As kids, our joints and muscles move through their respective range of motion without much trouble. As we age, sit more, and move less, movement becomes much less efficient, and sometimes, even painful. That's why I think mobility drills are an important part of any exercise regimen. Even 5-10 minutes working on it can make your body feel better.
For mobility, I always like to emphasize three main areas that tend to get stiff: the ankles, the hips, and the thoracic spine (upper-middle back). My five favorite mobility exercises include one exercise for each of these joints, plus two exercises that utilize multiple joints to move the body through a full range of motion.
Before we get to those drills, though, I have a few rules for mobility. First and foremost, if it hurts, don't do it. (And seeking out why it hurts is a good idea.) Second, if you can't perform a specific drill, seek out a regressed version of the movement. Third, if dedicated practice of the exercise doesn't lead you to your goals after six weeks, or the movement stops helping entirely, look for another movement.
For every eight or nine people for whom a drill works wonders, there will always be one or two who can't perform the move correctly or without pain. If this happens to you, it doesn't mean you are defective. Don't let a trouble drill deter you from your goals in the slightest. It simply means that you either need a different exercise (maybe a simpler one), or you should seek the care of a physical therapist, massage therapist, or chiropractor.
Now that that we have that out of the way, let's do some mobility drills!
Mobility Drill 1 Plate Ankle Rocks
This is a great exercise to promote greater ankle dorsiflexion (toe toward shin) range of motion. Simply stand with the balls of your feet on a weight plate and your heels on the ground. Begin with 2.5- or 5-pound plates, and as you improve, increase the thickness.
With your knees ever so slightly bent, push your knees over your little toes until your heels are about to come off the ground. Don't let your heels rise, though. Keeping them glued to the floor is extremely important for this exercise. Breathe out and relax as you rock forward. Then return to the starting position. You can use a wall for support if necessary.
Perform at least one set of 10 before every workout.
Mobility Drill 2 Squat to Stand
I love this exercise because it increases hip mobility and accentuates proper squatting technique. It's a good hamstring stretch, as well.
Begin by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart. If your hip mobility is poor, rotate your toes slightly outward, but try to keep them pointed straight ahead. Bend at the waist and place your fingers under your toes. Try to not to bend your knees too much. Your fingers will remain under your toes for the duration of the exercise.
Breathe out and relax for a second to stretch the hamstrings, then squat down, ensuring that your knees move outside of your elbows. When you hit the bottom, pull up on your toes slightly to try to pull your hips even lower.
Attempt to show the logo on the front of your shirt to the wall or mirror in front of you. Breathe out at the bottom and try to relax, to sink deeper into the squat. After a second or two, extend your legs for another hamstring stretch and repeat.
Perform for at least one set of 5 repetitions at the start of each workout.
Mobility Drill 3 Side-Lying T-Spine Rotation
Not only does this exercise do wonders for your upper back and shoulder mobility, it feels great and relieves a lot of stress.
Lie on your side with both arms outstretched in front of your shoulders—you can put a pillow or mat under your head for comfort if you want. Place your top knee on a foam roller or medicine ball so that your top hip and knee are bent at 90 degrees. Your bottom leg should be straight and the rest of your body in line with your bottom leg.
Raise your top hand until it is perpendicular to the floor above your shoulder joint. Breathe out and attempt to rotate your upper body (without letting the top knee raise off the roller or ball) to bring the top shoulder blade to the floor. Follow your hand with your eyes and head as it moves through the exercise. Don't worry if your hand or shoulder blade doesn't make it to the floor. If it does, attempt to reach your two hands as far apart as possible.
Rotate your upper body back until your hand is perpendicular to the floor again, then return your hand to the starting position. Repeat for 5 repetitions, then perform 5 reps on the other side.
Mobility Drill 4 Spiderman With Rotation
This exercise incorporates both hip and thoracic-spine mobility, and also includes some core-stability training. It's a great exercise to use either as part of a warm-up or between sets to add density to a workout.
Begin in a push-up position with your hands directly under your shoulders and your feet together. Without letting the hips rotate too much, reach your right foot up to your right hand. Attempt to get the heel of your foot in line with the heel of your hand, or beyond.
Then, breathe out and drop your left knee to the floor. Rotate your upper body and reach your right hand to the ceiling. Follow your hand with your eyes, turning your head. Once the arm is perpendicular to the floor, exhale slowly again and return your hand to the floor.
Perform 5 repetitions, then repeat on the other side.
Mobility Drill 5 Overhead Squat
This is one of my favorite mobility exercises because it challenges the range of motion of the thoracic spine, hips, and ankles at the same time. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and attempt to keep your feet facing forward. If your hips are tight, you can rotate your toes out slightly.
Hold a barbell-diameter PVC pipe or wooden dowel on top of your head with both hands. Adjust your hands so that your elbows are at 90 degrees, and then press the pipe or stick above your head.
Once the pipe is above your head and your arms are extended, squat down by pushing your hips back and allowing your knees to move slightly outward. Attempt to keep your torso as vertical (upright) as possible, and do not allow your heels to come off the floor.
Descend until the crease of the bent hip is level with or lower than your knees, pause for one second, and then return to the starting position. The stick should remain directly overhead throughout the movement.
If you're unable to reach full depth without your heels coming up off the floor or the stick falling forward, place your heels on weight plates. As mobility improves, you can decrease the thickness of the plate.
Perform at least one set of 10 reps as part of a dedicated mobility routine or before any workout.
Move Better, Feel Better
I suggest doing all of these movements before any given workout until your mobility begins to improve. The moves are low intensity, dynamic, and should have you feeling good before you hit the weights!
Remember though, if one of these exercises is painful, don't do it. Discomfort is normal; pain is not.