A complete guide to specific stretches you can use in your mobility work

John Fawkes
Sep 26 · 14 min read
All photos by Tim Liu and the author.

There are a lot of misconceptions around mobility training — things like how often you should do it, which methods you should use, or what mobility even means.

In this article, I’ll explain what some of those terms mean, the different types of stretches, and how to incorporate mobility work into your training. Then I’ll show you dozens of techniques that you can use to improve your flexibility and mobility, complete with photos and videos.

First, Some Definitions
Myths and Facts About Flexibility
Myth: Getting strong and building bigger muscles reduces flexibility
Myth: Stretching makes your muscles, tendons, and ligaments longer and/or more elastic
Myth: The more flexible you are, the better
Myth: Stretch before your workout to reduce injury risk
Myth: Stretching makes you stronger
Stretching Exercises
Bodyweight Static Stretches
Bodyweight Dynamic Stretches
Banded Stretches
Weighted Stretches
Massaging and Rolling Techniques
Large Foam Roller Techniques
Handheld Roller Techniques
Final Thoughts

First, Some Definitions

Flexibility is your ability to bend your body through a high range of motion, without pain. If you can reach past your toes, or scratch every part of your back, you’re highly flexible.

Mobility is often used interchangeably with flexibility, but they’re not quite the same thing. Mobility is your ability to exert force throughout a greater range of motion. If you can go into a really deep squat with a barbell on your back, press dumbbells behind your neck, or do gymnastics, you have good mobility.

Static stretching is what people usually think of as stretching. You bend your body until you can feel some slight discomfort (not pain) and hold it for a while. In fact, there are several ways to do static stretching, and this is actually only one of several types of stretching.

Dynamic stretching is an alternate form of stretching in which you move your body in such a way that you briefly feel a stretch at various points in the movement, i.e. high kicking. Unlike static stretching, you don’t hold the stretch.

Myths and Facts About Flexibility

Myth: Getting strong and building bigger muscles reduces flexibility

There’s a common misconception that strength training reduces flexibility, making people “muscle-bound.” In fact, this is not necessarily true; it can happen, but that depends primarily on how you train.

The key is to train with a full range of motion. When you squat, your butt should almost touch your heels at the bottom of the movement, and you should be standing up straight at the top. When you do a pushup, your nose should touch the floor — or better yet, your hands should be elevated on blocks so your nose can go slightly below the level of your hands to touch the floor. And so on.

The other thing that can make people become muscle-bound is anabolic steroid usage. Steroids can impair the development of connective tissue; even though many steroids actually increase collagen synthesis, they also change the structure of collagen in the body. Combined with rapid increases in strength which outpace the growth of connective tissue, steroid users suffer a markedly high rate of tendon injuries.

This phenomenon has contributed to the misconception that building muscle necessarily entails losing flexibility. In fact, it isn’t something you should worry about if you’re not on steroids, and if you train with a full range of motion.

Myth: Stretching makes your muscles, tendons, and ligaments longer and/or more elastic

There are three ways in which stretching could potentially make you more flexible.

First, it could make your body tissues — muscles, tendons, and ligaments — more elastic, so that they’re physically capable of stretching to a greater degree.

Second, it could make those same tissues longer, so that they have a greater range of motion without actually needing to stretch.

Third, it could simply reduce the amount of pain you feel when you stretch. In other words, a neurological rather than a structural change.

Most people think stretching works primarily by mechanism number one– increasing elasticity. Many also think that number two, tissue lengthening, plays a role. Studies say differently.

Tissue lengthening does not happen to any significant degree as a result of stretching. In fact, this isn’t even really possible in theory, since the endpoints of your muscles, tendons, and ligaments are fixed; for them to get longer, the entire anatomy of the body part in question would have to change.

Increases in elasticity do happen, but not the way people think. Although rubber bands are a popular analogy, muscles don’t actually work like rubber bands at all. In fact, they’re viscoelastic.

As Weppler and Magnusson put it: “like solid materials, they demonstrate elasticity by resuming their original length once tensile force is removed. Yet, like liquids, they also behave viscously because their response to tensile force is rate and time-dependent.”

Furthermore, all increases in muscular viscoelasticity are temporary, at least as far as studies have been able to observe. Viscoelasticity returns to baseline after anywhere from ten minutes to an hour, depending on the duration and intensity of the stretching. And for what it’s worth, it seems to be the viscosity, rather than elasticity, that increases.

In fact, what we know as improvement in flexibility is mostly the result of improvements in neural stretch tolerance. Your nervous system learns to both relax your muscles better as they stretch, as well as to be less sensitive to pain caused by stretching. As a result, you become neurologically capable of doing what your body was physically capable of doing all along.

Unlike the increase in viscoelasticity, this improvement in neural stretch tolerance is semi-permanent. Like memorizing words or learning to ride a bike, it can last for months or years. And while it fades with time if not practiced, it takes relatively little effort to maintain — or to rebuild your stretch tolerance if it does fade.

