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Best Exercises for Improving Joint Mobility

January 21, 2014

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Joint mobility plays a critical role in an athlete's ability to perform. Limited range of motion in the primary joints—the ankles, hips, thoracic spine and shoulders—can hurt your ability to perform and lead to injuries. If you can't move, you can't play!

Athletes looking to improve their joint mobility can do so very easily by incorporating a couple of exercises for each joint into their warm-up or workout routine. The more frequently these exercises and stretches are performed, the better.

Ankle mobility 

Ankles are the most used joints in the body. They are comprised of three joints: the talocrural joint, the subtalar joint and the inferior tibiofibular joint. Athletes need mobile ankle joints to run, sprint or change direction quickly and easily. However, many do not properly condition their ankles and suffer injuries. They then "treat" the injury with a brace or tape, which restricts the ability of the ankle. Prolonged use of a brace or tape actually weakens the joint by limiting its full range of motion.

The following exercises will not only build strong, mobile ankles but also serve as a great starting point for athletes who have suffered an ankle injury.

Wall/Ankle Stretch

This stretches the calves (soleus and gastrocnemius muscles) and Achilles tendon to improve dorsiflexion, the action of lifting the foot and bringing the toes closer to the shin.

  • Stand facing a wall with your toes about 2 inches away.
  • Bend your knee forward, trying to touch it to the wall without lifting your heel off the ground.
  • Repeat for 5 repetitions.
  • Move back 1 inch and continue the pattern until your knee can no longer reach the wall.

The A-B-C Drill

This exercise is great for improving range of motion in all directions.

  • Assume a seated position.
  • With one foot, trace an outline of the entire alphabet as big as possible.
  • First do upper case letters, then lower case letters with each foot.

Hip mobility

The hip joint supports body weight in both static and dynamic positions. Thus, hips have a huge impact on athletic performance. They are involved in just about every athletic action—sprinting, jumping, pushing and changing directions. Unfortunately, the hips are one of the most overlooked and undertrained areas of many athletes' programs in terms of mobility.

To understand how to properly train the hip joint, it's important to understand how the hip moves. One of the two ball-and-socket joints in the body (the other is the shoulder), the hip joint moves in multiple ways, including:

  • Flexion: Movement of the upper leg and knee upward toward the torso
  • Extension: Movement of the upper leg and knee down and back, away from the torso
  • Adduction: Movement of the leg inward toward the midline of the body
  • Abduction: Movement of the leg outward away from the midline of the body
  • Internal rotation: Rotation of the upper leg and knee inward toward the midline of the body
  • External rotation: Rotation of the upper leg and knee outward away from the midline of the body

We typically find inadequate strength in hip extension, abduction and external rotation, which indicates weak hamstrings, gluteus maximus and gluteus medius muscles. The next three exercises are designed to strengthen these specific areas.

Hip Flexor Stretch

  • Assume a kneeling position and move one foot out to the front.
  • Roll your hips forward and maintain an upright position with your upper body.
  • You will feel this stretch in the hip flexor region of your back leg.
  • Hold the stretch for 30-60 seconds.
  • Switch sides and repeat.

Unweighted Bridge

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet flat on the ground and heels pulled in close to your body.
  • Lift your hips off the ground as high as you can.
  • Squeeze your glutes as tight as possible.
  • Hold for 10-30 seconds.
  • Slowly lower back to the ground.
  • Rest for 3 seconds.
  • Repeat for 1-3 sets of 5-10 repetitions.
  • Once you have developed adequate strength, try doing a single-leg variation of this exercise.

Fire Hydrant

  • Assume a hands and knees (quadruped) position.
  • Raise one leg (bent) out to the side as high as possible, then return it to the floor (like a dog at a fire hydrant, hence the name).
  • Do not bend your arms or rotate at the spine; movement should only be made at the hip joint.
  • Perform 1-3 sets of 10 repetitions on each side.

Thoracic spine (T-spine) mobility 

The thoracic spine is made up of the 12 vertebrae in the upper back, beginning at the base of the neck. Although it is not strictly speaking a joint, the t-spine is another area of the body that is critical for athletic performance.  Poor mobility in the thoracic spine can lead to injuries to the lumbar spine (the five vertebrae that make up the lower back) or the scapula/shoulder blade region. M

Many different exercises can improve thoracic spine mobility. Here's one:

T-Spine Rotation

  • Assume a quadruped position.
  • Place your right hand on the back of your head.
  • Without bending your left arm, rotate up as high as possible to the right side, trying to look up at the ceiling.
  • Rotate back down, attempting to bring your right elbow to your left elbow.
  • Repeat for 1-3 sets of 10-15 repetitions on each side.

Shoulder mobility 

The shoulder is the other ball-and-socket joint. Like the hip, it moves in abduction, adduction, flexion, extension, internal rotation and external rotation. Unlike the hip, however, the shoulder joint is greatly impacted by the scapula (shoulder blade). So it is extremely important to have strong scapular/shoulder blade stability. Several exercises can improve scapular stability and shoulder mobility. Here are a few:

The Pass-Through

  • First, you will need a piece of PVC pipe or a stick about 4-6  feet long.
  • Grasp the pipe/stick only as wide as you need to in order to raise it over your head and behind your back in one continuous motion without bending your elbows.
  • Return to the starting position by reversing the motion, moving the stick from behind your back to overhead and finally in front of your body.
  • Do this 10-15 times, performing 1-3 sets at a time.

Y-W-T-I Series

  • Lie face up in the prone position.
  • Extend your arms overhead with your hands flat, fingers together and thumbs pointing toward the ceiling.
  • Raise your arms as high off the ground as you can without bending your elbows.
  • Hold for 10 seconds.
  • Move your arms into the "W" position by bringing your elbows back and making a "W" shape with your arms. Your hands should again be flat, fingers together with your thumbs facing the ceiling.
  • Hold this position for 10 seconds.
  • Extend your arms straight out to the side with your hands flat, fingers together, thumbs still pointing toward the ceiling to make a "T" shape.
  • Hold your arms as high as possible, squeezing your shoulder blades as tight as you can.
  • After 10 more seconds, move into the last position of the series, the "I" position.
  • Bring your arms by your sides, then raise them as high as possible without bending your elbows.
  • Keep your hands flat, fingers together and palms facing the ground.
  • Hold for another 10 seconds.
  • Repeat the series 3 times, resting 30 seconds to 1 minute between series.

Band Pull-Apart

  • Holding a resistance band with both hands, extend your arms directly out in front of you.
  • Without bending your elbows, pull the band apart and move your arms as far apart as possible, squeezing your shoulder blades together as tightly as you can.
  • Hold this position for 1-2 seconds.
  • Slowly return to the starting position.
  • Repeat for 3 sets of 10-15 repetitions.

Many of these mobility exercises can easily be worked into your current warm-up routine. My athlete clients are always amazed at the impact these exercises and stretches have on their performance.

Read more:

Ryan Sprague
- Ryan Sprague is the owner of TRAIN Sports + Fitness (San Diego), where he specializes in sports performance and athlete development at all skill levels....
Ryan Sprague
- Ryan Sprague is the owner of TRAIN Sports + Fitness (San Diego), where he specializes in sports performance and athlete development at all skill levels....
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