How to keep your hips, spine and shoulders in shape

Mobility training is a lot like flossing your teeth: we all know it’s good for us, yet for the most part it gets ignored. At best we’ll throw some half-hearted stretches into our warm-up (that is if we even warm-up at all) or wiggle around on a foam roller for a few minutes and leave it at that. Then we have those at the opposite end of the spectrum, the fanatical disciples of self-appointed movement gurus whose pre-workout rituals involve multiple devices and take up more time than their actual training sessions.

The ideal, of course, is somewhere in between these two extremes. Mobility work should be a focus unto itself, an essential part of one’s training program that gets progressively more challenging as our abilities grow. But this doesn’t mean having to learn a whole new set of skills, and it doesn’t have to take up a ton of time. By zoning-in in three general areas, and choosing the right movements for each, you can unlock a world of physical autonomy that carries over into every aspect of life.

What exactly are these areas? And more importantly, what are these magical movements I speak of? Let’s take a look.

The hips

Whether it’s swinging a nine iron, throwing a right cross, or squatting down deep, your hips are the driving force behind nearly all athletic performance. To help facilitate ideal movement in this area – and the stave off groin strains – my go-to mobility exercise is the tactical frog (a.k.a., the frog stretch).

To start, get down on your forearms and knees, with your knees spread at least shoulder-width apart. From here, while maintaining a flat back, slowly push your butt back toward your feet. Once you feel the stretch, pause for a second and then return to the starting position.

Set a timer for one minute and alternate between 15 seconds of back and forth movement mixed with 15 seconds of holding the stretch at its deepest point. To allow for a greater depth, bring your heels close together. To make things harder, spread those heels apart.

The shoulders

While the hips may be the power centre of the body, the shoulders also play an essential role. Think of them as co-stars in an ensemble performance. Sprinting, jumping, pushing, pulling – all of these movements depend on arm power generated by the shoulders.

The shoulders are a complicated area made up of several joints, tendons and muscles. Because of this, achieving optimal movement requires a multipronged approach. But if I had to pick just one shoulder mobility exercise it would be quadruped shoulder circles.

Starting on your hands and knees (a.k.a., the quadruped position), the goal is to simply roll your shoulders in forward and backward circles, emphasizing that stretch between the shoulder blades and spine. This movement is not as easy as it sounds. For an easier variation, try it standing or sitting upright, with your arms by your side. 5-10 slow reps in each direction will do the trick.

The spine

I doubt I need to sell you on the importance of the spine, but here I go anyway. The spine acts as a bridge between the upper and lower body, allowing the power generated from one region to transfer to the other. The spine can flex, extend and rotate; the spine helps to facilitate movement and it also helps to prevent movement. In short, a stiff spine slows us down in all sorts of ways, making us feel old before our time, regardless of our actual age.

Much like the shoulders, there’s a lot going on in the spine. There are three sections in the spinal column – the cervical (neck), thoracic (torso) and lumbar (low back). And while these sections work in concert, they also have their own unique needs. Generally speaking, for the sake of enhancing performance it’s most beneficial to focus your mobility work on the thoracic spine.

Quadruped spine circles are performed in a similar manner to the shoulder circles discussed above, only instead of rolling your shoulders in a forward/backward pattern, you’re drawing your spine around in clockwise and counterclockwise circles. Think of leading with your chest to the floor, then leading with your lats to one side, before pushing your arched back to the ceiling and then closing the circle to the other side. As with the shoulder circles, 5-10 reps in each direction is all you need.

Combining these exercises makes for a great pre-workout warmup, but for the best results, I recommend they be performed daily. The uninitiated may at first feel like awkward noobies, but that’s not a bad thing. Mobility work should be challenging. Otherwise, what would be the point? Be patient and the rewards will come.

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Kitchener, Ont.

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