We all know that stiff joints and tight muscles don’t feel great. They also limit our recreational activities and all the everyday things we do in our lives.
And there’s conflicting views on exactly what you should be doing to take care of your joint health. Some functional fitness experts seem to suggest we should be working on every single joint in our body every day. And others say that we don’t have to worry about it and just do our normal fitness exercises and we’ll be fine.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle of those extremes.
Instead of an either/or approach, let’s instead take a look at what “joint mobility” even means in the context of training and how to make it useful for you.
In my 20-plus years as a physical therapist, I’ve assessed joint mobility in thousands of patients and that experience gives me the opportunity to tell you quite a lot things about it. I’ll explain the definitions and technical information about joints and what affects how much they can move. But more importantly, I will provide the context that makes this information meaningful to you and your personal health and fitness.
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Why Is Joint Mobility Important?
Every physical action – or inaction – requires the coordinated control of nearly every joint in your body. You may not feel like your elbows have much to how you sit in a chair, but the elbow position affects the shoulder, which has to be balanced by other other shoulder, and that affects the neck and spine.
Having a healthy range of motion (ROM) in all the joints of your body means your body is free to move and adjust to its position in the most efficient way.
What is Joint Mobility?
Definition: The passive range of motion that occurs in the articulation between bones, measured as the total angular motion within each joint’s available degrees of freedom. For example: flexion, extension, and internal and external rotation.
But that definition is so obtuse! And it’s only helpful if you have the technical knowledge to understand its meaning.
Joint mobility refers simply to your joints’ range of motion. For example, health care professionals measure the angles of range for how far you can bend and straighten your elbow. This is a good example, because most of us have no limitations at all from elbow mobility in our regular lives – that is until you are recovering from a broken arm and have been in a cast for several weeks. It’s then that we become acutely aware of just how much of our movement we take for granted.
For a more common functional example, how far can you reach your hand up before your shoulder tightens up? When does your shoulder stop you when you try to scratch a spot in your back? Those motions are limited by your shoulder mobility.
The term joint mobility is a technical definition for taking standard measurements for physical rehabilitation professionals so they can objectively assess how well a person is progressing. Your shoulder goes into flexion 160 degrees, or your hip extends 5 degrees.
There are various sources of normative ranges of motion (ROM) that tell us what each joint in your body should have. They were generally tabulated from the average measurements of who were deemed healthy individuals across various age ranges.
How Much Joint Mobility Do You Need?
These normal ranges of motion in these medical texts are akin to the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of nutrients. They represent the minimal amounts so you don’t die of scurvy or rickets and other such diseases of deficiency.
Similarly, normal ROMs approach the minimums for our daily activities such as getting up and down into chairs and getting dressed.
So for us, it makes more sense and is more meaningful when we think of our ability to get into positions and the quality of our movement in doing so. Crouching down to reach under our kitchen sink, reaching up into our tallest cabinets, maneuvering under the crawlspace of our house. Which of these are particularly challenging for you?
Simple, Real-Life Joint Mobility Diagnostic
You don’t need years of training to determine whether or not limited joint mobility is an issue for you.
Just ask yourself some simple questions:
- Are there movements or positions where you feel your body tightening up and holding you back?
- What body area is stopping you from doing these things? Our hips, shoulders?
- What motions are you having the most trouble with? Rotating, bending forward/backward?
Answering these questions gives us much more relatable and useful information than someone telling us that our knees only flex to 120 degrees, or that our shoulder internal rotation is just 55 degrees.
Also we all have different needs. Normal range of motion is good enough for quite a lot of us during our regular daily lives. But what if your chosen sport/favorite recreational activity requires your hip flexion to be what a doctor would consider supranormal?
In tennis your ability to deeply lunge and return that serve could mean the difference between winning and losing, so you definitely want to develop that! That’s a pretty good example of how a little bit more range of motion than “normal” would improve your enjoyment of the game.
If you notice the stiffness interfering with your normal chores or activities your enjoy, it should be obvious that you need to do something about that.
Some form of joint mobility exercise is an essential part of fitness training. It should be included within and coordinated along with your other training for strength, flexibility, and body control.
What Factors Affect Joint Mobility?
It can be helpful to think of the factors as fitting into two primary categories:
- Joint and surrounding tissue anatomy
- The nervous system
Joint and Tissue Anatomy Factors in Mobility
- The shape of the joint. The characteristics of how the joint is formed and this variability between individuals plays a role.
- The pliability of joint tissues such as the joint capsule, ligaments, and tendons.
- The pliability of muscle, fascia, nerve, and other tissues associated with the particular joint.
