The 8 Best Mobility Exercises for When Your Body Feels Too Tight to Function

These mobility exercises will help relieve serious tension, boost your joint health, and more.

Courtesy of Class Pass
Courtesy of Class Pass

Wrist pain, constant back aches, and tight hips may seem like a fact of life — a side effect of the 9-to-5 grind that's simply unavoidable if you hold a desk job. But it doesn't have to be this way.

In fact, practicing mobility exercises — moves that improve your ability to actively control and access your full range of motion within a joint — can help relieve all your joint discomfort and improve your daily functioning. Here, physical therapists lay out the key benefits of adding mobility exercises to your routine and demonstrate specific moves to relieve tension in any joint. 


The Benefits of Mobility Exercises

First things first, a quick anatomy lesson. All joints in your body need to be mobile, but some — the hips, thoracic spine, ankles, wrists, and glenohumeral joints (which connect your arm and shoulder) — require more mobility than others (think: the lumbar spine), which favor stability. The reason: Those joints are often called upon to complete everyday movements (such as squatting to the ground or twisting your torso to grab a pen off the counter), according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). In turn, keeping those joints in tip-top shape by practicing mobility exercises helps ensure you can perform basic movement patterns with ease, says Clinton Lee, P.T., D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a physical therapist and the founder and owner of PhysioStrength in New York City.

Just as importantly, keeping your mobility up to snuff can help ensure you stay injury-free. Without enough mobility, you may compensate your movement patterns when performing complex exercises, which can lead to muscle imbalances and a higher risk of injury, according to ACE. In fact, research suggests that having a decreased range of motion during hip abduction is linked with future lower-body injuries. Plus, “if you have poor mobility and you're trying to get back into the gym, lift heavier than normal, or start something [such as] sprints, [and] if you don't have that actual control over the range of motion, you're definitely gonna be at a higher risk of injuring yourself.” explains Bethany Cook, P.T., D.P.T., S.C.S., C.S.C.S., a physical therapist and the founder and owner of Be Free MIAMI.

To top it off, mobility exercises can improve joint health and resiliency. Since joints don’t receive any nutrient-rich blood, they rely on movement to bring in synovial fluid, a thick liquid that’s primary role is to reduce friction, says Cook. “Movement almost flushes your joint,” she adds. “So what happens is you're getting rid of inflammation and then the new fluid that's coming to the joint is what's gonna bring the nutrients to nourish it.”


What Causes Limited Mobility?

Simply moving your body too infrequently (read: not hitting the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ weekly recommendation of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity) can limit your mobility, says Lee. This is a form of mechanical tightness, in which your muscles are in a shortened position and thus may not be able to work through a full range of motion around a joint, adds Cook. That said, this type of tension can also develop due to surgery, injury, and even individual anatomy, she says.

Neurological tightness — which often develops post-injury — can also be to blame. In this case, your brain is telling your body not to use its full range of motion since injuries usually occur at the end of that range, says Cook. Essentially, your body is trying to prevent you from re-injuring yourself. But mobility exercises can help your body re-learn that it’s safe to fully move your joints in all directions, she adds.

The Best Exercises for Full-Body Mobility

If you’re ready to start correcting any range-of-motion limitations you have, pick a few of the mobility exercises below, which are recommended and demonstrated by Cook, that target your desired muscle groups and joints. Aim to do your chosen exercises a couple of times a week, such as during a warm-up routine or on active recovery days, suggests Cook. For example, you might do a few controlled articular rotations (CARs) and a 90/90 hip series to open up the hips before your squat-heavy workout, she says. (P.S. Hip mobility issues could be preventing you from reaching your desired squat depth.)

As you perform the mobility exercises, remember to take your time and avoid rushing through the moves. “You're trying to reset your brain and let it know it's safe to move through that full range,” says Cook. “So you really wanna be going through the motion slow and controlled.” And on your second set, increase the neurological tension by pretending you’re slowly moving through cement, she suggests. “That’s going to [involve] a greater contraction of all your muscles at that point, so you're really nourishing the joint,” she adds.

