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To reach your next PR in your favorite cardio activity — or to simply improve your game — the secret may not be doing more cardio work. Rather, it may be adding strength and mobility training to your routine.

Whether you love hiking, swimming, racquet sports, or Zumba, strength training helps build durable, powerful muscles and stable joints, which translates to better performance, fewer injuries, and improved recovery.

Mobility work, meanwhile, is “going to unlock your body for the work you’re going to be doing, which helps with proper muscle recruitment, range of motion, and all the things that can help lead to injury prevention,” says NASM-certified personal trainer and corrective exercise specialist Carrie Boyle. (Learn more about the importance of mobility at any age by exploring the articles in this collection that will help you improve mobility in your hips, ankles, shoulders, and more.)

Incorporating even a couple of exercises that are specific to your cardio activity of choice can help you level up your performance.

Yet making space in your busy schedule for targeted strength and mobility training is easier said than done. Knowing exactly which exercises to do, and finding the time and energy to do them while also focusing on your favorite sport, can be tough.

To help you over that hump, we’ve done some of the homework for you. Incorporating even a couple of exercises that are specific to your cardio activity of choice — such as the expert-­recommended ones that follow — can help you level up your performance.

Cycling

Indoor and outdoor cyclists spend a lot of time in one position — seated, with spine, shoulders, and neck bent forward. Moving the thoracic (mid) spine in different planes of motion keeps the muscles and joints mobile, says Rachel Andrews, a certified strength and conditioning coach, who recommends the open book stretch for cyclists.

The ability to twist your spine, shoulders, and neck keeps other joints and muscles from kicking in to compensate for a lack of spinal mobility, which reduces pain and injury risk. It also enables you to check behind you for vehicles while cycling.

To power each pedal stroke on the bike, cyclists must push down with one leg while the other leg is bent behind them. This position calls for strength in the quadriceps (the muscles in the front of the thighs) and hamstrings (the muscles in the back of the thighs), along with help from the core muscles to keep cyclists from falling off the bike.

To shore up these muscles, Andrews recommends offset front-rack split squats. “It’s a similar position as the bike pedal stroke, where you always have one foot forward and one foot back,” she says. Holding a weight on one side can help train your core muscles to stabilize while your legs bend and straighten.

Mobility

Open Book Stretch
This is a great stretch to do first thing in the morning, before or after a ride, or after a long period of sitting.

illio open book stretch

Full Instructions
  • Lie on your right side. Bend your knees to 90 degrees and let them rest on the floor in line with your hips. Keeping your knees on the floor, extend both arms on the floor in front of your chest so your palms touch.
  • On an exhale, retract your left shoulder blade and peel your left arm open as you gently rotate your upper body to bring your arm and shoulder blade toward the floor on the opposite side.
  • Inhale as you return to the start­ing position. Do two sets of five reps per side. Try to deepen the upper-body rotation on every exhale.

Strength

Offset Front-Rack Split Squat
Perform this exercise two or three
days per week.

illio offset front rack split squat

Full Instructions
  • Rack a dumbbell or kettlebell in front of your left shoulder with your left hand.
  • Step your left foot back and lower into a lunge, aiming to bring your left knee to the floor. Your back toes should be tucked so you’re on the ball of your foot. Your right foot should be on the ground in front of you, your right knee bent 90 degrees.
  • Distribute your weight evenly across your right foot as you push up to a standing position, then lower your left knee back to the kneeling position. Do two or three sets of eight to 10 repetitions per side.

Walking and Hiking

The hips are ball-and-socket joints that play a central role in walking. “We want to make sure that we have a full range of motion in the hips and that they’re working properly for us because they anchor several big muscle groups that power us through our walk,” says Boyle, who is also a walking coach.

Single-leg mobility moves like the standing hip circle can improve range of motion in the hips and engage and optimize the surrounding muscles and joints — including those found in the core, spine, and legs.

In addition to mobility, hip strength is important for walking. There are many hip muscles, but the glutes are major ones. The following banded-squat variation targets the gluteus maximus (the meaty muscle in your buttocks that powers forward movement) and the gluteus medius (the side-butt muscle that stabilizes your pelvis and hips, which helps your knees and ankles maintain their proper alignment). It also strengthens the legs to help push you through every step and targets the calves and ankles for an added boost.

Mobility

Standing Single-Leg Hip Circle
Warm up your hips with this move before a walking or hiking workout.

illio standing leg hip circle

Full Instructions
  • Standing with feet hip width apart, place your hands on your hips or hold on to a railing, pole, or other sturdy object for balance support.
  • Raise one knee as high as you comfortably can, keeping your toes pointed forward. Bring the knee out to the side to open the hip before slowly moving it down toward the floor.
  • Continue moving your knee in a big circle until it’s pointing straight ahead again. Do 10 circles in one direction before repeating in the opposite direction. Switch legs.

