This piece was written by one of our contributors; physiotherapist – Emma Wrath.
Whether you do CrossFit, love to run, simply get a little uncomfortable from sitting at your desk or after long-haul travel, these are my top five mobility exercises that everyone can do. You can incorporate them into a dynamic warm up, as part of your recovery and cool down, or as a time out at the end of your day to loosen up and feel more comfortable in your own body.
Why should we work on our mobility?
Good joint mobility is important as it allows us to achieve key functional movements such as climbing stairs, squatting to sit in a chair, or bending over to pick something up. Of course, everyone is different and your optimum mobility will depend on your lifestyle, occupation and physical activity you undertake. For example, a gymnast or athlete will have a very different idea of what their baseline mobility should be in comparison with a sedentary office worker; as too will a child compared to an elderly person. Although it’s never too late to start working on your mobility, this sedentary behaviour in the long term can take its toll on our wellbeing, posture, and in some cases may even increase your risk of injury.
The human skeleton is designed to share load and distribute force throughout the body. As a result, if one joint is struggling to perform or achieve its required range of movement, injury may occur within that joint or affect adjacent structures and tissues. As a Physiotherapist I see this commonly with reduced ankle range contributing to knee pain (1,2,3), and with reduced thoracic spine* range affecting the neck (4) and shoulders (5).
The modern world has also seen our lifestyle and habits change dramatically. Not only are we moving less, but we are also spending more time in sustained, flexion-based postures such as sitting at our desks, on the sofa, or commuting (6). In fact, individuals can be highly active and meet the government recommended 150 minutes per week of moderate physical activity, yet still be considered sedentary for most of their waking hours (7). Therefore, it has never been more important to get up, move, and reconnect with our bodies. It is also worth mentioning that at this time of year many of you may be considering starting a new activity or sport as we move into 2020. If so, your mobility will be a great place to start to help condition your body ready for new challenges ahead (especially if you’ve had a particularly inactive festive period).
*The thoracic spine is in the middle of the back and connects the neck (cervical spine) to the lower back (lumbar spine).
Taking our joints through their range and keeping them moving not only feels good but has many other beneficial physiological effects. At its simplest level, keeping our joints moving maintains the joint range whilst also stretching surrounding muscle and tissue. If you have ever broken anything or had a joint immobilised in a sling or cast, you will know how quickly our bodies can stiffen up and become uncomfortable. Movement also lubricates joints by stimulating the production of synovial fluid and increasing blood flow, thereby nourishing our joint cartilage. Furthermore, movement can help ease musculoskeletal symptoms such as arthritic stiffness and the prevalence of tension headaches, and can also be helpful during pregnancy or the postnatal period when our body is having to adapt and change.
By taking the time to check in with our body we can gain a better understanding of our strengths and weaknesses, while also increasing our body awareness. Flexibility and mobility work is also very relaxing and can help calm the mind as part of a mindfulness practice, a relaxation technique, or as an active recovery. Research is now starting to suggest that doing regular mobility and stretching exercises can also help to reduce fatigue and improve mental health (8, 9).
All of these factors can assist us in improving our wellbeing whilst also achieving a more comfortable posture and hopefully prevent injury, or manage existing symptoms.
But, before you get started right away, it is important to note that you can have too much of a good thing. Flexibility and joint mobility to a certain level reduces the risk of injuries; however, extreme flexibility may adversely affect performance and increase the risk of injuries (10). Joint mobility and flexibility needs to be balanced with good muscle and ligament strength, control and coordination. If you are diagnosed with Hypermobility Syndrome or have a connective tissue disorder, you should see your doctor or consult a Physiotherapist before starting a new fitness programme.
So here we go, here are my top 5 mobility exercises – enjoy!
My favourite stretch and one that I recommend to all of my clients. It focuses predominantly on thoracic spine rotation but also opens the shoulders as well as stretching into the lumbar spine, obliques and outer hip. Plus it feels great.
- Lie on your side with your knees bent and both arms out in front of you at shoulder height.
- Slide your top hand forwards then upwards towards the ceiling, opening through the shoulders, rotating through the ribs but keeping your hips and knees still.
- Pause to hold, take a breath, and then slowly move back to the starting position.
