Advances in technology have largely eliminated most of the labor and activities that were once required simply to stay alive. Nevertheless, the human body was made to move, and the aches, stiffness and even pain that many people experience can be attributed to the fact that many people simply don’t move enough. Or, at the very least, they don't move in such a way that keeps the joints flexible enough to move through their full range of motion (ROM)—something that helps people maintain their independence as they age—throughout one’s life. While being mobile is something most of us take for granted when we’re young, the aging process virtually demands that we perform some type of mobility exercises to make all the things we want to do, from picking up kids to swinging a golf club, a lot easier and more enjoyable.

As a health and exercise professional, you know the importance of performing exercises that take the joints through their full ROM, but exactly how much mobility training is needed to keep the body moving as it should? When designing exercise programs, it is essential that you understand the purpose of mobility exercises and how to add them to your clients’ workouts. This article highlights the connections between mobility and movement, how it affects the ability to perform a wide range of daily activities and how to incorporate mobility training exercises into your clients’ programs.

Flexibility vs. Mobility

Generally used to enhance flexibility, static stretching is the practice of holding a targeted muscle group in an elongated position to increase its overall length. This type of training requires minimal movement and can help to reduce muscle tension, which is why it is often performed immediately after exercise as part of a cool-down. However, these movements may not necessarily enhance joint function or ROM.

Technically, flexibility refers to the ability of a joint to articulate through its structural ROM in response to muscle activity. Extensibility describes the mechanical ability of muscle and connective tissue to lengthen and shorten as joint motion is occurring. As muscle, fascia and elastic connective tissue lengthen and shorten, they control the movement of a limb through its complete ROM. Using muscles to move a limb through its entire ROM can enhance the function of individual joints; therefore, mobility, which is a combination of flexibility and extensibility, is a more appropriate term and should be thought of as the ability of the involved tissues to lengthen and shorten while controlling unrestricted joint motion.

Muscle, fascia, joint capsules and ligament endings all contain numerous sensory receptors that measure and identify pressure, movement and the rate of movement of their respective joints. Mobility exercises that feature slow, controlled movements through a complete ROM help the nervous system learn how to control motion through the degrees of freedom allowed by each individual joint. Muscle contractions are essential for enhancing mobility; as one set of muscles contracts to move a limb, the muscles on the opposite side of the joint have to lengthen to allow the motion to occur. Known as reciprocal inhibition, not only does this help improve joint motion, but it allows muscles to improve the timing of their contractions as well as the ability to generate appropriate levels of force to execute efficient, coordinated movement. This, in turn, serves to enhance mobility.

Mobility is Essential for Efficient Movement

Mobility, along with the skills of dynamic balance and coordination, is derived from the coordination of different physiological systems, primarily the central nervous system (CNS) and myofascial systems. Consistent mobility training can improve the communication between the CNS and muscles to enhance an individual’s ability to move with precision, style and grace, while simultaneously improving extensibility and joint ROM. The end result is a client who not only moves better, but also feels better.

Muscles play an important role in creating and controlling mobility; by shortening to create tension on the fascia and elastic connective tissue, muscles generate the internal forces that control movement of the skeletal system. If an exercise program didn’t include multidirectional movements, the individual’s muscle, fascia and elastic connective tissues could lose the ability to efficiently store and release mechanical energy. For this reason, mobility is an essential component of an exercise program because it helps to ensure that muscle, fascia and connective tissue remain pliable and elastic to allow joints to articulate through their full ROM.

Movement Enhances Mobility

The human body functions most efficiently when performing movement patterns that coordinate movement among a series of muscles and joints as opposed to isolation exercises that treat the body as a collection of individual parts. Mobility exercises should be based on how the body is designed to move by using the primary movement patterns to take joints through their complete ROM. These include squatting; lunging or other single-leg exercises- pushing (both forward and overhead); pulling (both from the front and overhead); and rotation. Many traditional gym exercises involve lifting a weight up and down in a linear motion or simply pushing or pulling a lever on a machine; the human body, however, is designed to move and the primary movement patterns listed in the box below occur in almost every activity we do, whether playing a sport, doing chores or simply taking a walk. Teaching clients exercise programs based on these movement patterns means improving their mobility and coordination, which are two important factors that are often overlooked in exercise programs.

