Olympic cyclist Evelyn Stevens, Olympic volleyball player Kerri Walsh Jennings, big wave surfer Laird Hamilton, and extreme kayaker Brad Ludden have one thing in common: they all train with Kelly Starrett. A doctor of physical therapy at CrossFit San Francisco, Starrett has built a reputation as the leading expert on mobility exercises, which he calls foundational, not ancillary, to performance. “This isn’t just about injury prevention,” he says. “It’s about enabling proper form, which leads to enhanced function."
I recently talked to Starrett about his six favorite mobility exercises for athletes to improve their range of motion. They can be completed just about anywhere, and while they'll increase efficiency on the trail or road, they'll also boost general flexibility and balance if performed daily.
Starrett recommends holding each stretch for two full minutes—what he calls “the minimum therapeutic dose”—and alternating between contracting and relaxing the targeted muscles in each position.
In the Morning
1. Hip Flexion and External Rotation
Stand in front of a flat surface no taller than the top of your knee—like a couch, bed, or table. Place your left foot on the prop and externally rotate your knee all the way down, so the outside of your calf and shin is flat against the surface. Think about it like a raised pigeon pose. Slowly work your right leg back and gently lean forward over the externally rotated leg, creating space in your hip and loosening your glute. Hold for two minutes, then switch legs.
2. Couch Stretch
Begin kneeling with your feet behind you against a wall. Move your right leg back so that your shin and foot are up against the wall. Next, step your left leg forward in a lunge position, while keeping your right shin flat against the wall. You should feel the stretch in your quadriceps and hip flexors. Experiment with arching your back, which helps engage the glutes, quads, and hip flexors. Hold for two minutes, then switch legs.
3. Thoracic Mobilization
Lie down on your back with your feet on the ground and knees up, as if you were getting ready to do a sit-up. Place either a small foam roller or two lacrosse balls under your back, at the same height as your pecks. Gently roll up and down.
Right Before Exercise
4. Hip Mobilization
Begin by sitting on a table, bed, or, if you're at the trail head, on the hood of your car with your feet hanging in front of you. Lie back and allow your legs to dangle. Bring one knee to your chest and squeeze it toward your body, while your other leg dangles. You should feel this in the hip flexors of the hanging leg.
5. Leg Swings
Stand parallel to a wall, tree, or something similarly supportive. Balance yourself against it with one arm. Begin swinging your outside leg forward and backward, gradually increasing the range of motion as you swing. Continue for 45 to 90 seconds and then switch legs.
At the End of the Day
6. Soft-Tissue Work
Following a long day, your muscles may accumulate small knots that can cause stiffness and lead to future injuries. Spending just 10 minutes on soft-tissue work at the end of the day helps to break up these adhesions and is an effective way to prevent what could become bigger issues.
Starrett recommends rolling the bottom of your feet out with a lacrosse or golf ball, using a rolling pin or lacrosse balls to roll out your shins, and rolling your quads out with a heavy medicine ball. During each move, stop the rolling motion at points of pain (while still applying pressure) and contract the muscle for five seconds, then release and take two deep breaths before you continue rolling.