You want to work out and be healthy, but you have mobility problems, so you can’t. Right? Actually, in some cases, exercises for mobility problems are just what the doctor ordered. Or, just what the doctor would order if you saw your doctor regularly enough.
Whether you have a long-term mobility issue or are recovering from a more recent injury, there are exercises for mobility and strength that you can do to bulk muscle in spite of your mobility problem or maybe even to get some of that mobility back.
Understanding Mild Mobility Problems
Mobility problems are no joke but they aren’t all equally serious either. The first step to selecting exercises for mobility-problem areas is to understand how serious the problem is and what caused it. If you have a minor mobility problem caused by muscle soreness or discomfort, continuing to work out can be the best thing.
Mild muscle soreness from exercise is typically caused by two things: lactic acid, and normal wear-and-tear. Light stretches and exercises for mobility and strength can help in both cases.
Lactic Acid Buildup
Without getting too much into the chemistry, heavy muscle exertion causes the build-up of a waste chemical called lactic acid. This causes the “burn” that you feel after a good workout. But, don’t worry, it’s supposed to happen. That doesn’t make it comfortable.
However, avoiding movement of a body part because of lactic acid pain can prolong the pain. Gentle movement of the area moves your muscles and increases blood flow to help move this lactic acid out of the area. That’s one of the reasons that gentle massaging can feel good on a sore area after an exercise. It’s also one of the reasons that cool-down exercises are so good.
Incidentally, you can avoid severe lactic acid buildup in the first place by staying hydrated, resting between workouts, switching up which muscles you target in a given workout, and other basic workout hygiene observances. Doing exercises for mobility before you encounter mobility problems is a good idea for everyone.
Think of your muscles as like a rope, made up of smaller fibers wrapped and woven together to create bigger, stronger chords (Abernathy et al., p 42). These smaller fibers fray and break during a workout. Again, this sounds scary but it’s supposed to happen and those fibers will reconnect and heal. But in the meantime, they can be pretty sore.
This soreness can make it tempting to avoid moving those areas. However, this can cause those fibers to heal and connect in the wrong places. This can lead to further discomfort and immobility is a condition commonly called “frozen joints.” It most commonly affects the shoulder, but it doesn’t have to.
What’s the recommended treatment for frozen joints? Exercises for mobility of course! The takeaway is the same as that of lactic acid soreness and mobility issues: practice safely to minimize the problem, and do gentle cooldown exercises to correct it when it happens.
More Serious Mobility Problems
There are times when exercises for mobility are not the solution. This is the case of serious mobility problems. But, what are these and how do you recognize them?
If you have a health condition that limits your mobility, you probably don’t need us to tell you about it. You’ve probably had it diagnosed and, ideally, you have conversations with your doctor about exercises for mobility and that work around your mobility limitations.
Reading articles like this can be handy for different perspectives and maybe some more inspiration than your doctor can provide. However, there is no substitute for working with a licensed care provider, physical therapist, or even specialized personal trainer.
But, what if you have a health condition that limits your mobility and you don’t know about it?
Think about symptoms: Do you see other people in the gym doing exercises that you think you should be able to do but you can’t? Is there a specific motion that causes you discomfort or prevents you from doing various exercises? On the other hand, do you have more flexibility than most people? Do you experience minor injuries more often or take longer to recover?
You’re not cataloguing these symptoms so that you can diagnose yourself, you’re cataloging them so that you can present them to a care provider. If you do have an undiagnosed condition that makes exercises for mobility difficult for you, you should know so that you don’t seriously injure yourself.
Chronic conditions aren’t the only thing that can throw a wrench into your exercises for mobility and strength. Injuries like sprains and strains can cause a problem too, and the solution is not to work through them. Resting, applying ice and pressure, and elevating the joint can help but you may need more serious intervention.
If it hurts to move a joint – or if you can’t move the joint – even when there’s no weight involved, this is a solid sign that the condition might be serious and you should probably get it checked.
The Wisdom to Know the Difference
So, if the solution to some problems is to move them more and the solution to some problems is to not move them at all, how do you know the difference? How do you know when exercises for mobility will help and when they will hurt? Fortunately, there are some clues that can give you an idea.
First off is the real location of the pain. Muscle soreness occurs in the muscles on either side of the joint, but not in the joint itself. Problems with the joint itself, like a strain or sprain, will usually manifest as pain in that joint rather than around it.
Second is the capacity to move. Muscle soreness may increase when you move the joint, but will probably be there even when the joint isn’t moving. More serious problems with the joint itself will usually only manifest when you move or put wair on the joint, or they won’t allow you to move the joint at all or not past a certain point.
Finally, timing can tell the difference. Muscle soreness will typically set in gradually in the hours after an exercise. A serious injury will be sudden, and the pain is typically sharp and localized rather than dull and spread out. A health condition causing problems with mobility will usually seem like it has always been there.
When in doubt, talk to a specialist. It doesn’t have to be a doctor if you have easier access to a personal trainer or coach, but you should also trust your personal trainer or coach to refer you to a doctor if necessary.
Exercises for Mobility Considerations
Now the meat and potatoes: No matter what is causing your mobility concern, how do you exercise for or around it?
As we’ve mentioned, standard stretches and cooldowns can do wonders for relieving post-workout soreness as well as maintaining or even improving mobility. If you want to put a little extra effort into it and it’s not too tasking, you can kick these exercises up a notch by doing them with resistance bands or weights.
Further, exercises for mobility that highlight movement rather than exertion can do wonders. Think of things like martial arts. You’re moving your body, but in ways that are likely to be natural as well as both unimpeded and unsupported.
You can also think about exercises that focus on other body parts but incorporate the joint(s) that you’re having trouble with. For example, suppose that you have a sore shoulder. Running doesn’t put weight on your shoulder but if you pump your arms while you run you’re naturally incorporating movement of that joint without resistance, pressure, or other stresses.
If you think that a little support might help, we can’t praise swimming too highly. Swimming offers resistance as well as support so you’re able to use your muscles without putting any weight on them. Consider using different strokes and techniques to test and push your mobility, but stay in shallower waters if you’re worried about actually staying afloat.
In general, cardio exercises can be a great way to incorporate gentle movement of body parts that may not want to move during resistance exercises. Using cardio when you’re sore can also, if nothing else, encourage you to do more cardio – a category of exercise that many bodybuilders and weight lifters tend to neglect despite its myriad health benefits.
Swimming is one of our favorite exercises for mobility, but it has a close contender in yoga. Yoga specifically focuses on flexibility, with the ability to go as deep into a bend as you’re comfortable with. That doesn’t mean that yoga isn’t also good for strength. As a body resistance exercise, yoga is one of the best exercises for mobility and for conditioning and toning.
Don’t Bend ‘Till You Break
The rule of thumb? If you can move it, move it. However, pain exists for a reason. No, it isn’t weakness leaving the body, it’s your body reminding you that it has its limits.
Exercises for mobility have their place but if something won’t work or won’t work without hurting, don’t push it.
Abernathy, Bruce; Kippers, Vaughan; Hanrahan, Stephanie J.; Pandy, Marcus G.; McManus, Alison M. Laurel Mackinnon. “Biophysical Foundations of Human Movement” (3rd ed.). Human Kinetics. Champaign Il., U.S.A. 2013.