does not move, you’re one of the few with great hip mobility. (Check it out at about 5:07 here.)
HOW TO IMPROVE HIP MOBILITY:
Quadruped rocking is an effective way to mobilize the hips while also working the lower back. Get down on all fours with hands under the shoulders and knees under the hips. Pull the belly button in toward the spine while maintaining a natural curve in the lower back. Move the hips backward until you start feeling the pelvis rotate. Return to the starting position and continue for 10 repetitions. You should be able to breathe normally. Try to hold the pelvis still throughout the range of motion. You can see it in action here.
3. Ankle Mobility Test
The Deep Squat, also part of Cook’s FMS, tests mobility throughout the body, including the ankles. Stand in a doorway, placing a strip of tape 1 foot from the doorjamb. Face the doorjamb with feet shoulder-width apart and parallel to each other, with half of your body on each side of the door and toes touching the tape. Hold a dowel rod overhead so that your elbows and shoulders are at a 90-degree angle with the rod. Press the rod up and extend your elbows to a straight position. Descend slowly into a full squat position as deep as possible. Your heels should be flat and your feet should not turn out or slide as you descend. The rod should remain overhead at all times. Neither the rod nor your face or head should touch the doorjamb. To pass the test, your heels must remain on the floor, your head and chest must face forward, and you must press the rod as far overhead as possible. If your feet come off the ground, you lack ankle mobility. (Check it out at about :55 in the video here.)
HOW TO IMPROVE ANKLE MOBILITY:
Ankle skipping improves ankle mobility. From a standing position, skip forward while keeping the legs straight and moving only from the ankles for 15 yards. Maintain upright posture and do not fold at the waist. Pull toes to shins and do not allow the heels or toes to touch the ground as you skip. See it here.
Pete Williams is a NASM certified personal trainer and the author or co-author of a number of books on performance and training.