“Mobility” is one of those hot catch phrases making the rounds in the fitness industry these days – but what does it really mean? Is mobility the same as flexibility? Do mobility exercises actually do anything for you? And is it necessary to do mobility every time you train, or is a few times a week enough?
American professional footballer Tom Brady, who at age 42 is one of the oldest players in the National Football League and is the only player in history to have six Superbowl championships to his name, claims that 50% of his training is spent doing mobility work (the rest is split between football drills and strength training). He spends 90% of this mobility training doing range-of-motion and flexibility enhancing movements with resistance bands, which is atypical for an athlete whose sport demands a great deal of strength and size in addition to speed and stamina.
The question then remains: what is so important about mobility work that even the highest-level athletes can benefit from it?
Mobility, which is the ability to effectively and safely perform universal human movements, can affect not only workouts, but overall quality of life. Being able to squat, hinge, push, pull, and rotate through the various demands of everyday life means that you will be less prone to injury, more able to respond to “surprise” stimuli (such as falling or dodging an unforeseen obstacle), and generally more flexible. A note here: flexibility is only one component of mobility, since the former refers only to the the ability to move a joint around its range of motion, and the latter includes the neuromuscular ability to perform a compound movement comfortably and correctly.
Without functional mobility, it is easy to improperly load and/or execute movements – meaning you may be working the wrong muscles during a particular exercise, or worse, you may be loading weight onto a joint that is misaligned. An example of this is scapular retraction in a pull-up – if you are unable to initiate the pull with your back muscles, you miss out on the lat-loading potential of the exercise, defaulting into the biceps and rear deltoids instead. For people with conditions like upper crossed syndrome, this can actually worsen the muscle imbalance and do further damage to the back.
So how to safely integrate mobility training elements into your current workouts?
With my clients, I use a short aerobic warm-up (think jogging, rowing, biking, or skipping rope) of 5-10 minutes to transition from rest to movement, then ask them to perform 3-5 mobility drills through the main joints or movements we’ll be weight training with that day. For example, for a day that includes heavy deadlifts, I will have my client warm up their hip hinges with good mornings, their lower backs with standing oblique twists, and their upper back engagement with banded face pulls. For a day that includes bench presses, I would mobilise the shoulders and chest with dislocates and around-the-world, then work on thoracic mobility with quadriped rotations and bench extensions.
It may be an extra step in what should be a simple practice, but it’s without a doubt an essential component. In short, mobility work is a crucial stepping stone between a cardiovascular warm-up and a weights-based workout. A set of mobility exercises that lasts 5-10 minutes will not only prepare your body for better, more comfortable movement, it will also lessen the potential for injury and allow you to progress more safely and quickly through various compound exercises. Remember: if it’s good enough for the paid professionals to make time for, then it’s more than worth it for us amateurs.