Most calisthenics exercises require mobility that is above average. Besides that, having stellar mobility ensures that you can actually use all that strength you acquired during your training. But which mobility drills are the right ones for you? What’s the best mobility routine?
What Are the Benefits of Doing Mobility Drills?
Simple: Moving better. Moving freely. You are only as strong as your weakest link. So what’s all that pure strength good for if you can’t apply it in the real world? If you can do 20 one-arm push-ups, but can’t throw a ball without tearing out your shoulders, what is it good for?
Real functional strength means you can do everything you want with your body, even under difficult circumstances (load-bearing, odd positioning, limited space). If you deconstruct the word itself (move-ability), it’s simply describing your ability to move.
It’s not the same as flexibility, though. We can call mobility your active range of motion (ROM) and flexibility the passive ROM. Safe, injury-free movement requires active ROM, because when was the last time you suddenly had to drop down into a full split?
To summarize: Increasing your active ROM (i.e. mobility) makes your strength more applicable in the real world, promotes safe movement and joint health. All things you’re going to love if you’ve done any kind of sport over a significantly long time span.
What Mobility Drills Should I Do?
I’m a big fan of the specificity principle, which means doing things to specifically solve a problem rather than doing something just for the sake of it. So the answer is: Work on mobility issues that limit your ability to do the stuff you want. Right now, that’s handstands for me.
Our habit of sitting too often for too long causes some common issues:
- Inactive glutes (because you’re numbing them by sitting on them)
- Tight hip flexors (constantly flexed during sitting)
- Tightness around the thoracic spine (caused by the hunched over position. Usually goes along with tight shoulders, inactive lats and overactive pecs).
Chances are, at least one – if not all, to a certain degree – of these issues are causing you trouble when you move. So picking mobility drills that work on hip mobility, glute activation, spinal rotation and shoulder opening will give you the most benefits.
Instead of doing a list post called “51 Mobility Drills for blabla …”, I decided to give you a simple template that you can use to build your own routine. Throughout my academic life, I hated memorizing things for tests. I rather tried to understand the principles behind them to come up with my own solution.
The principles behind building your own mobility routine are quite simple:
- Joints love circles
- Extend active ROM over time
- Movement bases
We are going to deconstruct these principles by first looking at the positions I call movement bases.
I’m guessing you’re familiar with this one. It’s the most common starting position when humans initiate movement. Standing is excellent because it’s the easiest of the movement bases. Thus, most mobility drills are easy to do in this position and you can cover a lot of joints.
Stand tall but relaxed. Try to keep a good posture during the drills. Feet can be placed hip width, shoulders are relaxed but not hunched forward.
Now we can apply principle #1: Joints love circles. Max Shank, movement and strength genius, covers this in his book Ultimate Athleticism (not an affiliate link. It’s just an awesome book). While standing, simply be aware of the joints in your body. The human body has 170 joints. These are the ones that come to mind for the average lay person:
With all those joints, you can draw circles. Rotating your arms is beneficial for shoulder joint health, head rotations can be good for the joints in your neck and so forth. It’s important to do the rotations in a controlled manner. No swinging. It doesn’t have to be super slow (although that can be good, too). Just make sure you are in control of the movement (it’s called active ROM) and not inertia.
I find circling with my arms especially helpful in improving shoulder health. I always do these prior to pull-ups.
Squatting is another natural resting position of human creatures. Yet many western people cannot get into this position comfortably or get into it at all.
Ever watched a toddler pick something up? They squat down! They’re not even thinking about it. Most people lose their natural squatting ability by sitting too much (tight hips). And then it’s “use it or lose it”. Because this position gets uncomfortable for people, nobody uses this essential move anymore. Movement vicious cycle!
Work on this by slowly transitioning from standing to squatting and then back up again (have a look at my primer on bodyweight squats, as well). Hold on to something (table, dresser, sink, etc.) to help you get into the position if you have to. In the beginning, just try to stay in this position for as long as possible.
When you can simply rest in a squat (when your hamstrings touch your calves), you can work on initiating movements from this new movement base. In the video above, I do some spinal rotations, open up the hips a bit more by “peaking” under my feet and just play around with it.
Owning this position makes learning the pistol squat much, much easier.
Lunges are perfect because they address asymmetrical movement. Simply leaning into the lunge is great because it stretches the hip flexor, quadriceps and lower abs on the kneeling side while releasing hip flexor tension and working on ankle mobility on the other side. In the beginning, just rock back and forth. Then include some rotational movement or work on transitioning between standing on one leg, then on the other.
Great for shrimp squats, pistols and also the back bridge.
On All Fours
In this position, both hands and both feet are in contact with the ground initially. This is yet another great time to do some circles, especially with your spine, shoulders and wrist.
From here, you can go into the infamous downward facing dog, transition into bridge variations (glute activation) or the upward facing dog and do some rotations there.
Great for core activation and shoulder stability prior to push-ups and handstands.
Putting It Together
Seeing all the possible ways to work on your mobility can be intimidating. Do you have to copy everything I do in the videos above? No. That wasn’t the point.
Pick one base. Let’s start with standing, because it’s the most straightforward. Now just explore all joints you have and make circles. The next time, explore the lunge position. Then work on transitioning between the two bases.
Doing this in an unscripted way is the key to doing this consistently, on a regular basis. In every session, you might explore some other move that just feels good. Slowly, over time, you will build up your movement arsenal. You will naturally stick to some of the moves (your staples) while sneaking in some experimental moves here and there. It’s supposed to be fun.
For inspiration, Max Shank initiated a great social following of the #5minuteflow. Go on Facebook or Instagram and watch him (very creative stuff) and hundreds of other people demoing their 5 minutes of movement.
How Much? How Long? How Often?
The most important factor in improving your mobility is to do something regularly, ideally every day. It doesn’t have to be an hour long session, 5 minutes will suffice. Let me reiterate: Doing this daily is exponentially more effective than just 2-3 times a week.
You can also sprinkle in some mobility drills in the warm-up prior to your workout or in between strength training sets as active rest.
So, do at least 5 minutes a day. I definitely see improvements in all aspects of my training after doing this consistently. Plus, I feel awesome every morning. I don’t even need that first cup of coffee (although it’s nice to have it anyway 😉 ).
Photo credit: Sabine A
Inspiration: Max Shank’s article Change Your Life in 5 Minutes