Move Like a Ninja: The Beginner’s Guide to Developing Mobile Joints & Improving Performance

Man jumping over gap on mountain hike

The ability to move freely lies at the core of who we are as vegan athletes.

Heading out on a trail run, lifting weights with your buddy, even playing hide and seek with your nephews or grandchildren…

We can sometimes take these simple things for granted. But, especially as we get older, the ability to move freely is something we need to work for more purposefully. If you don’t use it, you quickly lose it.

Here’s the good news: That nagging stiffness in your hips after each run, or the stiffness in your back you keep brushing off as a sign of aging… they can be a thing of the past.

This in-depth guide to mobility will help make all your play-time, work-time, and active movements safer, rewarding, and more enjoyable things to do — right now, and long into the future.

I know, mobility may not be the sexiest sounding topic, but hang in there. Mobility training has become an obsession of mine, and over the past five years or so I’ve seen firsthand how a few simple exercises can produce major benefits.

Benefits not just in my own movement practice — going from a broken athlete to a somewhat well-rounded mover (you can be the judge) — but also in the numerous office workers, weekend warriors, and athletes I’ve been fortunate enough to coach and collaborate with.

Here’s the thing:

Whether you’re a professional performer seeking the competitive edge or a parent trying to keep up with the kids — my goal with this guide is to help you skyrocket your mobility game so you can start moving swiftly, smoothly, and injury free — like the ninja you truly are.

You might be thinking to yourself:

“I’ve always been super stiff and inflexible, so this mobility stuff probably isn’t for me…”

Wrong! Mobility really is for everyone.

Our bodies are plastic. This means that even if you’re stiff as a board right now, with a bit of consistent mobility training, your joints and tissues can be changed, molded, and improved.

Once upon a time I struggled to touch my toes, and I’ve seen countless others who were in exactly the same position (and now move like agile ninjas).

If they can do it, so can you.

What Exactly is Mobility, Anyway?

For me, mobility comes down to the perfect marriage between flexibility and strength.

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While flexibility goes hand-in-hand with mobility, there are a few subtle differences. Let’s use the ankle as an example:

If we focus on your ankle joint in isolation, we could manipulate your foot around, test the different ranges of motion and measure the muscle lengths, concluding that you have decent ankle flexibility. Everything moves fairly well without any pain or restrictions, and that’s great. Gold star!

But what we’re really concerned with from a more broad mobility standpoint is how much strength or control you have at that ankle — particularly when you’re near the end of your range of motion. We also want to see how that transfers over to your performance in physical activities and everyday life.

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In a sense, I see mobility as our useable flexibility — combined with numerous other physical attributes such as core strength and coordination.

It’s not just about the ankle — but how that ankle integrates into the whole.

So can you not only get into a position that requires ankle flexibility (like a deep squat) but be somewhat comfortable and strong there?

And beyond that:

Can you incorporate that mobility into your life and perform, without restrictions, the wide variety of movement patterns (hanging, crawling, squatting, lifting, throwing, etc.) that we human beings are naturally designed to perform?

In the grand scheme of things, that’s what we’re aiming for, and if practiced regularly, this guide will get you a little closer to experiencing it.

Three Major Benefits of Having More Mobile Joints

It’s all well and good knowing that mobility is something we can develop, but why bother?

There are tons of reasons we could dig into, but for me it largely comes down to three main potential benefits:

1. Enhanced Performance

Whether you’re a casual runner, an avid gym goer, or a competitive athlete — making mobility a priority could give you a BIG performance boost in your chosen sport.

  • Mobile ankles can improve your ability to perform a back squat with good form, making it safer and easier for you to lift a heavier weight.
  • Hips that move well can mean a longer stride length and improved gait patterns, making you a more efficient runner (meaning less effort to run the same pace/distance).
  • On the flipside, tight shoulders can make it harder (and more risky) to reach for that volleyball overhead — meaning you’re less likely to hit the winning shot against your kids in the esteemed holiday tournament, resulting in a lifetime of embarrassment.

In short, if you’re looking to add a few pounds onto your squat PR, improve your 5K time, or take the number one spot in the family athletics pecking order, getting mobile could really help you out.

