Flexibility & mobility are two key components when it comes to moving well. Whether we’re striving for optimum athletic performance, or simply looking for freedom of movement in everyday life.
I’d go as far as saying that healthy, mobile joints are the foundation for functional fitness. Alliteration game is strong.
If we have sufficient range of motion and control over that range, pretty much everything else becomes easier.
The problem lies in figuring out the puzzle:
How do you improve mobility and flexibility? Which bit should you stretch first? How do you make lasting improvements, and how long will it take?
Confusing to say the least.
But today it’ll hopefully become less so as I share the framework I’ve successfully applied to a range of movement riddles – with countless clients and in my own training.
We’ll go through a simple three step process for improving mobility (the 3R Mobility Method), and how to apply it to two of the most common problems I see: tight hips and stiff shoulders.
My hope is that you take it, play with it, and incorporate a version of it into your own practice to become a more well rounded athlete and human being.
Let’s get stuck in.
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Whether you’re a serious athlete or someone simply looking to stay active and mobile, mobility and flexibility training can be beneficial for a whole host of reasons.
When done mindfully, it can potentially:
In turn, all of these factors can improve performance and quality of life.
Click the headings below to reveal the potential benefits in more detail:
Including some form of flexibility and mobility work in your movement practice can be a great way to complement the ‘yang’ style training that’s more focussed on building strength or endurance.
We’re typically pretty good at getting amped up. We can switch into fight or flight mode at the drop of a hat because that’s what we needed to be able to do when we lived in the same environment as sabre toothed tigers. What we’re not so great at is bringing things back down, which is where flexibility work can come in.
The yogis have known it for thousands of years – dedicating time to connect your movements with the breath decreases levels of stress hormones like cortisol.
In many cases, this can have a big knock on effect on sleep quality, relationships, and pretty much everything we do in life.
It’s a big debate – does stretching or improving flexibility reduce your injury risk? From my personal experience and from reviewing the literature, the answer is a resounding “It depends“.
It depends what your stretching or mobility practice looks like, how you move throughout the day, what activities you partake in, when you practice, how often, how intense… The list goes on. There’s so many variables, it’s not possible to give a definitive answer. It all comes back to the approach:
Can improving flexibility be beneficial in helping you minimise your injury risk? Absolutely.
If you’re addressing a specific imbalance that then allows you to adopt more stable positions, or if you’re increasing mobility around a joint that is otherwise under stress, then you could make a pretty could argument that your injury risk will go down.
But can stretching also increase your injury risk? Totally.
If you’re stretching randomly, doing too much, mobilising through pain, or doing a bunch of long static stretches prior to intense exercise, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see your injury risk go up.
It’s all about the method, which is what this guide is all about.
Expanding on the above, if we’re able to adapt more stable positions due to working on our mobility drills, this can often transfer across to improved performance.
Sure, a highly skilled athlete with average mobility will likely outperform the athlete with less skill but better joint mechanics.
But what if the skilled athlete improved their mobility?
A few examples:
We could keep going, but you get the idea!
Flexibility and mobility often get thrown in the same category (something I’m guilty of even here in this article). But despite their similarities, there are some important differences:
Whether it’s going for a submission in BJJ or writing a blog post for your website, having a systematic approach to a challenge is usually going to make your life easier. The same goes for improving mobility & flexibility, and the 3R Mobility Method is my attempt at that.
It’s essentially a framework we can use to address postural challenges & improve our active range of motion, and from that build a more well-rounded movement skillset. It’s something I use in my own practice, with online coaching clients, and in my course Mobility RESET.
Is it perfect? – Definitely not, but it’s a good start.
Did I invent it? – If you define ‘inventing’ as coming up with a cheesy name, then yep, I sure did. If you’re asking whether I developed all of the concepts it contains, then no.
As we’ll touch on later, the 3R Method is an amalgamation of concepts and ideas from my own practice, but also from the giants that have gone before me and paved the way.
The TL;DR of the 3R Mobility Method: Improving mobility + flexibility can be easier if we follow a systematic approach of 1) realising/analysing the movement/position, 2) releasing tension/creating space, then 3) reinforcing that new position with strengthening drills/habits. We then revisit step 1 to see if we’ve made an improvement. If so, great, rinse and repeat. If not, experiment with a different set of mobility drills/mobilisations to find what works best for you.
If we’re looking at how to increase mobility and flexibility, our first step is to establish a baseline.
Here we take a look at basic movement patterns and positions to see if we can perform them to a certain standard. If we know our starting point, it’s easier to generate an effective plan to navigate forwards.
One of the most common mistakes I see (and I’ve been guilty of too in the past):
To jump straight into a load of stretching routines or foam rolling without analysing the movement first.
Heavy squatting with the feet like a duck and knees caving in isn’t ideal as it can put undue pressure on the knee ligaments. So for the sake of our health and performance, this is a pattern we might think about improving.