- Repeat around 10-20 times on each side, moving deeper into the stretch with each repetition.
*Variation: You can take your top knee and slide it onto the floor in front of you to help keep your hips anchored and to increase the intensity of the stretch.
Figure 4 Hip Opener
This figure 4 stretch helps open your hip flexors as modern life often leads us to having tight hips from prolonged sitting or as a result of our posture.
- Start on all 4s and bring your left ankle up just above your right knee, being careful to make sure it sits comfortably.
- Keeping your left ankle above your knee, slowly lie on to your front. It may feel quite awkward to start with, but try to relax into the position and allow gravity to open the hip.
- Hold the position for between 30 seconds – 2 minutes at a time, repeating once or twice each side.
- The aim is to have no more than your fists distance between the front of your hip and the floor.
*Variation: Whilst lying in the figure 4 position, try to lengthen and slide the femur of your bent knee, down away from the hip joint. You should feel your deep gluteal rotators in your bum activate.
To some, the shoulder bridge may seem like an overused exercise, but that’s for good reason. Done correctly, the bridge improves articulation through the spine and opens the front of the hips whilst engaging the hamstrings, gluteals and lower abdominals.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent, your feet hip-distance apart and with your hands down by your side, with the palms facing upwards.
- Tuck your tailbone under, flattening your lower back into the floor and slowly peel one vertebrae at a time off the floor, rolling the hips up towards the ceiling.
- Inhale to hold and as your exhale slowly roll down, one vertebrae at a time, allowing the sitting bones to return finally to the floor, ensuring you release the tailbone and return to a neutral spine.
- Repeat 10 times.
*Variation: There are loads of different variations you can do with the shoulder bridge. One of my favourites is to simply move your feet further away from you, increasing the load through the proximal hamstring. Another great one is to sustain your shoulder bridge hold whilst calf raising or adding upper body work with weights or a resistance band.
Thread the Needle
This is another favourite of mine for increasing thoracic rotation whilst opening and engaging the shoulders.
- Start on all 4s with your hands positioned in line with your shoulders and your knees under your hips.
- Take your left hand and cross it under your body, bending your right arm, reaching as far as you can.
- When you can’t reach any further, draw the left arm back but continue taking that arm all the way up to the ceiling, looking up towards the ceiling and the palm of your hand, whilst lifting out of the right arm.
- Repeat 8-10 times on each side.
*Variation: To increase stability and engagement through the adductors and hips you can add a ball squeeze between the knees. This is a great addition if you are pre or post-natal. Another great addition is a foam roller under the arm to assist the stretch.
Roll downs are a great way to tune into your body and assess where you feel tight or stiff whilst drawing attention to your spinal articulation. Roll downs also stretch out your backline (which can also be referred to as your posterior chain), which sometimes become stiff or restricted from constantly working against gravity to keep us standing and sitting tall.
- Stand with your feet hip distance apart, weight evenly spread through the whole of the feet, a small bend in the knees and shoulders relaxed with arms hanging by your side.
- Inhale, then as you exhale bring your chin to your chest and start to roll your shoulders forwards. Keeping a small bend in your knees, roll down towards the floor one vertebrae at a time, letting the arms, head and neck hang heavy.
- Hold at the bottom and gently sway the arms side to side. Shake out the head and neck to release any tension left in the upper body.
- Inhale, then as you exhale slowly start to press back up through the feet, tucking the tailbone under and rolling up one vertebrae at a time
- Repeat 8-10 times.
*Variation: Before you start, keep your legs straight and bend forwards to touch your toes, making a mental note of how far you can go. Then, from standing, take 5 minutes to roll one sole of your foot at a time on a spikey ball or tennis ball. Then repeat the test and you may be pleasantly surprised how much further you can go!
You can find easy to follow videos to all of these exercises on my Instagram page. Be sure to look out for my next article where I will be dispelling myths and explaining the difference between Pilates and Yoga, and the benefits of both.
You can learn more about Hypermobility Syndrome here.
To view the 2019 Government recommendations for physical activity here.
For more information on posture, I recommend reading the Food Medic article from Bradley Scanes’s: ‘Your posture. Does it matter?’
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