Primary Movement Patterns

  • Bend-and-lift movements include any hip-dominant movement on both legs, such as deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, squats and kettlebell swings.
  • Single-leg movements include any movement on a single leg or alternating between both legs, such as step-ups, lunges, split-leg squats and single-leg squats.
  • Pushing movements occur in four directions—forward, overhead, lateral and downward—and include movements such as push-ups, shoulder presses, chest presses, moving from a side-lying to a side bridge position and triceps push-downs.
  • Pulling movements include any movement toward the body from a position located either overhead or in front of the body, such as bent-over rows, biceps curls and uppercuts.
  • Rotational movements occur when the thoracic spine or pelvis are moving in a rotational direction, either one at a time, in the same direction or in opposite directions. This includes, for example, the way the shoulders and pelvis counter-rotate when walking or running, rotational chopping patterns and rotational lifting patterns.

Mobility in Our Daily Lives

Consider many of the chores and tasks performed throughout the course of normal daily life as athletic activities. It’s worth noting that all muscles and joints are required to work together to carry or move an object from one place to another through gravity, not simply against it. Programming specific exercises to enhance mobility could help clients to perform a wide range of daily activities more effectively.

Muscle activation during the primary movement patterns improves the ability of opposing muscles to contract and relax to facilitate movement, which is essential for improving mobility. One goal of program design should be to have clients perform the primary movement patterns often enough so that they become reflexive. This means that the client can flawlessly execute the movements without any conscious thought.

Carrying loads such as groceries, laundry or even young children is the type of tasks frequently performed in daily life but is often omitted from traditional exercise programs. Helping clients improve mobility as well as the ability to control movement through a ROM without having to consciously think about the task being performed makes accomplishing many activities of daily living much easier.

Balancing Forces That Enter the Body  

Exercise is a function of movement. Movement is a function of numerous muscles working together to propel joints through their structural ROM, which requires optimal mobility. When clients are training for an activity that requires a lot of repetitive, linear movements, such as running or cycling, a low-intensity workout featuring multidirectional mobility exercises the day after a hard workout could help to promote recovery and ensure optimal function of the myofascial system.

Mobility exercises engage the sensory receptors in both the contractile and elastic tissues to fully involve the CNS to teach it positional awareness and how to control the muscle actions that move the entire body. As muscles lengthen, the muscle spindles sense the rate of length change and communicate with motor neurons to initiate muscle contractions. Mobility exercises increase neural activity within muscles, making them more effective at generating force during exercise. Muscle and fascia contain sensory nerve endings that sense tension, length change and rate of length change; the multidirectional movements of mobility training can help a client learn how to feel where their body is in space and how to control its movements.

Structure dictates function; if forces such as compression, tension, torsion or shear enter the musculoskeletal system and are not properly balanced, they could change the shape and performance of tissues. Ultimately, this could change overall joint function. Accumulated stresses from repetitive movement patterns, movements performed with poor technique, or a lack of multiplanar movement in general affect muscles on many different levels and inhibit the ability to achieve optimal performance.

Mobility exercises are a form of dynamic stretching that can help reduce soreness as well as the muscle tightness that could be a possible cause of injury. Multiplanar movements at a variety of rhythmic speeds increase heat in the body, which allows layers of fascia and muscle to slide over one another, especially when well hydrated. The myofascial network is designed to be moved in all directions at a variety of different velocities; nutrition, hydration and lifestyle factors, such as proper sleep, all affect the elasticity of the myofascial network and influence mobility.

The human skeletal system contains joint structures that either provide stability or allow mobility, which explains why mobility exercises can be performed daily. The body needs to move! Mobility exercises should move the mobile joints of the ankle, hip, thoracic spine and glenohumeral joints through their structural ROM, while the relatively stable joints of the knee, lumbar spine and scapulothoracic joints provide the foundation for that movement to occur. Table 1 highlights the location and function of each of these joints, along with strategies for increasing their mobility.

Table 1. Stability-Mobility Relationships in the Body




Mobility Strategies

The foot and ankle complex

The foot is comprised of numerous joints that help ensure proper motion. The transverse tarsal joint is located between the heel bone (calcaneus) and the bones of the mid-foot and plays an important role in helping the foot transition from a stable lever to a mobile force dissipator.


The ankle is composed of the distal tibia and fibula , the far end of the two bones in the lower leg, and the talus bone between the far ends of the tibia and fibula.

The foot and ankle function together during the gait cycle of walking or running. The foot transitions from being mobile when it hits the ground to a stable structure once the heel raises off the ground. As the body passes over the foot the transverse tarsal joint creates a stable lever for propulsion which helps create force for the next phase of the gait cycle.


The ankle is most mobile when the foot is on the ground as the body passes over it during the mid-stance phase of the gait cycle.

