“I did 30 minutes of mobility stretching every day – and hit a new PB”

The benefits of mobility for reducing pains and improving your workouts have long been shouted about, so writer Chloe Gray put the stretch style to the test.   

We all had different lockdown obsessions. Maybe yours was making sourdough or painting on canvas. Mine was doing mobility training. Every morning I’d activate and strengthen my joints, and guess what? I felt incredible for it – avoiding most of the pain I expected would accompany my new sedentary life

But much like the fermented starters that lived in bakers’ fridges, my routine has died. When the world opened up, my workouts once again became sandwiched between commuting and work, and my lengthy, joint-focused warm-ups were replaced with a quick stretch in down dog and some shoulder circles before hitting the squat rack. 

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It is probably no coincidence that I’m now experiencing some joint pain. After a day at my desk or a tough workout, my back twinges. Sometimes, my hips feel so heavy and sticky that it feels as though I’m walking through a treacle. 

What is mobility and why is it important?

Let’s rewind for a second. For those uninitiated, mobility training is different from a simple stretch. “In fitness, mobility is defined as your active range,” says Emma Obayuvana, a mobility teacher from the Strong Women Training Club. “Rather than just stretching the muscles passively, mobility refers to how far you can articulate a joint and the strength you have to hold it in deep positions.”

Better depth and range of motion

Take your hips as an example. They can be stretched passively (where you stretch and hold) or dynamically (moving in and out of the stretch). And they can also be mobilised, where the joint is taken through its full range of motion and strengthened at that end range. It’s the difference between a flexibility-focused figure-4 stretch, and a controlled, mobilising 90/90. 

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Improved performance

While much of the discussion around joint health is focused on later life, you don’t have to wait to reap the benefits. “Mobility practice absolutely improves your exercise performance,” says Obayuvana.

“In your workouts, you’ll able to get into a deeper position. For example, improving hip mobility will mean you can get lower at the bottom of, say, a squat. At the same time, you’ll be able to lift heavier while in that deep position as you will have improved activation and strength at your end range.”

Injury prevention

Practising mobility also injury-proofs your body. “Think about how your ankle moves when you are running: you need it to be able to move up, down and side to side. If you can get it through that deep active range, you’ll be safer when stepping on branches or onto curbs than if your ankle can only twist and lift a small amount.

“When a joint can safely and strongly move through a large range of motion, it will be much safer,” says Obayuvana. 

Mobilising your hips means you take them through their full range of motion, rather than sitting in a stretch.

Studies also show the importance of improved mobility on injury risk and pain. In a study on 660 handball players, researchers found that those who performed a mobility practice three times a week reduced the risk of shoulder injury by 28%. In another paper, published in 2022, researchers compared pain levels and spinal mobility in those with back pain. They found that participants who had limited mobility, particularly in extension (bending) in their thoracic spine, had more pain. 

Clearly, I needed to kick start my mobility practice if I wanted to re-reap these benefits. So, I set myself a challenge: 30 minutes of mobility practice every single day for two weeks. 

Mobility challenge: what exercises count?

To ensure I was getting the most from my practice, I tended to follow along with real-time videos. For full-body routines, I did Obayuvana’s classes on the Strong Women Training Club. I also loved Shona Vertue’s videos on YouTube for hip-focused mobility sessions and for gentle morning stretches, I used the mobility routines on the FIIT app. 

On workout days, I did my mobility routine before I exercised, focusing on mobilising the body parts I was about to train. That’s because mobility work doesn’t only improve the depth and articulation of joints in the long term, but immediately.

Leg days were preceded by hip-focused mobility sessions that included moves like 90/90, dynamic pigeon stretch and hip circles. Before upper body workouts, I focused more on opening up my shoulders and stretching into my back with spine rotations and runners lunge.

Every day I mobilised my spine and my neck, doing cat/cow, scorpions and neck rotations to counteract the stillness these joints face during my desk-bound job. 

Is a mobility challenge worth the faff?

Better range of motion

During these two weeks of mobility practice, I noticed weaknesses that I would never have picked up on before. In particular, my internal hip rotation (dropping the legs inwards to rotate the hips) needed work. This isn’t a common movement pattern, so I was shocked at the tightness I felt at the beginning; after two weeks, I’ve become much more mobile in my hips.

Better form (and a PB)

That probably helped me achieve some personal bests in the gym. I did a front squat with a 45kg barbell, going way below parallel with no pain or tightness in my spine or hips. I’m not saying it was just the added hip mobility that was responsible – I’d been working on this lift for a while now – but I do think that the confidence in my technique and form came from knowing my hips and my back were ready for the load. 

After two weeks of dedicated mobility, Chloe’s managed to get a front squat PB.

Fewer twinges

Generally, I feel like my workout form has improved. I’ve been experiencing fewer back niggles and the need to put down my weights and ‘reset’ my positioning mid-set, probably because my joints are happier in those deep positions. 

Less desk-based tightness

The main benefit has been in my day-to-day life. There’s less tension and tightness when I get up from my desk or go on long walks, and my hips feel like they glide rather than sludge through thick liquid.

“Mobility changes how you interact with the world around you. Simple movement stops being an effort, and you feel lighter with improved joint health,” agrees Obayuvana.

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Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to add 30 minutes of mobility to my daily routine – who does? Over the past two weeks, adding that chunk onto my existing strength or cardio workouts has meant me exercising for an excessive amount of time. 

Instead, I’m going to aim to do half an hour of mobility on rest days, and 10 or 15 minutes of mobility practice on gym days to keep my joints healthy and my workout form on point.

Images: author’s own

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