2. Reduced Injury Risk

We can all agree that injuries suck, so anything we can do to reduce our chances of getting hurt and sidelined from our favorite activity is worth looking at.

Studies have shown that athletes who undertake a corrective movement and mobility program for as little as four weeks can make significant improvements in their positioning and joint function — enough to eliminate muscular imbalances and reduce their injury risk.

Even though we’re not quite sure how that works, one proposed idea is that, as well as helping us adopt safer, more stable positions when we exercise, developing mobility gives us more strength and control through a wider range of motion. Essentially, this could provide us with a little more room for error when it comes to falling out of alignment.

Think about the ankle joint again for a second:

If you’ve been diligently improving your ankle mobility and building strength in the end range, when you inevitably stumble and fall out of alignment, your body is more used to it.

Twisting your ankle during your afternoon trail run may not result in a bad injury because you’re used to putting the ankle into a fully stretched position and applying a load to it. You also have that sensitivity and control needed to make those micro adjustments to keep your body safe.

But, if that same ankle has been neglected in the mobility department and lacks range of motion — it’s stiff, weak, and fragile — the current theory is that the potentially harmless ankle roll could become a nasty sprain. If we’ve not been working on that ankle mobility, we’ve not built the strength and coordination needed to adjust to our environment.

Much of this is speculation at the moment, but it is something I’ve been able to observe in my own training and in everyday life. Sure — injuries still happen, but the more diligent I am with my mobility work, the less often they seem to occur, and the less severe they tend to be.

3. Less Pain, More Freedom of Movement

Last and certainly not least, mobility can often mean less pain and more options for movement.

Pain tends to get a bad rap, but it’s often just a handy signal from your body to highlight that something isn’t quite right.

Where does mobility come in?

There are a bunch of nerve receptors concentrated around your joints, designed to detect changes in positioning — so if something isn’t aligned or moving as well as it could be, your body will most likely let you know.

That could be in the form of a nagging lower back pain or achy knees. Not fun.

The good part is that when we restore our normal range of motion with mobility work, that pain signal no longer has to be on red alert. Sure, there are plenty of other factors that can contribute to pain, and restoring mobility isn’t always the only ingredient — but it’s a great start!

With your pain dampened or eliminated and your joints free to move, you can get back to doing whatever it is you love doing in life.

Hiking up mountains on the weekend? Go for it!

Prepping for your first triathlon? Sure thing!

Working towards a one-handed handstand? You betcha!

All in all:

If you’re looking to be a better athlete, build a wide variety of movement skills, reduce joint pain, or simply be more active in your everyday life — prioritizing your mobility is something worth considering.

So now that we know the basics, how do we actually go about acquiring or improving our joint mobility? It’s as simple as 1-2-3!

A Simple, Three-Step Method for Improving Joint Mobility

Based on my training experience in martial arts, yoga, and various other movement disciplines — combined with the big body of work from the mobility giants that have come before — I’ve developed a three-step model for improving joint mobility — something we cover in detail in my free HERO Academy.

Here’s what it looks like:

Step 1: Release

Once we’ve assessed an initial movement pattern or position that we want to improve and identified any potential restrictions or imbalances, we can then start to release tension in any tight muscles and connective tissues associated with it.

Let’s say you’re looking to improve your ability to get into a deep squat, and you’ve noticed your tight ankles might be a limiting factor.

There are a few ways we can go about addressing this:

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  • Soft tissue work. Using tools such as foam rollers or various balls to apply pressure to an area, signalling to that tissue to relax and release. It’s not always the most pleasant experience, but it’s super effective! For improving our ankle mobility for the squat, we might apply pressure around the calves — hunting out tight spots and pressing down until they dissipate.
  • Specific stretches. Here we’re performing specific stretching and mobility exercises designed to create space in a particular direction — which could also be combined with deep breathing and strengthening elements (see contract-relax stretching in the next section). For ankle mobility, we might perform a series of calf stretches.
  • Joint distractions. A slightly more advanced technique, courtesy of Kelly Starrett’s Mobility WOD toolkit, we’re essentially creating space within a joint capsule, which can often get jammed up for a variety of reasons. We do this by adding a resistance band to a conventional stretch.

Step 2: Strengthen

With the tension released and more space available for us to play with, we can then look to strengthen new positions/movements to help reinforce them well into the future.

