8 Range of Motion Exercises to Keep Your Joints Strong and Healthy

man in a grey shirt doing range of motion exercises in living room
Doing range of motion exercises helps keep your joints agile and strong.
Image Credit: Justin Paget/DigitalVision/GettyImages

Among your list of fitness goals — building muscle, enhancing endurance and getting faster — we bet that increasing range of motion doesn't make the cut. But it should be one of your top priorities.

Range of motion refers to how much movement you can make around a joint. When your range of motion is limited, you'll notice difficulty or discomfort when you attempt to move a particular body part.

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Over time, this can affect your ability to perform exercises with proper form, lead to muscle imbalances and even contribute to injury.

Fortunately, incorporating some range of motion exercises into your daily routine can help you restore your unrestrained movement and keep your joints healthy.

The Benefits of Range of Motion Exercises

Slowly and intentionally moving your joints through a full range of motion helps the synovial fluid travel within the joint, says Grayson Wickham, DPT, CSCS, a physical therapist, certified strength and conditioning specialist and founder of the Movement Vault.

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Synovial joints, aka moveable joints, contain fluid that possesses all the nutrients your joints need to function optimally. "So, when you move your joints, you provide these nutrients to all the connective tissue surfaces within the joint, such as your joint cartilage," Wickham says. In other words, this type of movement feeds your joints what they need to stay agile and strong.

What's more, range of motion exercises help transport lymphatic fluid throughout your body, Wickham says. Your lymphatic fluid contains waste products that your body must discard to ensure a healthy immune system. If your lymphatic system becomes clogged up, it can't effectively remove these toxins, which may exacerbate chronic inflammation, Wickham says.

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8 Range of Motion Exercises

These eight exercises will systematically move your joints and improve your range of motion from head to toe.

Move 1: Ankle Full Range of Motion Activation

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Sets 1
Reps 20
Activity Mobility Workout
  1. Sit on the ground with one knee bent.
  2. Grab the front of your shin just below your knee with both hands and hold tightly (your goal is to move only your ankle joint, not your knee).
  3. Begin moving your ankle clockwise in a circular motion, trying to move through every millimeter of range of motion that is available to you.
  4. Focus on continuing to expand the range of motion of the circle with each successive repetition.
  5. Do 10 slow, controlled reps in this direction, then do 10 reps counterclockwise.
  6. Switch ankles and repeat.

“Most people don’t spend enough time on all of the muscles that surround their ankle, which can contribute to ankle pain and injury,” Wickham says. “This exercise activates your ankle muscles in all directions.”

Tip

“This exercise is all about focus, concentration and slow, controlled movement,” Wickham says. “The emphasis is on making as big of a circle as possible and contracting all the muscles around your ankle joint.”

Move 2: Knee Full Range of Motion Activation

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Sets 1
Reps 20
Activity Mobility Workout
  1. Sit on the ground with your right leg in front of you. Wrap your right arm underneath your right thigh, just above your knee joint.
  2. Grab your right wrist with your left hand and pull your thigh toward your chest. If this is difficult, you can simply grab both sides of your right thigh with your hands and pull your thigh upward toward your chest.
  3. Next, extend and straighten your knee as far as you can, then rotate your knee to the right as far as possible and hold this position.
  4. While your knee is extended, rotate your knee toward the left while flexing and bending your knee as far as possible. This is one rep.
  5. Do 10 slow, controlled reps in one direction, then 10 reps in the other direction.
  6. Switch legs and repeat on the opposite knee.

This exercise not only focuses on knee flexion and extension but also incorporates knee internal and external rotation, Wickham says. “Having limited knee internal and external rotation can contribute to knee pain and injuries,” he explains.

Move 3: Hip Full Range of Motion Activation

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Sets 1
Reps 10
Activity Mobility Workout
  1. Start in a quadruped position with your knees below your hips and hands below your shoulders.
  2. Flex your hip forward, bringing your knee forward, then slowly rotate it out to the side, and finally extend it backward before returning to the starting position. This completes 1 rep.
  3. Do 5 slow, controlled reps in one direction, then 5 reps in the other direction (moving backward to forward).
  4. Switch legs and repeat on the opposite hip.

