Saturday, October 27, 2012

So Many Mobility Exercises So Little Time. Which Ones Should You Do?

There are hundreds of mobility exercises, and some are better than others. With limited time, which ones should you do? Which ones will achieve the most in the time available? A quick straw poll amongst the trainer and coaches I know, revealed the following three to be our current favourites.

Of course, these aren't the only mobility exercises or drills we do and depending on your individual needs, injuries and goals there may be better choices for you. With that caveat in mind, here are three mobility exercises you or your clients should try.

Cat Camel

Why Should You Do This?

If like most people you spend much of your day sitting, or driving or stuck in one position your back gets glued up and stuck. The cat/ camel can provide some active flexibility for the back with minimal loading. It is often a starting point for people with back pain. It is proven to reduce the viscosity (makes it less glued up and reduces friction) in the spine & torso (McGill, 2002 & 2007). Before you work out or anytime during the day when you have been stuck in one position jump down and do some cat camels to get the back moving more efficiently. The beauty of the cat camel is just about everyone can do it

How To Do It

On all fours, hands under shoulders, knees under hips. Then get the whole spine to move up and down - neck, middle back and lower back. Note this is not a stretch, in the video above you can see Nathan starts with a very small range of movement. There should be no grimacing or pushing into the end part of the movement. You only need to do 6-10 of these to get the effect of reducing viscosity in the back, there is no need to do anymore.

What Can Go Wrong?

Some people, especially those who have had or do have back pain can find it very hard to move their spine. They think they are moving their back up and down but they are not, their spine has turned into a breeze block. Look for compensation in the arms and shoulder blades. It is possible for someone to have no spinal movement and literally be bending their arms and shrugging, this has no benefit.  The person who does this is going to need extra cuing and coaching.

Also some people with sciatica may find the flexion (arching up) part of the movement increases their symptoms (McGill, 2002), they need to reduce the movement. As always, all movement should be pain free, look out for the pain face and breath holding.

Lastly, generally avoid any spine bending first thing in the morning when the back is at its stiffest and the discs have re-hydrated overnight. Otherwise, you can do this exercise any time of day.

Boot Strapper Squat

Why Should You Do This? 

I have found that this exercise is one of the quickest ways to improve someones squat depth and technique. I think Dan John probably invented it, but don't quote me on that.

There is something about the movement pattern that the body responds to. It could be because it combines a hip hinge/ deadlift movement with a squat movement. It could be because this is the way humans move when developing as babies, we generally pick weights up off the floor using a deadlift movement and when we learn to squat it is from a bottoms up position. As babies we crawl, then bear crawl and then get into a squat position and stand up.

Even if this movement has nothing to do with developmental kinesiology, it does work. I've seen clients who couldn't squat to anywhere near to parallel without knee collapse and loss of control, get to a below parallel good position squat after less than 10 repetitions of bootstrappers.

How To Do It

Grab a kettlebell by the horns, as in the video. There is something about the kettlebell shape and the way the weight pulls downwards that makes it conducive to this exercise.

Then drop into a squat position, there is a good chance you or your client will not be as mobile as Nathan is in the video clip above. Just drop as low as possible with good technique - neck neutral, lumbar spine neutral, knees pushing outwards. It's also best to do this barefoot, so you can see any compensation in the feet or ankles (trying to lift up or turn out excessively).The next stage is to push the kettlebell backwards low through your legs and push the hips up and back at the same time. You end up in a hip hinge, RDL position, again the spine is neutral, as is the neck (no cranking on the neck or looking up) and the knees are slightly bent, you should feel the tension in the hamstrings. And then slowly drop back into a squat and bring the kettlebell back up to the goblet squat position. The depth and quality of the squat should improve as you do the repetitions.

I have seen several video clips of people doing this exercise fast and for high reps, using it more as a conditioning exercise. I prefer to do it as in the video I filmed above, a smooth, controlled tempo, doing up to 10 repetitions as a mobility drill before a workout.

What Can Go Wrong?

This is one of those exercises that doesn't work well in a group training environment. You will demonstrate it, and then when you look around the class to see what people are actually doing you will cry.

Most common is for people to round their back, not hip hinge, crank their head forward and up and anything else you can think of that is wrong. Therefore, I would generally only do this exercise one to one with a client, that way you can correct and cue as needed.


As invented by Brett and Gray Cook. Hence, I have embedded their videos here as they can explain it better than me.

Most of your clients are going to look more like Brett Jones doing the exercise above. In other words, they are going to find the position hard and are going to need some props. Some might have good mobility like the video below with Gray Cook demonstrating with someone who has good mobility.

Why Should You Do This?

Did you not watch the videos above? This is going to work on your T-spine mobility, hip flexor/quad of the down leg and the lateral hip muscles of the top leg. Plus, you can work on your diaphragmatic breathing while holding the positions.

How To Do It

Like in the videos above! Most people are going to have to use some props under their knee and under their head, use whatever you have to hand, towels, yoga block, foam rollers.

What Can Go Wrong?

Some people will not be able to grab their lower leg and put it into a stretch position. In which case, a band or strap could be used, careful though, this causes some people to tense up and lose upper body positioning. These clients may be better off not trying to grab the lower leg; they should try a rib roll to begin with, just focusing on the T-spine and middle back.

Someone says they feel it in their lower back? Check the front knee/ leg position. Their hip might need more flexion and they may need that leg up on a prop to stop twist in the pelvis if they are tight in that area.

Also, look out for the pain face again. This might be a challenging mobility exercise, but you shouldn't be grimacing or holding your breath. Some people want to be martyrs and refuse to use props. Remind them this is not cheating, but actually making the movement better. No forcing, no bouncing into the movement and no pain!

Wrap Up

Try these if you haven't already done so. And if you have any mobility exercises or drills that you think are essential or should be in a program let me know.


McGill S (2002) Low Back Disorders: Evidence Based Prevention & Rehabilitation
McGill S (2007) Ultimate Back Fitness & Performance
Cook G & Jones B Kettlebells From The Ground Up DVD