What is Mobility?
Mobility describes the ability of a joint, or a series of joints, to move through an ideal range of motion. Though mobility relies on flexibility, it requires an additional strength, stability, and neuromuscular control component to allow for proper movement. Activation is often paired with mobility because many mobility exercises activate key, and often dormant, pillar stabilizers in your hips, core and shoulders.
There is also a bit of a gray zone between flexibility and mobility. The best way I can describe the difference between the two is that flexibility is a lower intensity version of mobility that does NOT require mobility (or you can say that mobility is a higher intensity version of flexibility that involves stability).
For example, a split kneeling hip flexor stretch focuses on getting enough motion at the hip to allow for a full, pain-free range of motion split squat/sagittal lunge variation. Where the split squat/sagittal lunge variation requires strength, stability, and neuromuscular control, the hip flexor stretch does not.
Continuing this analogy further, I’d urge you to consider mobility/activation to be a lower intensity version of an intensive workout (or you can say that a workout is a higher-intensity version of mobility/activation)
For example, let’s look at the basic knee-dominant movement pattern of a lunge to establish a clear continuum here:
Step #1- Tissue Quality: Self-massage the quad/hip-flexor area to eliminate any restrictions that may impede movement and cause knee pain
Step #2- Flexibility:
Step #3- Mobility/Activation:
Step #4- Strength: Progress to more advanced split squat/sagittal lunge variations via stability, range of motion, loading, integration, and/or tempo progressions
The reason mobility/activation work should follow flexibility training is because it helps develop the neural connections to reinforce new ranges of motion. Plus, it helps grease the groove on all of the foundational body-weight movement patterns like a squat, push-up, lunge, hip hinge, etc. to provide for a safer, more effective high-intensity workout.
World-renowned strength coach Mike Boyle is well known for advancing the concept of a joint-by-joint approach to training. The reader’s digest version of this concept is that the body is simply a stack of joints and the joints in the body alternate between a need for stability and mobility. The outline below summarizes what our body needs more of, from the bottom up:
Foot Stability (multi-planar)
Another one of Coach Boyle’s golden nuggets is that problems in one joint typically lead to pain or dysfunction in the joint above or below. As I mentioned previously, it’s not about PAIN SITE...it’s about PAIN SOURCE!
Knee pain is often caused by lack of ankle mobility and lack of hip stability (thus requiring hip/glute activation).
Lower back pain is often caused by a lack of hip and thoracic spine mobility and a lack of lumbar and core stability (thus requiring hip and core activation).
Neck and shoulder pain is often caused by a lack of thoracic spine mobility and a lack of scapulothoracic stability (thus requiring scapulothoracic activation).
In my personal experience, I have found the following 5 mobility/activation exercises to be of the highest priority for the general population. These are also the big 5 foundational body-weight movement patterns in most group exercise settings with limited equipment access:
1.) Squat Variation: Proper squatting requires ankle, hip, and thoracic spine mobility. It also requires strong hip abductors to prevent the knees from caving in. I like the squat to stand and dumbbell or kettlebell goblet squat because it allows you to really sit back into a deep squat position with counterbalance.
2.) Sagittal Lunge Variation: Lunge progressions begin in a static and stationary environment and progress to a dynamic and moving environment. Proper sagittal plane lunging requires both knee and hip stability and hip mobility. One thing I learned from my buddy Mike Robertson at a recent seminar is that you should teach the split squat by having clients place their toes against a wall/post which will prevent knee-driving and force them to drop at the hips—it works like magic!
3.) Frontal/Transverse Lunge Variation: It’s critical to be able to lunge in all 3 planes of motion, including the frontal plane (side to side) and transverse plane (rotational)
4.) Stiff-Legged Deadlift (SLDL)/Hip-Hinge Variation: This is by far the hardest movement to teach because most people have such poor hamstring flexibility that they are unable to extend their hip without compensating by squatting and/or flexing at the lumbar spine. I see too many trainers teach dumbbell or kettlebell swings before they ever teach their clients how to hip-hinge. This is crazy because the hip-hinge is an unloaded, slower bodyweight version of the swing!
5.) Push-up Variation: The push-up is the ultimate total-body stability exercise, and I feel some variation of it needs to be trained at every single workout. Start by mastering the push-up hold before moving to dynamic push-ups, and do not allow your elbows to flare out. Proper push-ups require maintaining a straight line from your head through your heels—this is best accomplished by squeezing the glutes.
For best results and injury prevention, perform the previously-mentioned exercises pre- and post-workout and during "off" days several times each week.
This mobility/activation circuit is a beginner metabolic bootcamp-style workout. It will get you sweating and puffing without overwhelming you before entering more advanced programs. It will also bulletproof your body so that you’re ready to handle anything else thrown your way.
Any fitness program that does not address mobility/activation with its clients is doing them a great disservice and is most likely using out-of-date methodologies.
Nathan Trenteseaux, B.S., YFS1, USC1, YNS is the owner and instructor for a local Alachua group personal training fitness facility that features high-intensity bootcamp-style workouts. Underground Fitness Revolution specializes in 30-minute EXPRESS metabolic workouts for busy men and women. To book Nathan to speak at your local Alachua company, club, or organization, please contact him by email at nate@UndergroundFitnessRevolution.com or by phone at 352.682.3310. For more information, please visit www.UndergroundFitnessRevolution.com.
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Underground Fitness Revolution specializes in 30-minute EXPRESS metabolic workouts for busy men and women designed to get you in the best shape of your life regardless of your current fitness level.