Nervous System Factors in Mobility
- Joint receptors that tell our brains about spatial conditions
- Muscle stretch reflexes which tell our brains when muscles are being lengthened
This can quickly get into some pretty complicated stuff, so we’re going to keep it very simple. The truth is that you shouldn’t need to go to medical school to stay healthy. Likewise, you don’t need to know the names of every muscle and ligament to keep your joints in good working order.
There are a lot of factors that make up how much you can move a particular body part. Some of it you were born with you might not be able to change. For example, your particular bone structure and features or your joint tissue (capsule, cartilage) pliability. While these things can and do change over your life, you don’t have a lot of control over them.
But other areas such as your muscle flexibility, your nervous system’s tolerance to stretch, and your motor control into and out of stretched positions, are all factors that you can change significantly with directed effort over time.
Understanding Joint Mobility and Stability
The strict medical concept of stability, as in a “joint instability”, concerns the actual structure of a joint. When enough damage occurs, such as torn ligaments and/or cartilage, that it compromises the proper movement of a joint.
This is different than when you see people who are very flexible or “hypermobile”, for more details on that head over to this article.
How to Improve Joint Mobility: Don’t Try to Do Too much
If you were to make “the one joint mobility routine to rule them all!”, what would it look like?
Well, it’d look terrible because just as some people need more ranges of motion in particular body areas than others, there are distinctly different motivations to do joint mobility exercises. So the one best routine simply can’t exist.
Based on your condition and needs, it will all necessarily will look different in the type of movements and how long and intensely they should be performed.
There are three major contexts within which you’d incorporate a specific joint mobility routine:
- Preparation for a specific activity
- Daily Self-Diagnostic – check in with a set of familiar movements to calibrate your physical condition
- Addressing weaknesses with a systematic plan over several weeks or months
Each of these contexts will require a different approach, so there’s no one-size solution that will do everything for all people. Keep reading for examples of all three.
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Preparation: 16 Joint Mobility Warm-Up Exercises
Put simply this is getting your body (and mind) ready for the activities ahead of you. Whether it’s a workout, a soccer match, or a dance show, preparing yourself for the activity is important for both improved performance as well as decreasing the incidence of muscle and joint strain from a lack of proper warm-up.
This time can be very valuable when we think of it as more than just getting the blood moving and warming up. It’s a chance to do a type of physical “check in” where we have an opportunity to pay attention to how our bodies are doing in the present moment. Does your shoulder feel a little wonky? Is it getting better with a few repetitions of shoulder circles? Great keep going!
But then you may discover your right knee just isn’t releasing it’s stiffness when you do some repetitions of lunging. You’ll do best to keep that at the front of your mind when you get into your activity. Ignoring that and going as hard as you can on your legs could lead to an injury that takes you off the field for a while.
The following is a sequence that Ryan created for a group to do prior to their regular training. The exercise selection had specific emphases for this particular group, but is also a great example of a full body warm-up routine.
Joint Mobility Routine Exercises:
- Backward Facing Wrist Flexor Stretch
- Forward Facing Wrist Flexor Stretch
- Backward Facing Wrist Extensor Stretch
- Closed Chain Elbow Rotations
- Quadruped Upper Spine Extension/Flexion
- Quadruped Shoulder Protraction/Retraction
- Quadruped Shoulder Circles
- Quadruped Spinal Circles
- Frog Stretch
- Quadruped Sidebending
- Lunge Rotations
- Kneeling Hamstring Stretch
- Squat Rotations
- Three Point Bridge
Daily Diagnostic Joint Mobility Routine
A regular daily joint mobility exercise routine is a great example of what we like to call a “daily check-in” for your body.
This is best performed near the start of your day by going through a few movements you’re comfortable with. Noticing anything that feels different from day to day will tell you how your body is doing, and the regularity of it lets you notice what areas consistently feel tight and what areas are usually pretty good. This kind of information is incredibly useful for recognizing patterns that may be related to stress levels, an impending illness, or just simply being run down. It also helps identify body parts that need improvement.
The trick here is to not turn this routine into anything more than a quick check.
It’s not meant to be a workout. It should be very quick and low intensity. No warm-up and no (or not much) sweating! Do it because it feels good and gives you useful information.
Here’s 4 exercises I recommend for a daily check-in, but you can feel free to pick your own.
Bonus: these feel pretty great.