Strength

Mini Band Squat With Calf Raise
Perform this exercise two or three times per week on walking or nonwalking days.

illio mini band sqat to calf raise

Full Instructions
  • Place a mini band around your thighs just above your knees and stand with your feet hip width apart, toes pointed forward.
  • Squat down as far as you comfortably can, gently pushing your thighs outward to create slight tension on the band. Maintain that tension throughout the whole movement. Keep your chest up, with your shoulders down and away from your ears, and knees in line with your toes. (If you feel your knees pull in during the squat, switch to a lighter band.)
  • Push through your feet to return to the starting position. Once standing, shift your weight onto the balls of your feet to raise your heels off the ground.
  • Lower your heels to the floor before starting your next squat. Do three sets of 10 repetitions.

Running

Like walking, running relies heavily on the hips — and limited hip mobility can create issues. Tight hip flexors (the muscles in the front of the hip that kick in with each step) tend to be common in runners, thanks to their use in running and sitting.

“If your hip flexor is tight, you’ll have limited ability to extend your hip,” says Mike Thomson, CSCS, a USATF-certified running and triathlon coach with Life Time. If you can’t extend your hip, you won’t be able to recruit as much of your glutes, which means less power with every stride.

Runners can also benefit from strengthening the glutes and legs to provide more stride power and minimize fatigue. This may help you run faster and longer, as well as prevent injury and pain by keeping other muscles and joints (like those in the lower back) from kicking in to compensate. For runners, Thomson favors the Bulgarian split squat, performed with the rear leg elevated, because it both stretches the hip flexor and strengthens the glutes and legs one side at a time.

Mobility

Couch Stretch
Use this stretch to loosen your hip flexors after every run.

illio of couch stretch

Full Instructions
  • Kneel on the floor in front of a sturdy structure, like a wall, bench, or, as the name suggests, a couch, facing away. Position your right shin close to the wall or couch with toes pointed toward the ceiling. (Place a mat, towel, or cushion under your right knee, as needed.) Position your left foot flat on the floor in front of you with your left knee directly over your ankle.
  • Lift your torso and rest your hands on your left thigh. Lean back until you feel a slight stretch along the front of your right hip and thigh.
  • Hold for 10 deep breaths, sinking a little deeper on each exhale. Switch sides.

Strength

Bulgarian Split Squat
Include this exercise in your routine two or three days per week.

illio of Bulgarian split squat

Full Instructions
  • Stand 2 to 3 feet in front of a knee-high platform (like a box, bench, or step), facing away. Extend your right leg behind you and rest your toes on the bench. Toes can be flat or tucked, depending on personal preference.
  • Keeping your torso upright, slowly lower your right knee toward the floor. Your front knee will form approximately a 90-degree angle. (It may go farther, depending on your mobility; just make sure your knee doesn’t cave inward.)
  • Distribute your weight evenly across your left foot as you push up to return to the starting position. Squeeze your rear glute at the top of the movement. Do three sets of 12 repetitions per leg.
  • Use only your body weight when learning the movement. Then add weight by holding dumbbells or kettlebells at your sides.

Swimming

Rotating your torso in the water is essential for a more streamlined swim stroke. “Imagine swimming with your chest facing the bottom of the pool the entire time; [you would be] like a tank going through the water,” Thomson says.

But if you can twist from side to side, you’ll be able to generate more force and be more streamlined to cut through the water. To rotate efficiently, your thoracic spine must be mobile. Threading the needle can help loosen things up.

An essential area to target in strength training, meanwhile, is the latissimus dorsi, or lats. These are the large, fan-shaped muscles that occupy most of the territory in your back, spanning from your upper arm down to your pelvis and across your ribs. These muscles play a key role in your ability to pull yourself through the water. Thomson recommends single-arm pull-downs to work the lats one side at a time, mimicking the demands of a swimming stroke.

Mobility

Thread the Needle
Warm up your thoracic spine with this movement before jumping into the water.

illio thread the needle

Full Instructions
  • Set up on the floor in a tabletop position: neutral spine, palms flat with shoulders over wrists, and knees on the ground in line with your hips.
  • On an inhale, lift your right hand and extend your arm toward the ceiling, following it with your gaze.
  • Exhale and bring your right hand under your chest toward the floor. Thread it beneath your torso, allowing your right arm, shoulder, and side of your head to rest on the floor.
  • Inhale to reverse the movement and extend your arm toward the ceiling. Do 10 repetitions per side.

Strength

Single-Arm Cable Lat Pull-down
Add this exercise to your routine two or three days per week.

illio single arm cable pull down in split squat position

Full Instructions
  • If you have access to a lat pull-down machine that allows you to work one arm at a time, go for it. If not, set up a cable machine with a handle attachment. Adjust the height so you can kneel on the floor (facing the cable machine) and grip the handle with your arm fully extended. You could also use a resistance band; just be sure to anchor the band to a sturdy object.
  • Squeeze your shoulder blade as you pull the handle down toward you until your elbow points ­behind you.
  • Extend your arm to return to the starting position. Do three sets of 12 repetitions per arm.

