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A Quick Reference Mobility Guide

February 12, 2008 04:00 PM

In January of 2006, my colleague Mike Robertson and I introduced a DVD known as Magnificent Mobility to address what we felt was a very pressing need for athletes and weekend warriors alike. Since then, we've received hundreds of emails from these individuals claiming improved performance, enhanced feeling of well-being, and resolution of chronic injuries after performing the drills outlined in the DVD.

Since then, Mike and I have been labeled "mobility guys" (as if it's all we do) and it feels like we've answered the same few questions hundreds of times. So, I figured that it might be good to pull together a quick reference for people who are new to our ideas — and that's where this article was born. To that end, here are some answered to the most common questions we've encountered:

What is the primary goal of mobility training?

I view it as one more avenue through which I can make an athlete more efficient. When it really comes down to it, regardless of the sport in question, the efficient athlete will always have the potential to be the best player on the court, field, ice, or track. Show me an athlete who moves efficiently, and I'll guarantee that he or she has far more physical development "upside" than his or her non-efficient counterparts.

This "upside" can simply be referred to as "trainability;" I can more rapidly increase strength, speed, agility, and muscle mass in an athlete with everything in line than I can with an athlete who has some sort of imbalance. That's not to say that the latter athlete cannot improve, though; it's just to say that this athlete would be wise to prioritize eliminating the inefficiencies to prevent injury and make subsequent training more effective. Unfortunately, most athletes fall into the latter group. Fortunately, though, with appropriate corrective training, these inefficiencies can be corrected, and you can take your game to an all-new level. Mobility work is one example of the corrective training you'll need to get the job done.

How does mobility training help corrective exercise?

When I look for dysfunction, I'm checking for "dead spots" — joints at which force is either lost (not transferred) or not generated in the first place. Generally speaking, you correct the former with more stability work, and the latter with more range of motion (ROM) work. The advantage to mobility training is that it typically incorporates both when performed correctly. For instance, an overhead lunge walk improves ROM in hip extension, dorsiflexion, thoracic extension, and humeral flexion. In order to mobilize all those joints at once, though, you have to optimize stability at the lumbar spine and scapulae.

So what's the difference between mobility and flexibility?

This is an important differentiation to make; very few people understand the difference - and it is a big one. Flexibility merely refers to range of motion - and, more specifically, passive range of motion as achieved by static stretching. Don't get me wrong; static stretching has its place, but it won't take your athleticism to the next level like mobility training will.

The main problem with pure flexibility is that it does not imply stability or readiness for dynamic tasks. When we move, we need to have something called "mobile-stability." This basically means that there's really no use in being able to get to a given range of motion if you can't stabilize yourself in that position. Believe it or not, excessive passive flexibility without mobility (or dynamic flexibility, as it's been called) will actually increase the risk of injury! And, even more applicable to the discussion at hand, passive flexibility just doesn't carry over well to dynamic tasks; just because you do well on the old sit-and-reach test doesn't mean that you'll be do much of anything except impress a 1970s gym teacher.

Lastly, extensive research has shown that prolonged static stretching before a practice or competition will actually make you slower and weaker. Don't get me wrong; static stretching has its place, but for all intents and purposes, if I can do five three-second mobilizations, I'll take them over a 15-second static stretch anyday.

So what is mobility training?

It's a class of drills designed to take your joints through full ranges of motion in a controlled, yet dynamic context. It's different from ballistic stretching (mini-bounces at the end of a range of motion), which is a riskier approach that is associated with muscle damage and shortening. In addition to improving efficiency of movement, mobility (dynamic flexibility) drills are a great way to warm-up for high-intensity exercise — be it lifting, sprinting, or any of a number of athletic endeavors.

How can mobility training directly impact my gains in the gym?

Mobility training makes your resistance training sessions more productive by allowing you to train through a full range of motion.

We all know that lifting weights improves athletes' performance and reduces their risk of injury. However, very few people realize the importance of being able to lift through a full range of motion. Training through a full range of motion will carry over to all partial ranges of motion, but training in a partial range of motion won't carry over to full ranges of motion.

For example, let's assume Athlete A does 1/4 squats. He'll only get stronger in the top 1/4 of the movement, and his performance will really only be improved in that range of motion when he's out in the real world.

Now, Athlete B steps up to the barbell and does squats through a full range of motion; his butt is on his heels. Athlete B is going to get stronger through the entire range of motion - including the top portion, like Athlete A, but with a whole lot more. It goes without saying that Athlete B will be stronger than Athlete A "globally" — meaning that he'll be more prepared for whatever he encounters.

Also worthy of note is that lifting weights through a full range of motion will stimulate more muscle fibers than partial repetitions, thus increasing your potential for muscle mass gains. If you're looking to gain muscle mass, the majority of your lifting should be done through a full range of motion - and mobility training will help you improve the ROM on each rep.

Can mobility training actually improve posture?

Absolutely — and it can improve performance in the process! I like to use the example of basketball players to illustrate my point.

If you watch some of the best shooters of all time, you'll notice that they always seem to be in the perfect position to catch the ball as they come off a screen to get off a jump shot. Great modern examples of this optimal body alignment are Ray Allen and Reggie Miller; their shoulders are back, chest is out, eyes are up, and hands are ready. The catch and shot is one smooth, seemingly effortless movement.