But if you squat that way, it’s not necessarily because you have tight hips or ankles as we might sometimes assume. It might simply be because that’s how you learned to squat! So it’s then just a simple case of re-learning the technique.
So essentially with the baseline assessments, we’re asking ourselves:
What does our current position, posture or range of motion look like? And how does that differ from where we would ideally like it to be?
Now it’s important to remember that ‘ideal’ is going to vary from person to person.
Not everyone is going to have a squat that looks exactly the same.
That being said, there are some underlying principles that usually apply across the board, regardless of body shape, femur length, pelvis shape and all that jazz.
We establish a baseline through some form of assessment or movement screen.
Ideally you would have someone experienced take you through the screen in person, but that doesn’t mean you can’t figure some things out yourself!
The two main types of screening we might explore:
As I touched on above, often times assessing our start and end positions through a static assessment can give us a pretty good indication of how we’ll move. But if we want to see it in real time, assessing our our positioning in motion is still useful.
There are a number of ways we can do that depending on the athlete and their/your goals:
In my own practice and in my online coaching I tend to use a hybrid approach, incorporating static and dynamic assessments.
Exactly what I use will depend on the athlete I’m coaching, and their specific goals and challenges.
That being said, as well as looking at standing posture, there are two positions I look at with almost everyone. For the most part, they give the biggest bang for their buck when it comes to moving and performing well.
I use a simple, binary, yes-no or pass-fail assessment. Can we adopt the position and be comfortable there for a prolonged time period?
If not, we then dig deeper to find out why.
The squat is a fundamental human movement pattern that requires a balance of mobility through the hips, ankles and mid back.
Back in the day, we’d squat to eat, play, rest, hunt, gather, poop and more, but because of these things called chairs, it’s not something we do all that often in the modern world.
Use it or lose it. The ankles stiffen, the hips get tight, the mid back rounds, and our ability to squat ass to grass and be comfortable there pretty much disappears.
Hanging is another thing we probably would have performed a fair bit of in an ancestral setting.
It’s a great way to test our overhead range of motion, as well as our ability to organise the scapula (the shoulder blades) and control the pelvis.
A hang can be:
Both variations are valuable to explore.
It’s important to remember, we’re NOT prescribing/diagnosing. That’s for medical professionals to do.
When we go through a movement screen, we’re looking for two key pieces of information:
With that in mind, we then progress onto step 2 – Reset.
Step two of the 3R Mobility Method is all about resetting (or releasing – you pick).
So we’ve identified from our movement screen or posture assessment that we can’t comfortably adopt certain positions of perform key movements that relate to our goals.
We’ve followed all the correct coaching cues, but we still can’t get comfortable.
It’s then time to look at the joints and tissues, exploring how to improve your flexibility and mobility.
Our goal here is simple:
To release any undue tension in the system that may be holding us in compromised positions or restricting our movement capacity.
Now, there are various ways we can do that:
As the name suggests, we’re simply applying some form of pressure to a tissue or tissue system in order to elicit some sort of change. As Kelly talks about at MobilityWOD, healthy tissues are hydrated, they move freely, have full blood flow, and they’re not painful to touch.
By applying targeted pressure to an area that has any of the above characteristics, we often see those characteristic dissipate as the tissue returns to normal. This may be through the release of ‘trigger points’ or ‘fascia’, but it’ may also just be the nervous system relaxing and letting go of tension.
Either way, the tissue more often than not feels better and range of motion improves, which is what we’re aiming for. The way I see it, there are two categories of ‘pressure’ techniques we can use:
Mobilisations are essentially drills that help to improve range of motion at a joint. we could group them into a few different categories:
Personally, I like to use a combination of the two – pressure techniques and mobility drills.
In fact, research suggests that combining pressure techniques with mobilisation drills is potentially the most effective way of making changes:
A study released in Feb 2019 showed that instrument-assisted soft tissue mobilisation and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation techniques improve hamstring flexibility better than static stretching alone.
So how can we apply this to our two basic positions, the squat and hang?
As well as trying to accumulate time in the squat position (starting with the heels elevated or holding onto something for balance), there are 3 areas that most people could benefit from exploring to increase flexibility and mobility in the squat:
The hang is a functional expression of your overhead mobility. A few common limiting factors you can work on include:
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The biggest mistake people make when they’re looking to improve flexibility and mobility?
To do a whole load of stretching or release work, but not put it into action.
The way I see it, it’s all well and good assessing a movement and releasing any unnecessary tension in steps one and two.
BUT, if we don’t then use that new range of motion, we’re always going to revert back to our default position. We’re creatures of habit after all.
Mobility work is about improving our useful range of motion long term. It’s not just about getting bendy for the sake of it or making temporary changes.
So in this crucial final stage we look to strengthen key muscle groups and movement patterns so we can integrate these into our movement practice and everyday life.
We want to signal to the body that we don’t just have access to a certain range of motion, but we can be strong there.
The main ways we can do just that include:
Here we’re looking to improve stability or end range strength in certain muscles surrounding a joint.