No matter which mobility exercises you choose, you’ll feel less tight almost instantly. If you’re practicing them regularly, you'll generally see a noticeable improvement in your range of motion in a week or two, says Cook. But if you’re still struggling to enhance your mobility, reach out to a physical therapist or another health-care provider who can properly assess you and help you address your limitations.

Wrist CARs

Dealing with wrist pain after a long day of pounding your keyboard? Practice a few CARs, a type of mobility exercise that involves actively moving your joint through its full range of motion, says Cook. “That's one of the best ways you can really assess your restrictions in your body and also send that signal to your brain [saying], ‘Hey, please prioritize these tissues to be nourished, remodeled, and repaired,” she explains. “Just starting to do wrist CARs and getting your joint to be more nourished, really moving through its full range can decrease that pain almost immediately.”

A. Sit in a chair or cross-legged on the floor with right arm extended in front of chest, palm closed and fist facing toward the ceiling. Hold right wrist with left hand to stabilize forearm.

B. Slowly extend fist forward so knuckles point toward the floor. Then slowly and with control, rotate wrist in a circle through its full range of motion, using left hand to keep wrist stable.

C. Reverse the movement, then do the CARs in both directions with right hand open.

Do 6 to 10 reps in both directions, with hand open and closed. Switch sides; repeat.

Wrist PAILs and RAILs

If you experience wrist pain while powering through push-ups or holding a handstand, add some wrist PAILs (aka progressive angular isometric loading) and RAILs (aka regressive angular isometric loading) to your warm-up routine, says Cook. These mobility exercises involve an isometric contraction, meaning your muscles are firing but not actively moving. “You're essentially putting one of your muscles on stretch — you're taking your joint into its end range of motion — and then you're contracting within that range of motion,” she explains.

A. Start in a table-top position on the floor with hands stacked directly under shoulders, knees bent and stacked directly under hips, and feet hip-width apart.

B. Shift weight into hands and lean forward at knees until wrists are fully extended. Hold this stretch in forearms for 30 seconds.

C. For the PAILs, press hands and fingers down into the floor for 10 seconds.

D. For the RAILs, lift fingers and palms off the floor for 10 seconds, maintaining the end range of wrist extension. That’s one rep.

Do 5 to 10 reps.

Functional Shoulder Rotations

This mobility exercise involves moving your shoulder joint through its functional range of motion, says Cook. You’ll practice movements such as reaching behind your head (which you do IRL when you’re brushing your hair) and reaching behind your lower back (which you might do to tuck your shirt into your pants).

A. Lie facedown on the floor with legs fully extended, right arm bent, and right forearm resting beneath forehead. Place left hand on back of head, squeezing a small ball or holding a fist to create tension throughout left arm. Knuckles should be facing the floor. Engage core, glutes, and legs.

B. Lift left elbow off the floor until arm is parallel with floor. Keeping shoulder raised, lift left fist off of head, then straighten arm.

C. Keeping left arm raised, slowly extend arm out to side and down toward legs, rotating shoulder as necessary, until left fist reaches hip or back. Lower left elbow to the floor. Knuckles should be facing the ceiling.

D. Slowly reverse the movement to bring fist back up to head and return to the starting position. That’s one rep.

Do 6 to 8 reps. Switch sides; repeat.

Arm Bars

This scaled-down version of a Turkish get-up is ideal for improving mobility in the shoulders and thoracic spine, says Cook.

A. Lie faceup on the floor with left leg extended, right knee bent, right foot planted on the floor, and left arm resting on the floor. Right arm is extended above shoulder, with fist pointed straight up and a kettlebell in hand, the bell resting on outside of forearm.

B. Press through right foot to slowly roll body onto left side, lifting right foot off the ground and keeping the kettlebell pressed straight above shoulder, arm vertical, and gaze on the bell.

C. Continue rolling until right knee touches the floor. Pause, then, slowly reverse movement back to return to the starting position. That's one rep.

