The Essential 8 Mobility Drills

by Michael Boyle

Finally, a warm-up routine that even people who hate warming up can handle! This short series of drills will not only make you feel better, but the increased mobility you'll gain will help you make unprecedented gains in the gym.

These are eight simple drills that everyone should do to warm-up. The nice thing about these exercises is that anyone can do them. Everyone may not be able to do them well, but they can at least do them. And the people who can’t do them well are the ones who need them most.

Drill 1 – Thoracic Spine Mobility

The mobility of the thoracic spine is one of the least understood areas of the body and was previously the realm of physical therapists. Sue Falsone, Director of Performance Therapy at Athletes’ Performance and Core Performance, may be single-handedly responsible for introducing the athletic world to the need for thoracic mobility and more importantly for showing many of us in the world of strength and conditioning a simple way to develop it.

The nice thing about t-spine mobility are that almost no one has enough, and it’s hard to get too much. We encourage our athletes to do thoracic mobility work every day. To perform our number one thoracic mobility drill all you need is two tennis balls and some athletic tape. Simply tape the two balls together as shown below, and go to work.

Once you’ve taped your balls together, they should look like this:

What you basically do is a series of crunches beginning with the balls at the thoraco-lumbar junction. The balls sit over the erectors and effectively provide an anterior-posterior mobilization of the vertebrae with every little mini-crunch.

It’s important that the head return to the floor after every crunch and that the hands come forward at a 45 degree angle. We do five reps at each level and simply slide down about a half roll of the ball. Work from the thoraco-lumbar junction up to the beginning of the cervical spine. Stay out of the cervical and lumbar areas since these are not areas that need mobility work.

This drill is done first (usually after we foam roll, but that’s another article) as we are already on the floor. The rest of our mobility work is done standing.

Drill 2 – Ankle mobility

Just as with thoracic mobility, it’s rare to find a person who doesn’t need to do some ankle mobility work. Whether you’re an athlete who experienced an ankle sprain years ago (and who hasn’t?), or a woman who wears high heels every day, ankle mobility is step two in our warm-up. Credit for this drill goes to Omi Iwasaki, another Athletes’ Performance PT.

The first key to ankle mobility work is to understand that it’s a mobility drill, not flexibility or stretching drill. You want to rock the ankle back and forth, not hold the stretch.

The second key is to watch the heel. It’s essential that the heel stay in contact with the floor. Most people who have ankle mobility restrictions will immediately lift the heel. I will often hold the heel down for beginners to get the feel.

The third key is to make it multi-planar. I like 15 reps: five to the outside (small toe), five straight, and five driving the knee in past the big toe.

Drill 3 – Leg Swings

To perform leg swings stand 2-3 feet from the wall beginning on the right foot. Hands are on the wall at shoulder height. While keeping the right foot pointing straight ahead, swing the left leg in a pendular motion from side to side.

Many may recognize this as a groin/ hip mobility exercise. However if the athlete concentrates on keeping the right foot straight ahead, the swing leg begins to drive a rotary force into the right ankle. It’s the same old exercise we’ve done for years brought back with a different purpose.

Do ten reps and then switch feet.

Drills 4, 5, and 6 – Split, Lateral, and Rotational Squats

This is a precursor to what many would call a lunge matrix. The lunge matrix is another Gary Gray concept, but one that in my mind has a few flaws. Athletes must have proper mobility to perform a lunge matrix, and must gradually familiarize themselves with the movements to avoid often extreme soreness. To avoid soreness and develop mobility, you should perform an in-place matrix for three weeks prior to moving to a lunge matrix.

Another great thing about an in-place lunge matrix is also a Dan John idea. Dan is fond of saying, “If something is important, do it every day.” This means we can - and should - do single leg work every day: some for strength, and some for mobility development.

Split squats are the in-place precursor to a lunge, and develop sagittal plane mobility.

Lateral squats are in in-place precursor to a lateral lunge and develop frontal plane mobility. This is an area where many are restricted. The key here is to watch the feet. In the lateral squat, the feet must remain straight ahead. External rotation is compensation. Lateral squats are a bit counter-intuitive. A wider stance makes them easier, not harder but most people will try to begin narrower. Try to get the feet 3.5-4 feet apart. I use the lines on roll flooring (usually 4 foot rolls) or the width of the wood on the platform (also usually 4 ft) as a gauge.

Mike stretches his groin with rotational squats.

Rotational squats are probably misnamed. They are not really rotational, but are the proper precursor to rotational lunges. The key here is again foot position. The feet are at right angles to each other as opposed to being parallel as in the lateral squat. I have often noticed that most people’s lunge matrix is actually a series of forward lunges done in different directions.

The key to a properly performed lunge matrix is in foot position. My standard joke is that many people who think they’re doing multi-planar lunges are actually doing panoramic lunges. They do the same lunge, only facing a different direction.

In any case, the rotational squat prepares the trainee for rotational lunges and continues to open up the frontal/transverse motion of the hips. Many may recognize lateral and rotational squats as “groin stretches.” In fact, they are nothing more than a dynamic version of the popular groin stretches.

The big limiting factor in hip mobility is often flexibility in the muscles versus the motion of the joints. Hip capsular mobility is best left to trained therapists.

Drill 7 – Wall slides

I gotta tell you, I love wall slides. Three nice big bangs for a single buck:

  • Activate low trap, rhomboid, and external rotators.
  • Stretch the pecs and internal rotators.
  • Decrease the contributions of the upper traps.

Try them, and you’ll be amazed. The first thing that might amaze you is that you can’t even get into the position. This is not unusual. Another thing that will surprise you is the asymmetry of your shoulders. A third surprise might occur when you try to slide overhead. Many people will immediately shrug. This is the dominance of the upper trap.

The keys to the wall slide:

  • Scapulae retracted and depressed.
  • Hands and wrists flat against the wall (the back of both hands must touch the wall).
  • As you slide up, think about pressing gently into the wall with the forearms.
  • Only go to the point of discomfort. You will notice that the anterior shoulder will release and ROM will increase. Don’t force it.

Drill 8 – Big X-Band

Christian Thibaudeau is going to love this one. Christian has written about my X-Band idea in a few articles.

The Big X Band is an improvement on the original idea. The original idea was to add an upper body component to mini-band walks. The only problem was that many people didn’t retract the scapulae; instead they shrugged, and activated the wrong stuff.

Physical therapist Alex McEchnie, who has become the sports hernia rehab expert, uses Theraband to create the fascial slinging effect of the body. I borrowed and simplified this by cutting a 3/4" Superband (you can also use Theratube) and creating a big X. Now I get a great simple total body activation.

The Big X-Band activates the gluteus medius, as well as the entire posterior chain. It does it in an anatomically correct manner by using the diagonal relationship of opposite to shoulder. Once again, it’s a heck of a good bang for your buck.

Well, that wraps up the Essential Eight mobility drills, and answers the question that has been plaguing athletes since the Dawn of Sport, namely “What should I do to warm up?”

Now you know. I hope you’re happy.

Do yourself a favor and give these eight drills a try. It’ll only take 5 to 10 minutes, and you’ll not only look better, you’ll feel better as well.