Again, there are a bunch of methods we could use, including:

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  • Controlled joint articulations. Here we’re taking a joint through its full range of motion in a slow, controlled manner. If we were trying to improve our hip mobility, we might stand on one leg and lift our other knee up to our chest as far as possible, before rotating the elevated limb out to the side and behind our body (like so).
  • Contract-relax stretching. Also known as PNF stretching, here we’re contracting muscle groups at the end range of a stretch. Essentially, this is signalling to our nervous system that we have strength in that position, which allows us to relax and go a little deeper. An example is a classic seated hamstring stretch — only we would take a deep breath and contract the leg into the ground for a few seconds, releasing and repeating 3-5 times.
  • Building weakened muscles. Often when we experience a postural issue or a restriction at a joint, there are certain muscle groups that are stiff and tight and opposing muscles that are weakened. A classic example is the case of an anterior pelvic tilt in the pelvis — a super common occurrence. The big glute muscles that support the pelvis and lower back can go sleepy when we sit on them all day, but the good news is that we can use strengthening drills (like a glute bridge) to turn them back on and restore order to the universe.

Step 3: Reinforce

Even if we’re spending an hour a day working on our mobility, if we want to make lasting changes, it’s important to consider the other 23 hours too! As we touched on earlier, mobility is about the big picture, and integrating better movement into our everyday lives.

A few things we might look at:

  • Movement habits. We’ll consider how much time we’re spending in potentially detrimental positions (like sitting) and look at various ways we can adjust those habits. That might mean taking regular movement breaks at work, using a standing desk when possible, or suggesting walking meetings.
  • Home environment. We know that our environment plays a huge role in forming any healthy habit. To encourage more mobile joints, lower seating areas at home can make a big difference — increasing the number times we have to get up and down from the floor. We can also look at our footwear — opting for more minimal shoes whenever possible to encourage our feet and ankles to do more of the work.
  • Nutrition. Our food choices can have a BIG impact on our joint health and subsequent mobility and performance. As well as staying hydrated and getting a bunch of antioxidants from a wide range of plant foods, we can look at including sources of healthy omega-3 fatty acids (like flax and algae) to help bring down inflammation and promote overall joint function.
  • Proper recovery. Alongside post-workout nutrition, what can we do to promote recovery? The truth is, when we’re sleeping well and taking enough time to rest after training sessions, the body is less likely to enter a state of overtraining, and we can avoid many of the joint restrictions and injuries that so often come along with it.

Your Joint-by-Joint Guide to Skyrocketing Your Mobility

Now that you have all the theory, it’s time to dig into the good stuff.  In this section, we’re going to work down through the body and put this mobility talk into practice!

In a series of five videos, we’ll look at some of the most common trouble areas I see in active individuals, and how to begin setting things straight. We’ll follow the above format — performing some release work, a strengthener or two, and then a takeaway habit for each case.

Two quick things to keep in mind before we get to it:

  • Everything is connected. Sure, we’re splitting the following videos into body parts, but that’s largely for the ease of distributing information. In reality, your shoulder health is directly linked to your mobility in your mid back, which can be influenced by your hips, ankles, and so on, so forth.
  • Take each routine at your own pace and listen to your body. While the videos are designed to be varied and beginner friendly, we’re all different. A small degree of discomfort is totally normal in some exercises (particularly when we’re releasing tension). But if something really doesn’t feel right, back off for a second, or avoid it completely.

Okay, let’s get started!

1. Undo Text-Neck By Releasing Your Shoulders

Technology no doubt has its plus points, but it doesn’t do a great deal for our poor necks and shoulders…

Staring down at a screen for hours on end can cause stiffness and forward head posture, resulting in tension headaches and a bunch of shoulder issues.

Here’s a short routine that may help remedy the situation:

2. Show Your Hands and Elbows Some Love

Whether you type away at your computer all day or perform manual labor, chances are your hands take a battering (and you probably don’t do a whole lot to undo all that tension).

The result can be carpal tunnel and a whole host of potential issues in the wrists and elbows — so let’s free things up and get everything moving well again:

3. Build a Strong, Supple Spine

They say that you’re only as old as your spine…

Ideally, throughout the back we want a combination of suppleness and the ability to create tension under load. Yin and yang. The problem is, many of us are tight in the wrong places, and the result is a cocktail of pain and discomfort.