By contrast, if you look at players with rounded shoulders, they lack the mobility to get to this ideal position as they pop off the screen. After they receive the ball, they need to reposition themselves with thoracic extension ("straightening up") just so that they can get into their shooting position. This momentary lapse is huge at levels where the game is played at a rapid pace; it literally is the difference between getting a shot off and having to pass on the shot or, worse yet, having it swatted away by a defender. These athletes need more mobility in the thoracic spine and lats. They also tend to be "stuck" in cervical spine extension (forward head posture) because they spend so much time looking down on people!

As another example, one problem you'll see in basketball guys is excessive range-of-motion at the lumbar spine to compensate for a lack of range of motion at the hips. Ideally, we want a stable spine and mobile hips to keep our lower backs healthy and let the more powerful hip-joint muscles do the work. If we can't get that range of motion at our hips, our backs suffer the consequences. Believe it or not, I've actually heard estimates that as much as 60% of the players in the NBA have degenerative disc disease. While there are likely many reasons (unforgiving court surface, awkward lumbar hyperextension patterns when rebounding, etc.) for this exorbitant number, a lack of hip mobility is certainly one of them. Get mobility at your hips, and you'll protect that lower back!

Factor in that they all tape their ankles and wear high-top sneakers, and you've got a recipe for poor ankle mobility and excessive pronation.

Can mobility training reduce the risk of injury?

Sure. It's not uncommon at all to see athletes get injured when they're out of position and can't manage to right themselves. If we get range of motion in the right spots, we're less likely to be out of position, so we won't have to hastily compensate with a movement that could lead to an ankle sprain or ACL tear.

Likewise, as an interesting add-on, one study found that a softball team performing a dynamic flexibility routine before practices and competition had significantly fewer injuries than a team that did static stretching before its games (1).

So what's so bad about static stretching?

As I said above, I still think it has a place. It's good for when you aren't in a position to supervise someone during ROM training, and obviously has utility early-on in physical therapy when tissues are too weak to handle dynamic tasks.

Believe it or not, though, research has demonstrated that if you do prolonged static stretching right before you exercise, it'll actually make you weaker and slower. I know it flies in the face of conventional warm-up wisdom, but it's the truth!

Research has shown that compared with a static stretching program, dynamic flexibility drills can improve your sprinting speed (2), agility (3), vertical jump (3-6), and dynamic range of motion (1) while reducing your risk of injury. Pretty cool stuff, huh?

I've heard that improving mobility can immediately improve performance; is that true?

Absolutely. If you're locked up in your hip flexors, you won't jump as high or sprint as fast because you can't get full hip extension and won't be able to optimally make use of the powerful gluteal muscles.

Need further proof? I've seen several athletes instantly add as much as two inches on their vertical jump just from stretching the hip flexors and lats before they test. This is an acute change in muscle length, though; mobility training will enable you to attain these ranges of motion all the time.

How frequently do I need to do these drills?

The answer to that question depends on a lot of factors, most notably:

1. How poor is your mobility now?


2. Are you mobile or sedentary during your daily life?

If you are someone who spends all day at a computer, you'd respond well to doing daily (or even several times a day) mobility sessions. If you're someone who is always moving (i.e., competitive athlete), you can likely just incorporate it into your warm-ups.

I also like to note that just as important as ROM is soft tissue quality, so self-myofascial release and massage therapy are both crucial parts of what we do.

I have heard the word "activation" paired with mobility; what is activation?

In our daily lives and on the basketball court, it's inevitable that we get stuck in certain repetitive movement patterns - things we do every day, several times a day. With these constant patterns, certain muscles will just "shut down" because they aren't being used. Two good examples would be the glutes (your butt muscles) and the scapular retractors (the muscles that pull your shoulder blades together). As a result, these shutdowns lead to faulty hip positioning and rounded shoulders, respectively (and a host of other problems, but we won't get into that).

To correct these problems, we need what is known as activation work. These drills teach dormant muscles to fire at the right times to complement the mobility drills and get you moving efficiently. We might do supine bridges for the glutes, or scapular wall slides for the lower traps. Mike and I went to great lengths in Magnificent Mobility to not only outline mobility drills, but also activation movements and movements that incorporate components of both.

Closing Thoughts

While the questions and answers above are certainly not exhaustive, I hope that they've given you an appreciation for the benefits dedicated mobility training can offer to athletes and non-athletes alike.

About the Author

Eric Cressey is a highly sought-after strength and conditioning coach and owner of Cressey Performance, with locations in Hudson and Framingham, Massachusetts. Eric has worked with athletes of all levels, from youth sports to the professional and Olympic levels. Feel to contact him and sign up for his free newsletter at, and check out his daily updates at

Eric co-produced Magnificent Mobility and the Building the Efficient Athlete 8-DVD set. He is also the author of The Ultimate Off-Season Training Manual. For more information on these products, click HERE.


1. Mann, DP, Jones, MT. Guidelines to the implementation of a dynamic stretching program. Strength Cond J. 1999;21(6):53-55.

2. Nelson AG, Kokkonen J, Arnall DA. Acute muscle stretching inhibits muscle strength endurance performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2005 May;19(2):338-43

3. Kurz, T. Science of Sports Training. Stadion, 2001.

4. Young WB, Behm DG. Effects of running, static stretching and practice jumps on explosive force production and jumping performance. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2003 Mar;43(1):21-7.

5. Thompson, A, Kackley, T, Palumbo, M, Faigenbaum, A. Acute effects of different warm-up protocols on jumping performance in female athletes. 2004 New England ACSM Fall Conference. 10 Nov 2004.

6. Colleran, EG, McCarthy, RD, Milliken, LA. The effects of a dynamic warm-up vs. traditional warm-up on vertical jump and modified t-test performance. 2003 New England ACSM Fall Conference. 11 Nov 2003.