Reduce tightness in the calf muscles

Moving the foot in multiple directions during exercises such as lunges allows it to maintain optimal mobility in its many joints

When possible, enhance dorsiflexion by stretching the calf muscles in the motion of top-down dorsiflexion. For example, do a standing calf stretch, put the right foot near the wall and extend the left leg. Keep the left heel pressed to the floor while slowly driving the knee forward to lengthen the tissues. Hold the stretch for 5 to 8 seconds, relax and then move to the new range of motion. Repeat three to five times, then switch legs.


The knee is the connection between the lower end of the thigh bone (femur), the upper portion of the tibia bone in the lower leg, and the patella, or kneecap.

The knee is a relatively stable joint that helps control motion between the segments of the upper and lower leg

Reduce tightness of calf muscles to allow for proper range of motion of the foot and ankle complex.

Reduce tightness in quadriceps and lateral hip muscles to allow optimal function between the hip and knee.


The hip connects the femur bone of the thigh with the pelvis.

The hip allows mobility in three planes of motion during the gait cycle of walking or running. A loss of motion in any one of these three planes affects successive segments within the chain, causing joints that should be stable to allow for greater mobility.

Reduce tightness in the hip flexors to ensure optimal mobility and function of the hips.



Lumbar spine

The lumbar spine (lower back) consists of five vertebrae in the lower part of the spine, between the ribs and the pelvis.

The lumbar spine creates a platform of stability between the mobile joints of the hips and the intervertebral segments of the upper spine.


Core stabilization exercises are effective for improving strength of the muscles responsible for stabilizing the spine so other joints can experience their optimal range of motion.

Thoracic spine

The thoracic spine consists of 12 vertebrae and is located in the upper and middle part of the back.

The thoracic spine allows mobility for rotation as the arms swing forward and backward during the gait cycle. The intervertebral segments of the cervical and thoracic spine, the neck and mid-back, respectively, allow most of the motion for rotation of the spine, while the structures of the lumbar spine are designed to move primarily forward and backward.

If the muscles that surround and control the intervertebral segments of the thoracic spine become tight, they can restrict rotation of the upper back, which, in turn, could cause low-back pain. The cat-camel and child’s pose stretches can help reduce tension in upper-back muscles to allow natural motion from the thoracic spine.

Shoulder blades

The scapulothoracic joints are where the shoulder blades sit on the thoracic spine of the mid- and upper-back

The scapulothoracic joints create a stable platform for movement of the shoulder and arm.

If chest muscles become too tight, they can pull the shoulder blades forward, which restricts shoulder mobility. This can also be a potential cause of back pain. The large latissimus dorsi muscle attaches to the upper arms and, when tight, causes internal rotation of the shoulders and restricts overall mobility. Stretching the pectoralis major and biceps brachii muscles can help reduce tension to allow greater mobility in the glenohumeral joints. 

Shoulder joint

The glenohumeral joints are where the head of the humerus, relatively the shape of a ball, rests on the glenoid fossa of the scapula, which creates a socket or cup

One of the most mobile joints in the body, the glenohumeral joint allows multidirectional movement of the arm.


Mobility Exercises Promote the Post-workout Recovery Process

While high-intensity exercise stimulates adaptions in muscles and physiological systems, lower-intensity workouts can be a part of the post-exercise recovery process to help alleviate any discomfort the day after a really hard workout. Low-to-moderate intensity mobility workouts can also help reduce muscle tightness and improve blood flow after a long day of limited movement, like being stuck in meetings or sitting in a car or plane.

Low-to-moderate intensity exercise, like many body-weight movements that enhance mobility, can increase circulation, which helps to promote a complete recovery the day after a hard workout when the body is still in repair mode. Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) can occur the day after high-intensity exercise, and a client might experience some discomfort when they first start moving. That soreness, however, is an indication that their muscles are repairing themselves and mobility exercises can serve to reduce the soreness more quickly than if they were to take a complete rest day. DOMS can be attributed to the normal tissue repair process and accompanying immune system activity that occurs after high-intensity exercise. This process causes inflammation in the muscles used in the previous day’s workout. This inflammation, in turn, places pressure on the nociceptors, which are the nerve endings responsible for sensing pain (hence the discomfort). In addition, elevating the heart rate to increase circulation could help remove the metabolic byproducts resulting from high-intensity muscle contractions, while delivering fresh oxygen and nutrients to replace muscle energy stores. In this case, mobility exercises can function as a form of pain reliever, while promoting regeneration and growth of the tissues used in exercise.