Since flexibility is mostly neural, you can also see that the pain you feel from a deep stretch doesn’t necessarily indicate that you’re damaging anything in your body; it could be — and often is — nothing more than an overreaction by your nervous system. However, that doesn’t mean you should ignore it.

Myth: The more flexible you are, the better

Now that you know that flexibility is just an improvement in neural stretch tolerance rather than a physical increase in the flexibility of your body, perhaps you can see why there could be such a thing as too much flexibility.

Simply put: your muscles have a “flexibility safety margin,” in as much as you start to feel pain before you’ve stretched them as far as they can possibly stretch. When you get more flexible, you reduce that safety margin.

The more flexible you are, the more easily you can overstretch, inflicting not just pain but actual damage on yourself. In fact, many injuries are caused by too much (not too little) flexibility.

Therefore, your goal should be to have enough flexibility to do everything you need to do in life by a comfortable margin. You should be able to stretch a few inches beyond what it takes to tie your shoes, bend over and lift a box, put on and take off clothing, etc.

Having far more flexibility than you need for any practical life purpose might be fun, or meaningful to you as a way of purposefully challenging yourself, but it isn’t actually healthy. If anything, it raises your chance of injury.

Myth: Stretch before your workout to reduce injury risk

Studies almost always fail to find that stretching before a workout reduces injury risk during the workout, and some studies even find that stretching can increase the risk of injury in subsequent physical activity.

There is at least some evidence that an active warmup before a workout can reduce the risk of a strain, but this seems to have more to do with warming up the body — literally warming it up so that the soft tissues get softer and looser — than with flexibility.

Myth: Stretching makes you stronger

Studies consistently find that stretching muscles before a workout does not make them stronger, and often even makes them weaker. There is at least some theoretical support for the idea that stretching muscles after a workout may help them get stronger over time, but this has never been directly demonstrated in research.

There is one catch regarding strength. Since most muscles are organized into agonist-antagonist pairs which act in opposition to each other, you can effectively strengthen a muscle by using stretching to weaken the opposing muscle. For instance, by stretching your hamstrings, you can temporarily make yourself stronger at quadriceps-dominant exercises. However, this isn’t actually directly strengthening the quads.

In fact, muscle stiffness can increase force production. With regards to strength and athletic performance, there seems to be an optimal amount of flexibility for any given exercise; you don’t want to be less flexible, but you also don’t want to be more flexible.

By extension, there’s an optimal amount of flexibility in each muscle group for a given sport or sports position. To quote the linked study, “typically, specific flexibility patterns are associated with specific sports and even positions within sports.”

So again, more flexibility isn’t better from a strength standpoint either. In fact, you often want to build more flexibility in the muscles you don’t use as much — the ones opposed to the muscles that you want to be strong.

With all of that said, let’s look at some of the exercises you can do to improve mobility — stretching, massaging, and strength-mobility exercises.

I’m joined in this by my friend Tim Liu, who helped me take the photos for this article and appears in many of them himself. I’m the guy in the all-black outfit; Tim’s the guy in the blue shirt.

Stretching Exercises

As mentioned earlier, stretching can be divided into static and dynamic stretches (not including a few other categories I won’t get into here). Stretching can also be done using only your body, or using external objects like resistance bands and weights to aid the stretch.

The following list is nowhere near exhaustive, but here are some of the more common stretches you can do to improve your stretch tolerance.

Bodyweight Static Stretches

Side Lunge Stretch

This stretches out several different muscles at once: the calf and hamstring on the extended leg are stretched, as well as the inner thigh on the bent leg.

Note my form — turning the extended leg outward with toe upward, and keeping the leg straight, is key for stretching that leg. Pushing my bent leg outward with my arm — and my body weight bearing down on that arm — enhances the inner thigh stretch to that leg.

Cobra Pose

To stretch the lower back. Arch your back as far as you can without pain, while keeping your knees and thighs on the floor.

Sciatic Nerve Stretch

This one is for people with sciatic nerve or lower back pain. Use your hand to gently push down on the leg that’s crossed over your body, while turning your head the other way; try to keep your back flat on the floor rather than letting the opposing side (my left in this photo) lift off the floor. You should feel this stretch in the gluteus medius — the outer side of your buttock.

Kneeling Leg Bend Stretch

You’ll probably want to double or triple up your yoga mat like I’m doing here to cushion your knee. This primarily stretches the quadriceps of the back leg, but if you stretch out the front leg and lean forward, it also somewhat stretches the hamstring of the front leg.

Kneeling Lunge Stretch

This one is a good all-around lower body stretch. Note the hand positioning, with both hands to the right side of his left leg, or vice versa. Also, note that his back is not excessively rounded.

Arm Wall Stretch

This stretch can target the chest, bicep or shoulders; by changing the height of your arm, you can adjust which muscles stretch targets. What I’m doing here is rotating my torso to the left, away from the wall, to deepen the stretch. This stretch is useful if you find it hard to push your arms back behind your torso.

Lowering your arm and holding it horizontal, as in the second photo, minimizes the chest involvement and makes it much more of a bicep stretch. This is helpful if your arms are stiff or you have trouble straightening them.