Whilst joint-specific work can be useful for some people to help with imbalances or build end-range strength, they’re not essential for everyone.
For most people, methods 2 & 3 are probably going to provide the biggest bang for your buck.
Here we’re looking to integrate the ‘release’ work into real-world, functional patterns.
We’re essentially going to move through full range of motion with our basic movements: the squat, hinge, lunge, hang, push, pull, throw, run etc.
Last but certainly not least, how can we consolidate all of the above into our movements that we perform in everyday life?
It’s all well and good working on your mobility for 10-15 minutes a day, then practicing those gross movement patterns in the gym a few times a week, but what about every other hour of the day?
Ideally, we want our bodies to require as little daily maintenance as possible, and the best way I’ve found to do that is to attack the root cause.
A few simple examples:
Sure, we may always need a little maintenance work. After all, our modern world isn’t always the perfect movement environment. But there are always opportunities to make little tweaks that in the long run can save us a lot of time and effort.
I’ve listed below a few simple follow along routines that put the above ideas into practice. Give them a go and let me know how you get on in the comments section!
Although I’ve tried my best to make this guide to improving mobility as in-depth as possible, you’ll no doubt have a few questions in mind. I’ve listed below my answers to some of the most common ones.
If you give them a scan and still can’t find what you’re after, hit me up in the comments section and I’ll do my best to help you out!
We can think of improving our flexibility as creating space. We’re increasing the available range of motion at a joint or through a certain plane. It’s then up to us what we do with that space.
Do we let it go to waste or do we do something with it? Can we take control over it so it benefits us?
That’s what mobility work is about. Essentially, it’s about ensuring our joints are productive in their use of range of motion. So we have the freedom and strength to move as we please.
Joint mobility is the foundation for human performance. Joints that can move through their full range of motion with control allow us to get into more stable positions. These positions are often one’s that allow us to produce the highest force output whilst simultaneously limiting unnecessary stress on the joints or soft tissues in the body. In many cases this can reduce the risk of injury and improve our athletic potential.
To increase joint mobility, start by evaluating a position or movement, then release any tension or restrictions that may be restricting that position. Finally, reinforce a more stable position with strengthening drills and habit changes. This is the basis of the 3R Mobility Method.
A mobility session works great in the morning as it preps you for the start of the day. It can also be handy in the evening to help you wind down before bed.
But what if you don’t have the time to dedicate to a specific stretching session and you want to split your mobility work throughout the day?
A couple of things to consider:
It depends on your goals, preferences and individual makeup. Some people do well with a daily 10-15 minutes maintenance session of mobility exercises, whereas others prefer to just do them in their warmup on workout days. The most important thing is to find a schedule that works for you and allows you to see consistent results.
Tissues and joints can take weeks, months, and even years to remodel, so improving flexibility and mobility requires patience. Being overly enthusiastic and doing too much too soon is a recipe for injury, so it’s important to keep the big picture in mind, take it slow and trust the process.
Stretching is one component that can help to improve mobility, but only if used in a targeted way. It’s important to understand why an area may be tight before stretching it, and that other factors come into play – such as strength, coordination, proprioception, and more.
For example, tight hamstrings may not necessarily loosen up by simply stretching them. Those hamstrings may in fact be tight because the glutes are inactive or the hamstrings are weak, so strengthening those areas and stretching elsewhere may actually provide better results.
In summary: stretching is often the go-to to address poor flexibility and it can be valuable. But it’s one part of the bigger picture, and we need to keep that in mind.
The best mobility program will vary from person to person. There’s no one-size-fits all approach.
Ideally you would work with a coach in-person, and they’d take you through a specific plan based on your individual background, restrictions and goals.
In terms of online learning, I put together Mobility RESET to give people a base understanding of how their body functions and what they can do to maintain it. I can’t claim it’s the perfect answer for everyone, but it’s a decent start if you want to cover your bases.
Some poses in yoga are well suited for increasing mobility, as they combine elements of flexibility, strength, balance and coordination at the same time. A well-rounded class with an experienced teacher is often beneficial when it comes to improving mobility.
That being said, this isn’t always the case, as some classes may be more geared towards basic passive stretching and how to get flexible legs (without as much focus on stabilisation and control).
So in general, yes, yoga is largely positive if you’re looking to increase mobility or to improve flexibility for athletes. But it’s not 100% necessary and may not always be individualised to your exact needs.
So there we have it:
An in-depth guide to improving mobility and flexibility. Hopefully it’s helped you feel a little more at ease, and means you now have a structured approach you can experiment with in your own practice. As I said earlier, I’m not claiming it’s the perfect solution for everyone, but I have seen it work for well for a fair number of people, so it might be worth playing with at least!
If you have any questions about the 3R Mobility Method, or any thoughts you’d like to share, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!
And don’t forget:
If you want to dive a little deeper into mobility and hit the reset button on your body, you can check out my online course Mobility RESET.
Until next time!
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