Here’s a short routine to free up some of that tension, restore motion throughout the spine, and strengthen those deep core muscles:

4. Unglue Those Tight Hips from Sitting

You’ve may have heard that sitting is the new smoking.

While it might not be quite as bad as lighting up 20 a day, it’s not far off when it comes to your health and performance. But fear not!

The following sequence is designed to free up those hips, restore your mobility, and build usable strength:

5. Bulletproof Those Ankles and Feet for Your Next Marathon

Whether you’re working towards your 5K PR or prepping for an ultramarathon, rolling an ankle is never fun.

The routine below is designed to help build mobility through your ankles and feet, iron out any imbalances, and hopefully reduce the chances of an injury ruining your next big running goal:

How to Schedule Your Mobility Training for Optimum Results

I’ve found that the best way for most people to get started with mobility training is by using the little and often method.

In the fitness culture there’s often a big focus on going all-in and pushing things to the max. But with our mobility work, patience is a virtue. It takes time to alter tissues and joints, so don’t rush things.

Setting aside 10 minutes a day and spending a 1-3 minutes each on a few different exercises is a great place to start. If you can build that into a consistent habit, you’re onto a winner.

Ready to Kickstart Your Mobility Practice?

I mentioned above that just 10 minutes a day is an ideal starting place if you’re looking to improve your mobility and enjoy freedom of movement. It’s really that simple.

So why not give it a go for the next 30 days, cycling through the above routines?

While it might not seem like you’re making big changes day to day, you’ll be surprised how much progress you can make over a month!

Before you know it, you’ll be clambering across rooftops (or doing whatever it is ninjas do these days).

All it takes is getting started with the first step.

About the Author: Luke Jones is an online content creator and movement and nutrition coach at HEROMovement.net, where he explores and shares ideas in movement, wellness, and adventure. If you’re looking to deepen your mobility practice, you’ll find a bunch of extra resources and workouts in his free members area – The HERO Academy. If you have any questions for Luke, share them in the comments below.

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Comments

  1. As I’ve aged, my mobility has suffered so significantly. I run for a few days, get injured (hip bursitis, runner’s knee, pulled calf muscle, and so on. As soon as an injury clears up, I get back on track then suffer another one. It’s mentally exhausting and so discouraging – and it imapcts every day life, not just running. As a NYC marathon completer and with some great miles under my belt, I don’t even consider myself a runner anymore because of the cycle of injuries. I do think much of it come from reduced mobility which leads to poor biomechanics and different ways of compensating – and then the injuries come. Ugh. I’m really exicted to give this a try and I love that you tell me that I can do 10 minutes a day. That’s about all I’ve got so it seems achievable. I want to run. I want to be able to move without pain every day. Thanks for this post!

    • ok, think about what happens to a car that’s been driven into curbs, potholes…it needs an alignment …if it doesn’t get one, then the tires will wear unevenly along with the extra loads on the ball joints,tierods,all causing more damage…the human body is no different…miles of fascia have been compromisrd from the trauma of acl,ankle,etc insults…the Fix,ms Linda, is to find a Rolfer [Structural Integration guy/gal] or an Osteopathic Doctor who does manipulation treatments…easy peasy…as well, dump the Dairy, as all the bacteria&viruses fuel the fire of inflammation. cheers

  2. Hi,
    I really enjoyed this article, thank you! I will try these for sure 🙂
    Kunoichi

  3. It looks difficult but here is very important to have the desire

  4. Great article! I need a reminder to focus more on body prep and these videos are super useful, thanks! 🙂

  5. Just wanted to say thank you for this post–my hip has been giving me grief during marathon training and following your hip mobility video this morning was a lifesaver! It’s the first thing I’ve found that really felt like it stretched what needed stretching. Looking forward to working through the rest of the videos and incorporating these into my regular routine.

  6. Such great and detailed information! I have incorporated yoga into my workout for the last 5 years, and it has greatly improved my stiff joints. Thank you for this great article!

  7. “mobility comes down to the perfect marriage between flexibility and strength”
    well said

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