This exercise moves your hip joint through its full range of motion. “Having a stable lateral (side) hip joint decreases the likelihood of knee and/or low-back pain and injury,” Wickham says. Plus, this move improves muscle activation in your gluteus medius and gluteus maximus, he adds.

Tip

Make sure the movement originates in your hip. Your back should stay flat and neutral throughout the entire motion (i.e., no arching or rotating), Wickham says.

Move 4: Spine Circle

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Sets 1
Reps 10
Activity Mobility Workout
  1. Start in a quadruped position with your knees below your hips and hands below your shoulders.
  2. Extend your entire spine, arching your back as much as possible. Hold this arched position while you bend to one side (think about bringing your shoulder toward your hip). Pause in this position to feel the stretch.
  3. Flex your entire spine (rounding your back like a cat), then arch and bend toward the other side. Again, hold this position briefly before returning to the starting position. This is 1 rep.
  4. Do 5 slow, controlled reps in one direction, then 5 reps in the other direction.

This is one of the best exercises you can do for your spine, Wickham says. That’s because it moves your entire spine through its full range of motion while stretching out and activating the muscles that support spinal function, he explains.

Move 5: Reverse Snow Angel

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Sets 1
Reps 5
Activity Mobility Workout
  1. Lie face down with your legs together and hands by your sides (palms facing upward).
  2. While keeping your elbows straight, extend your shoulders upward as high as possible.
  3. Then, bring your arms back down and bend both of your elbows. Try to touch your opposite shoulder blades.
  4. Straighten your elbows, while keeping your shoulders extended upward, then rotate your palms down to the ground and slowly move your arms out to the sides and overhead (in an arced motion like a snow angel).
  5. Reverse the arced movement, slowly moving your arms back to your sides and rotating your palms upward. This is 1 rep.
  6. Do 5 slow, controlled reps.

“If you only had one shoulder exercise to perform for shoulder joint health, this would be the one,” Wickham says. That’s because this shoulder range of motion exercise activates and stretches all your shoulder blade and rotator cuff muscles, he explains.

Move 6: Neck Full Range of Motion Activation

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Sets 1
Reps 10
Activity Mobility Workout
  1. Bring your chin to your chest.
  2. While keeping your neck flexed downward, rotate your neck to bring your right ear to your right shoulder. Continue to rotate your neck backward until it is fully extended.
  3. Keep rotating to your left until you come back to the starting position with your chin flexed toward your chest. This is 1 rep.
  4. Do 5 slow, controlled reps in one direction, then 5 reps in the other direction.

“Almost no one dedicates time to maintaining their neck joint health even though a large majority of people suffer from neck pain and stiffness,” Wickham says. “This is a great bang-for-the-buck exercise that stretches and activates all the muscles around your neck.”

Tip

“It’s normal to have clicks and cracks while performing this movement, and it is OK to continue to perform the exercise as long as you don’t have any pinching or sharp pain,” Wickham says.

Move 7: Standing Spine Rotation

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Sets 2
Reps 5
Activity Mobility Workout
  1. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart.
  2. Lean forward and send your hips back, maintaining a flat back.
  3. Lift both of your arms out to the sides and brace your core, then rotate your entire spine in one direction as far as possible and hold for five seconds.
  4. Next, rotate your entire spine in the opposite direction and hold for five seconds. This is 1 rep.
  5. Do 2 sets of 5 reps with a 30-second break in between.

This activation stretch focuses on spinal rotation, which is important because “most people don’t get enough rotational movement in their day-to-day life and/or in their workouts,” Wickham says.

Move 8: Standing Spine Side Bend

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Sets 2
Reps 5
Activity Mobility Workout
  1. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart.
  2. Lean forward and send your hips back, maintaining a flat back.
  3. Lift both of your arms overhead, keeping your elbows straight and thumbs pointed upward.
  4. Engage your core and bend to one side as far as possible and hold for five seconds. Think about making a “C” shape on the side of your body during this hold.
  5. Next, bend to the other side as far as possible and hold for five seconds. This is 1 rep.
  6. Do 2 sets of 5 reps with a 30-second break in between.

“This exercise is great because it focuses on the lateral muscles and fascia (connective tissue) of your upper body and low back,” Wickham says. Plus, it’s a twofer: It activates muscles on one side of your upper body while stretching out muscles on the other side.

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