Mobility 101: What is It and Why You Should Do It

It’s your first time trying out an introductory CrossFit class and the coach has just announced that the skill you are going to be learning is the air squat. You quickly roll your eyes as you think to yourself, ‘Seriously? I do squats all the time at my normal gym. I was hoping to learn how to do something cool like the snatch or the clean and jerk.’ On the outside, you smile and nod, not giving away any of the internal disappoint you are feeling. The coach proceeds to demonstrate what an air squat looks like and you notice that they squat with their hips below parallel. You mentally shake your head remembering what your previous trainer told you about the dangers to your knees of squatting below parallel. After running through the main points of performance for the air squat, the coach then instructs the participants to perform five air squats. To your dismay and utter embarrassment, you quickly realize that you are unable to complete an air squat to ‘full depth’ (below parallel). The coach quickly walks over to you and says reassuringly, “That’s ok! Just looks like you might have some mobility issues in your hips and ankles.” In your head you think, ‘What the crap is mobility?’

If you are a regular CrossFit class attendee, you have probably heard the term mobility mentioned many different times either by your coach and/or another box member. This is a term that doesn’t often get explained and most people just assume that it means extra stretching, either before or after class. This is an accurate, yet simple definition of mobility that does not fully explain what mobility involves and why it is important. 

Let’s go back to our example illustrated above of the brand-new CrossFitter who could not do an air squat below parallel. If you’ve been around CrossFit for any amount of time then you are probably aware that the standard for any squat (front, back, overhead) is that the hip crease must pass below the knee. Why is this standard so important? Well, first of all, CrossFit is the sport of fitness (functional fitness that is) and thousands of years ago – before the invention of couches, Lazyboys, dining room chairs, etc. – humans used to squat down (below parallel) to go to the bathroom, warm themselves by the fire, hold a conversation, etc. Therefore, the air squat is a functional movement (except now when we go to the bathroom we squat to the toilet); a movement that we perform every day. 

If you can’t perform this movement correctly, then how are you going to perform everyday, functional movements without eventually hurting yourself? The answer is mobility. This is the tool that is used to help move our bodies into the correct positioning so that we can perform movements correctly. There are two types of mobility: passive and active. Passive mobility means getting your body into positions no matter how you do it. This might look like holding onto the rig to squat down below parallel or having your friend hold your elbows up as you front squat. The goal is to eventually turn this passive mobility into active mobility – the ability to achieve ranges of motion on your own; not using any type of assistance to achieve these positions.    

Finally, it is important to understand what you will gain by improving your mobility. Not only will you be able to start positioning your body correctly, but you will also start to feel better after a strenuous workout. Yes, you will still experience the normal aches and pains but your body will thank you for not forcing it into difficult positions that it was not ready for. Increased mobility also means that you will become a safer athlete and reduce the risk of injury. Increased ankle and hip mobility for the back squat means that you can squat safely with load. Lastly, and probably the most beneficial if you are a serious athlete, is that you will ultimately get stronger. Take the snatch for example: poor shoulder, hip and ankle mobility often prevents an athlete from maintaining an upright torso in the catch position (bottom of the overhead squat). However, if these issues are fixed and the athlete is able to catch the bar with the weight stacked directly over their shoulders (a much stronger position) then they will be able to catch more weight. 

So, now that you know exactly what mobility is, why it is used and why it is important, you might be thinking, ‘What types of mobility exercises should I be doing?’ Stay tuned for Part 2 that will address some of the most common mobility issues and how to fix them.