Raising your arm like this makes it more of a shoulder stretch– specifically the anterior deltoid, the front of the shoulder. This reduces the involvement of the chest, except for the small part of the pectoral muscle which attaches to the shoulder.

Bodyweight Dynamic Stretches

Arm, Leg, and Neck Circles

Unlike most stretches and massage exercises, this is better performed as a warmup to loosen up your muscles and work out any kinks before your workout.

Kneeling Lateral Torso Twist

This one can actually be performed either as a static or dynamic stretch, but I prefer it as a dynamic stretch. As a static stretch, you would hold this position, twisting far enough to one side to feel the stretch.

As a dynamic stretch, you would slowly enter that position until you’re stretched as far as you can, hold for a second, then release, repeating a few times before switching sides.

Kneeling Upward Torso Twist

Just like the last stretch, this can be done either as a static or dynamic stretch.

Alternating Pigeon Pose

This serves a similar purpose to the static sciatica stretch, focusing on the outer thighs and gluteus medius.

Wall Stick-Ups

Press your arms, shoulder blades, butt, heels, and the back of your head against the wall at same time; you’ll probably find this extremely difficult. Raise your arms higher over your head, sliding them against the wall, then bring them back down, for about ten reps.

Banded Stretches

Banded Hamstring Stretch

Straighten your leg out, using a resistance band to pull it upward while keeping the leg straight in order to stretch the hamstring. If you find yourself unable to do this without pain, lengthen the band.

Banded Lateral Leg Stretch

This pair of stretches targets the muscles of your inner and outer thigh — the hip adductors and abductors — as well as the gluteus medius. It’s useful for all-around leg mobility, as well as sciatic nerve pain.

Weighted Stretches

Loaded Chest Stretch

This stretch is ideal for people who have trouble reaching behind their backs.

The setup for this is the same as with a dumbbell chest press, but you’ll want to use weights that are about one-third to one-half as heavy as you would typically use for a dumbbell chest press. Instead of lifting the weight though, let it push your arms downward so that you feel the stretch in your chest.

Weighted Toe-Touch Stretch

As with the chest stretch, this is like a deadlift except you don’t lift the weight, but just let it pull you down. Also like that stretch, you should use a small fraction of the weight you would use for a deadlift — around 40–100 pounds for most people.

This stretches the lower back and hamstrings. You can shift the focus from your lower back to your hamstrings by arching your back and keeping your head up.

Massaging and Rolling Techniques

Massaging and foam rolling can loosen up knots in the muscles, and overall is particularly useful for easing muscle pain.

Large Foam Roller Techniques

Note that for most foam rolling exercises, I recommend using rumble rollers, which are covered in studs that dig into your muscles. This doesn’t feel great, but it gives a much more thorough massage than smooth foam rollers.

Foam Roller Calf Massage

This one’s pretty self-explanatory: roll your calves back and forth across the roller. This works better if you cross your ankles to massage one calf at a time, like I’m doing here. That not only puts more pressure on the calf, it also allows you to tilt to either side to get the side of the calf, which you couldn’t do if you tried to massage both calves at once.

Foam Roller Back Massage

This is one foam rolling exercise where a smoother foam roller may be preferable, as the hard knobs of a rumble roller can feel painful against the spine. This exercise is great for the lower and mid-back; foam rollers have a harder time massaging the upper back due to the way it’s shaped, so lacrosse balls tend to work better for the upper back.

Foam Roller Side Massage

This technique can be used to massage the side of your torso from your waist up to your armpit.

Foam Roller Quadriceps Massage

Roll back and forth across the foam roller to massage your quad. Like the calf stretch, this is better done one leg at a time so you can put more pressure on the massage and roll your body side to side to massage the side of your thigh.

Handheld Roller Techniques

As with the large roller, a rumble roller is preferable because it gives you a deeper massage. In a pinch, a rolling pin can also be used as a smooth handheld roller.

A handheld roller can be used to massage all parts of your lower body, including your legs, buttocks, and lower back. In these photos, I demonstrate the use of a handheld roller on the legs.

Final Thoughts

All of these exercises have their place in a balanced training program. Remember though, that these types of exercises are a supplement to the main part of your workout — they are not the workout.

Five to ten minutes of calisthenics and mobility work as a warmup before your workout and five to ten minutes of stretching and massaging after your workout is plenty for most people, and a good guideline in general.

Doing any mobility and stretching beyond that amount should be reserved for addressing specific issues. You might roll your back for ten minutes if you have back pain, for example, but this shouldn’t be considered the default that everyone does.

If you want to see more examples of mobility exercises, warmups and cooldowns, Tim shares a lot of them on his Instagram feed. Occasionally I post some on my feed as well.

Also, remember the golden rule of mobility — always train with a full range of motion. As long as you do that, it will prevent many mobility issues from arising in the first place.

Stretching and mobility work should be used strategically; more isn’t better. Applied in moderation, they’re a crucial component of a balanced fitness program.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

John Fawkes

Written by

Los Angeles-based personal trainer, online fitness & nutrition coach, and health & fitness writer. I also sing a pretty sick cover of The Poison Heart.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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