What’s great about the kneeling lunge:
- Focus: Hips, Pelvis, Lumbar Spine
- Improves hip extension and rotation in crouching and lungeing and similar activities
- Improves back and pelvis stability in crouching and lungeing and similar activities
Kneeling lunge key points:
- Keep your chest tall
- Tuck your hips underneath your torso
- Start with 5 reps for 2 sets each side
Tall Kneeling Arm Raise to Side
What’s great about the tall kneeling arm raise:
- Focus: Shoulders, Back, Hips
- Improves shoulder flexion and back sidebending in all activities
- Improves hip stability in kneeling, lunging, and stooping activities
Tall kneeling arm raise key points:
- Keep your hips pushed forward
- Keep your chest tall and open
- Start with 5 reps for 2 sets each side
Quadruped Spinal Circles
What’s great about quadruped spinal circles:
- Focus: Back, Shoulders
- Improves back mobility and awareness in all activities
- Improves shoulder stability in all activities where your hands are stable (crawling, pushing)
Quadruped spinal circle key points:
- Imagine a point on your midback and make a large, horizontal circle with it
- Keep your weight evenly distributed between your hands and knees
- Start with 5 reps for 2 sets in each direction
What’s great about the A-frame:
- Focus: Shoulders, Hips, Knees, Ankles
- Improves straight leg flexibility in all forward bent activities
- Improves shoulder flexibility and stability in all activities where your hands are stable (crawling, pushing)
A-frame key points:
- Lift your hips up as high as you can
- Work toward a straight line from wrists to shoulders and from ankles to hips
- Start with 5 reps for 2 sets into and out of the position
Perform repetitions of moving into and out of a slight sensation of stretch and make it quick, easy, and enjoyable!
Making a Plan to Improve Your Joint Mobility
OK, so let’s say you’ve discovered that your hips are tight, and you want to include some hip mobility work as part of your regular routine.
The primary distinction here is that joint mobility improvements require the same tactics you would apply to improving your strength and conditioning. Meaning: the training needs to provide a sufficient stimulus for the body to adapt and change, and this requires the classic exercise training prescription of progressively increasing your workload and intensity.
Whereas your preparation style joint mobility exercise and daily check-in should be the minimum to achieve your purposes and remain either static or decrease as necessary, improving your condition requires building up what you can do over time.
There are definitely temporary improvements when doing a good warm-up routine, but for lasting changes you need to have consistently higher efforts.
That being said, it doesn’t necessarily have to be of very high effort and volume, because the emphasis should be on the quality of training. Moderate efforts with high quality technique is the best formula for improving joint mobility. This takes into account the factors we talked about above (the ability to relax, nervous system stretch tolerance, specific muscle flexibility increases) which respond best to this style of training.
This work can absolutely be incorporated into whatever training you currently do, but as we’ve just outlined, it requires more time and effort than just tacking on 15 minutes of a warm-up or cool-down style sequence to your workout session. So be prepared for that, or consider devoting an entire training session towards it.
In general, significant progress at a good rate requires 3 times a week of at least a half hour session.
Characteristics of a Joint Mobility Improvement Plan
- Specific and targeted exercise for the body area and/or plane of motion. For example shoulders and spine, with motions into flexion, extension, and rotation.
- Sufficient time both in a particular exercise and the cumulative period of the training session. This is needed to effect a significant adaptive stimulus for change.
- Progression over time in either intensity, duration, or volume of the work. But think not in terms of 6 weeks but rather 6 months. Long-term mobility improvements require patience.
We can see now that there is a lot of nuance and consideration towards the incorporation of joint mobility work into your training routines. Much more than just saying “add these special best mobility exercises for 10 minutes at the end of your workout!”
Just as with many other things, beware of the quick and easy solutions.
Well planned training programs and systems should have all of these details we’ve discussed in mind, and we’re definitely not the only company out there doing so.
How to Incorporate Joint Mobility Exercise into a Training Program
We’ve never considered joint mobility exercise as “it’s own thing”, because it shouldn’t be either an afterthought or the main driver of a complete physical fitness program. Rather, it should always be incorporated into programs in the different ways outlined above. Whether in the preparation, assessment, or improvement categories.
All of our programs include specific joint preparation for each session, and some of them bake more joint mobility exercises into the main movements and exercises.
As you’ve seen above, there should always be a context and a reasoning for the joint mobility exercises you choose to incorporate into your training.
What do you really want to get out of doing them? For what purpose and for what body areas?
If you have a routine you like that lacks joint mobility exercise, the joint routine video above is a great starting point.
If you’re looking for a more complete approach to full-body mobility that covers all your major joints and ROM for the most important movement patterns, you’ll want to check out our new GMB Mobility program.
Build Flexibility That Actually Helps You Move
GMB Mobility is a guided program that improves your total body mobility. You’ll resolve restrictions so you can finally move and perform your best.