Do 6 to 10 reps. Switch sides; repeat.

Quadruped Thread the Needle

This dynamic take on the classic yoga pose helps address thoracic spine mobility, which, when limited, can cause the lumbar spine, pelvis, and shoulders to compensate as you move, as Shape previously reported.

A. Start in a table-top position on the floor with hands stacked directly under shoulders, knees bent and stacked directly under hips, and feet hip-width apart.

B. Lift left hand off the floor and lower left shoulder down to the floor to thread left arm underneath chest and out to right side of body, rotating torso as necessary. Continue threading until left side of head touches the floor.

C. Slowly reverse the movement to return to the starting position. That’s one rep.

Do 10 reps. Switch sides; repeat.

Hip CARs

A classic hip mobility exercise, hip CARs will work your joint through its full range of motion, ensuring it's well nourished and the surrounding muscles get a good stretch.

A. Start in a table-top position on the floor with hands stacked directly under shoulders, knees bent and stacked directly under hips, and feet hip-width apart. Grip the mat to engage forearms and core.

B. Keeping knees bent at 90-degree angles and left foot flexed, lift left knee off the floor and slowly drive it a few inches toward chest.

C. Then, lift left knee out at side and up toward the ceiling until left thigh is parallel with the floor.

D. Then, externally rotate hip so that left ankle is directly above left knee, sole of foot facing the ceiling.

E. While keeping sole of foot facing the ceiling and pressing heel, bring knee back to center so left thigh is straight behind body, then lower left knee to the floor with control, landing under left hip in the starting position.

Do 5 to 10 reps. Switch sides; repeat.

90/90 Hip Series

This mobility exercise will leave your hips feeling completely free of tension, as you’ll move them in not one, but four different directions. Before you get started on the specific moves, warm up with a minute or two of Cook's suggested stretches.

Hip Stretch

A. Sit on the floor with right leg extended in front of body and left leg extended out to side. Bend both knees to roughly 90-degree angles and gently rest finger tips on the floor at sides. Right calf should be parallel with left thigh.

B. Keeping sides of feet and knees on the floor, hinge at hips and lean torso forward to stretch front of hips. Hold this position for 30 seconds.

C. Return torso to the starting position. Keeping right hand in place on the floor, lift left hand off the floor and bring it to right side to stretch back of hips. Chest should be square with right calf. Hold this position for 30 seconds.

D. Reverse the movement to return torso to the starting position.

Hip Series Movementts

E. Hinge at hips, lean torso forward, and place hands flat on the floor. Keeping left knee on floor, lift left foot as high as is comfortable. Pause, then slowly lower foot back to the floor.

F. Return torso back to the starting position. Lift left hand off the floor and extend left arm out to side so it's aligned with shoulder. Make a fist with left hand to create tension throughout body and engage core.

G. Then, lift left knee as high as is comfortable, using left toes as a pivot point. Pause, then slowly lower knee back to the floor.

H. Keeping left arm extended at shoulder height, left hand in a fist, and core engaged, lift entire left leg off the floor and bring it around to front of body so its fully extended in front of hips. Reverse the movement to return to the starting position.

I. Lower left hand back to the floor, hinge at hips, and lean torso forward slightly. Lift right leg off the floor and straighten entire leg in front of body. Reverse the movement to return to the starting position.

Do 5 to 8 reps of each movement. Switch sides; repeat.

Toe Yoga

Thanks to footwear, your feet may not get a chance to work through their full ranges of motion very often, says Cook. But practicing a bit of toe yoga can help loosen them up. If you’re not able to move your toes separately just yet (you’ll likely need to work on your mind-body connection for that), hold down the toes that aren’t moving during each exercise.

A. Sit on the floor with knees bent, feet flat on the ground, and hands resting on knees or at sides.

B. Lift both big toes off the floor while pressing the other toes down into the ground. Then, lift other toes while pressing big toes into the floor.

C. Slowly lift each toe, one by one, off the floor, then slowly place each toe back on the ground.

Do 10 reps of this sequence.