How Aging Affects Mobility

Here’s a little insight about mobility: If it is not used, it will be lost. What happens when a car sits unattended? It falls apart! The same thing happens to the human body. If the muscles and joints aren’t used in the ways they’re designed to, they could stop functioning properly, which increases the risk of an injury. However, exercises that move the body in multiple directions can help ensure optimal mobility so tissues and joints can function when required.

Arthritis and musculoskeletal injuries such as sore low backs or injured shoulders are examples of chronic health conditions that can occur during the aging process. These injuries generally affect a person’s ability to move efficiently and are often a source of frequent pain. Movement itself can be the best medicine, but it can often be a little uncomfortable initially. Once a person starts moving, however, circulation increases, tissue temperatures increase and the body releases certain neurotransmitters that dull pain, which makes it more comfortable to move. If your clients can tolerate the initial discomfort of increased movement, they are more likely to feel and move a lot better in a relatively short amount of time.

As researchers learn more about how exercise influences the aging process, they are finding that individuals who maintain their fitness demonstrate both good physical health and better cognitive function. For example, one study found that older adults who performed better on mobility tests also did better on cognitive tests, a finding that is particularly significant for those who may be concerned about lowering their risk of developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease as they grow older.

Adding Mobility Exercises to Clients’ Programs

Chris Hallford is a personal trainer based in Santa Cruz, Calif. who uses mobility exercises with all his clients. He might insert them into rest intervals between higher-intensity exercises or design entire mobility-specific workouts for clients with specific needs. Likewise, Maurice Williams, a personal trainer and an assistant professor of kinesiology at Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tenn., programs mobility exercises into clients’ warm-ups, cool-downs and rest intervals. Like Hallford, Williams also designs entire mobility workouts for clients who need to focus on improving joint ROM.

Like the personal trainers just mentioned, Amber Toole Sanford, a group fitness instructor and studio owner in Ocala, Fla., is also a fan of mobility exercises, and inserts them at the end of her classes. “We believe in blending mobility sequences and stretching at the end of a workout class, [as] it helps our students to leave feeling relaxed after working hard,” explains Toole Sanford. In addition, she designs entire classes to enhance mobility for her members, many of whom are over the age of 40.

Low-intensity Mobility Workout

The sample mobility program presented below and in the video that follows illustrates how to organize low-intensity body-weight exercises into an effective workout that enhances mobility. The purpose of this workout is to enhance mobility in the hips and thoracic spine, two of the most mobile regions of the body. Loss of mobility in these segments could significantly impact the low back and knees and be a potential source of injury.

Have your clients perform this workout as a circuit, transitioning from one movement to the next with as little rest as possible. At the end of the circuit, have them rest for 60 to 90 seconds before repeating the entire series two to three more times.



Offset quadruped rocking

10–12 on each side

Hip circles

10–12 in each direction

Glute bridges


Offset kneeling hip stretch with rotation

5–8 on both sides

Kneeling thoracic spine rotation

5–8 on both sides

Lateral step with thoracic rotation

5–8 on both sides

Transverse lunge with reach for ground

5–8 on both sides

Hinge to squat

10–12 repetitions



Mobility exercises may not provide the necessary stimulus for muscle growth, but they can help improve overall muscle function. And on days when clients are feeling tired or fatigued, they will be surprised at how a low-intensity mobility workout can recharge their batteries and boost energy levels. Once your clients start a mobility workout, they will likely start feeling better almost immediately and, before long, will be moving better, which is essential for helping them reach their fitness goals.


Expand Your Knowledge

ACE Corrective Exercise Specialist Program

The ACE Corrective Exercise Specialist Program presents critical foundational knowledge of functional anatomy, allowing you to gain a deeper understanding of how anatomy and biomechanics apply to function. Learn to create safe and effective programs using assessment considerations and identify appropriate exercises that can be immediately put into practice, enabling your clients to confidently resume their daily activities.

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While some clients have aesthetic and performance goals, many may want help alleviating aches and pains so they can feel empowered in other areas of their lives. Whether it’s joint pain, chronic pain or injury, the Corrective Exercise Training Essentials course bundle will give you the strategies you need to help clients safely and effectively move and feel better with corrective exercise.

The Fundamentals of Corrective Exercise

This course was created to give health and exercise professionals a framework to create a successful corrective exercise program. Learn the elements of corrective exercise, how to select and adapt exercises to meet the needs of each client, and how to coach each technique effectively. With these techniques, you will help alleviate muscle and fascia restrictions, increase mobility and range of movement, build strength and promote pain-free functional movement within your clients.