Years ago, having “flexibility” meant you did a few toe touches pre- and post-workout to loosen up. Now, in search of better flexibility, you’re likely to stumble across dozens of different yoga classes, tons of new tools like bands and foam rollers, and a confusing assortment of stretches and guidelines that all seem a bit conflicting.
And then there’s MobilityWOD (Mobility Workout of the Day) — a series of daily videos designed to help you move better. Started by Dr. Kelly Starrett, physical therapist and coach in San Francisco, California, the goal of MobilityWOD is to give people the tools necessary to perform basic maintenance on their body. Have a bum knee? Learn the basics to help take care of it (maybe work on the inner thigh or try the calf, for starters).
Mobility sounds great, but how exactly does it differ from the stretches we’ve been doing for ages? Stretching normally focuses solely on the muscle itself. Mobility is a more all-encompassing practice that addresses multiple elements that influence performance. According to Starrett, this includes the sliding surfaces (muscles, ligaments, tendons,fascia), and the the joint and motor control necessary to perform a movement correctly.
Starrett and his team have published over a thousand videos to help you kickstart your mobility practice. We spoke with Starrett and certified personal trainer and international speaker, Dean Somerset, to help you get the most out of your movement.
Mobility Matters: 5 Tips to Help You Move Better
1. Make mobility personal.
While our joints might function similarly on the surface, our bones, ligaments and tendons are all slightly different. This means a mobility exercise that works well for your lifting partner might not be suited for you. Somerset clarifies, “You have to pick the right exercise for the person, and not the other way around.” Starrett often uses the phrase, “own your practice” to reference the sense of empowerment each athlete should feel over their own mobility work. You’re in charge of deciding what specific area of the body you need to work on most. You’re also responsible for how far you push yourself into the movement.
2. Take deep breaths.
Breathing can have a huge effect on how much you benefit from a particular movement. Slow, controlled breathing increases the parasympathetic response, helping to relax your body and reduce tension. “It should almost be like a releasing of air, not like you’re pushing the air out,” stresses Somerset.
3. Time it right.
Starrett challenges athletes to hold positions beyond the typical 30 seconds. “One of the biggest errors that we’ve seen is that people don’t mobilize long enough to actually make change,” he explains. Holding a position for two minutes or longer gives the tissues a chance to adapt and you a chance to get comfortable.
4. Tune into pain.
Pain is a telltale indicator that a specific area needs some work. “If I say put the ball on the back of your shoulder to address the soft tissue there, and you find anything that’s painful, you stop,” says Starrett. “That’s the place you have to work.”
That doesn’t mean all pain is good pain, though. Somerset adds that too much pain actually works against you. “The body’s natural instinct is to guard itself and protect itself. It’s going to push back and get tighter.” So, how much pain is too much? Stay away from anything that hurts excessively. If you’re feeling a burning nerve pain, for example, that’s probably too far says Starrett.
5. Work mobility into your routine.
While mobility exercises can be extremely beneficial, Starrett doesn’t want you to work on these exercises all day, every day. He stresses that athletes need to get out and practice. Think of mobility as a piece to your training puzzle. Get in the gym to see how you’re moving and what needs some work. Then, work on those specific elements with targeted mobility work. Rest and repeat.
Your Full-Body Mobility Plan
Mobility work shouldn’t feel overwhelming. Regardless of how inflexible you might think you are, you won’t need to spend hours a day to reap the benefits. According to Starrett, you just need to start somewhere. Here are some of our favorite MobilityWODs that each take less than 15 minutes. Try doing one a day to build a habit. Then, branch out andexplore the vast video archives focusing on areas where you feel particularly tight.
1. Squat…for 10 Minutes
You’ve probably squatted in the gym during a workout. Maybe you’ve even done a few reps prior to hitting the weight room floor as a warm-up. Starrett challenges athletes in this MobilityWOD to hold the bottom position of a squat for 10 minutes. Starrett explains that in countries where people assume this deep squat position more regularly, there tends to be a lower occurrence of hip disease and low back or disc disease.
Be mindful of: Your feet. They should be pointed straight forward, not out to the side. Similarly, force your knees out rather than letting them cave in.
2. Correct Your Calves
Foot problems, knee problems, hip problems…they all can have one common ancestor: the calf complex. In this exercise duo, Starrett combines a banded calf stretch with self-myofascial release. The former helps to improve the range of motion at the joint. The latter takes care of any knots in the sliding surfaces of the muscle.
Be mindful of: Your knee. By bending your knee during the initial stretch, you can target more of the soleus, or the lower part of your calf. Straightening the knee targets your gastrocnemius (the upper part). You’ll want to spend time working on both!
3. Lengthen the Front of Your Hip
You’ve probably heard the research indicating sitting isn’t great for our health. There’s another area where it’s wreaking havoc — your posture. When we sit all the time, the front of our hips tighten up, which can cause movement restrictions. In this video, Starrett uses a trio of exercises to open up the hip flexors and quads.
Be mindful of: Your back. The second exercise in the video places your foot up against a wall to attack your quad using both the hip and the knee joint. Many individuals aren’t even flexible enough to get in the proper position for that exercise, says Somerset. With your foot up against the wall, make sure you’re core is tight and your lower back isn’t hyperextended. If you’re having trouble getting into position, try moving your knee away from the wall (this will reduce the stretch on your quad).
4. Cure Hamstring Stiffness
Starrett approaches hamstring stiffness using two methods you probably haven’t seen before. One focuses on a closed chain stretch, where your feet are planted on the floor while you move your torso and hips around that fixed point. The other is an open chain, which involves moving your foot around while you’re lying down. It’s the perfect combo to take care of hamstring stiffness.
Be mindful of: Your speed. During the second half of the video, Starrett has his client lying down lowering his leg against tension and slowly controlling it on the way up. Don’t let your leg fly back up into a stretch.
5. Fix Your Squat
Nearly every joint in your body is flexing, extending and twisting during a squat. Starrett explains that one of the most common mistakes he sees is at the foot. The foot will roll inward causing what he calls a “navicular bone drop.” This tends to pull the knees inward and increase risk for ligament tears. To correct this issue, Starrett starts at the hip joint ensuring that athletes have enough mobility to protect the knees.
Be mindful of: Your hip. This exercise requires constant vigilance to notice where you’re tight so you can reposition yourself. Starrett continually uses the term “exploration” when describing the movement, so don’t check out once you think you’ve found the sweet spot.
6. Lengthen Out Overhead
When we’re sitting, we’re normally hunched forward in a rounded position. This limits our ability to get our arms over head whether that’s reaching up into a cabinet or pressing a weight. Using a band to aid the stretch, Starrett attacks the shoulder joint from five different directions to increase mobility.
Be mindful of: Where you’re tight. It’s time for some informed freestyling. While Starrett takes you through five distinct movements, focus on where you feel especially restricted and make sure you adjust the exercise to address those areas.
7. Correct Desk Posture
Rounded posture also causes issues with the thoracic spine, or the segment between your neck and core. When this area of the spine is hunched forward, it becomes harder to breathe effectively. In this video, Starrett places a Rad Roller (lacrosse balls taped together can work as well) right below his shoulder blades and uses a series of overhead reaches to open up the thoracic area.
Be mindful of: Your core. Somerset explains that if your core isn’t tight, you could be in for trouble. “If you’re not bracing the core properly to get the thoracic spine to move, you end up creating movement somewhere else along the chain.” That “somwhere else” could mean your lower back, which misses the goal of the movement.