Pickleball

Pickleball and other racquet sports rely on many muscles and joints. In particular, they require great mobility of the hip flexors, adductors (the muscles in your inner thighs that move your legs inward toward the center of your body), and thoracic spine, says Joe Meier, CSCS, a Life Time tennis pro and strength coach.

If you lack mobility in these spots, you won’t be able to lunge to return a serve, rotate to hit the ball, or jump from side to side efficiently. Meier likes the “world’s greatest stretch” mobility exercise because it targets all the key muscle groups you need to improve your on-court performance and lower your risk of injury.

An important but often overlooked area when strength training for racquet sports is the back-body. Why does it matter? Just watch someone play and you’ll notice that they don’t often stand fully upright, says Meier. Usually, they’re leaning forward in a quarter-squat, because this athletic stance allows them to change direction more easily when they need to return a serve.

Maintaining this position and moving quickly around the court requires a lot of strength in the back, glutes, and hamstrings, he explains. Bent-over rows build strength in that athletic stance.

Mobility

World’s Greatest Stretch
Use this stretch to warm up before playing your favorite racquet sport.

illio world's greatest stretch

Full Instructions
  • Begin on the floor in a high plank
    position.
  • Step your left foot forward and to the outside of your left hand. Keep your right knee off the ground.
  • Lift your left hand off the ground and rotate your torso toward your left knee to reach toward the ceiling; let your gaze follow your hand as you rotate through your spine. Hold for three seconds before lowering your hand back down to the ground. Do five repetitions with the left arm.
  • Reverse the movement to return to a high plank and repeat on the other side, beginning by stepping your right foot forward to the outside of your right hand.

Strength

Two-Arm Bent-Over Row
Perform this exercise two or three
days per week.

illio barbell bent row

Full Instructions
  • Stand with your feet hip width apart and hold a loaded barbell in front of you with both hands.
  • Keeping your back flat, hinge forward at the waist so your arms are extended straight down toward the floor.
  • Tighten your abdominals and bend your elbows to row the barbell up to your rib cage.
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades at the top of the movement before lowering the barbell until your arms are fully extended and you feel a slight stretch in the shoulders. Do two or three sets of six to 12 repetitions.

Soccer

Soccer and other field sports feature a lot of accelerating, decelerating, and quick changes of direction, says former collegiate soccer player Erica Suter, MS, a youth female athlete speed and strength coach. As the link between the upper body and lower body, the hips play a crucial role in transferring power efficiently for these high-speed movements.

The ankles are key, too, because they help transfer the force from the hips to the feet. Without stable, mobile hip and ankle joints, you will be slower on the field — and more likely to twist a knee or an ankle.

Because field sports involve quick bursts of running and change of direction, targeting the glutes and legs is also essential. It’s important for players to challenge their balance too; this helps build the stability needed to protect muscles and joints from injury during sudden shifts in direction. Suter says unilateral (single-sided) strength exercises check all the boxes.

Mobility

TRX Trainer-Assisted Single-Leg Squat
Add this move to your routine one or two days per week.

illio TRX pistol squat

Full Instructions
  • Grip the handles of a suspension trainer and step back until there’s no slack in the straps. Shift your weight onto your right leg, lifting your left foot a few inches off the floor in front of you.
  • Bend your right knee and slowly push your hips back to squat down as far as you comfortably can. Try to get your hip as close to your right heel as possible while your left foot hovers off the ground in front of you. Keep your head and chest lifted.
  • Distribute your weight evenly across your right foot as you push up to return to the starting position. Do two or three sets of six to eight repetitions per leg.

Strength

Single-Leg Squat to Bench
Do this exercise one or two times a week on nonsoccer days.

illio single leg squat to bench

Full Instructions
  • Stand in front of a bench, facing away. Shift your weight onto your right leg, lifting your left foot a few inches off the floor in front of you.
  • Bend your right knee and slowly push your hips back to squat down onto the bench. Let your left foot hover off the ground in front of you and keep your head and chest lifted.
  • Lightly tap the bench with your glutes before pushing through your right foot to return to the starting position. Do two sets of six to eight repetitions per leg.
  • If lifting the extended leg is too challenging at first, practice leaving it planted on the ground in front of you. As your squat becomes more stable, progress to lifting it a few inches off the floor.

Zumba

Cardio dance classes call for a wide range of dynamic movements. “Especially in Zumba, you can expect to move your hips a lot as you swivel, thrust, and twist during rhythms like salsa, merengue, and reggaetón,” says Alayna Curry, a licensed Zumba instructor and NASM-certified women’s fitness specialist.

Tightness in the hips and groin can make dance movements difficult or uncomfortable. To help reduce your risk of a muscle strain or injury, Curry recommends doing mobility exercises that help open the hips.

Strengthening the core and leg muscles can also help you per­form dance movements longer. Plus, it shores up the muscles surrounding your hip, knee, and ankle joints, improv­ing their stability, she notes. “This is especially important when you’re dancing and doing a lot of jumping, shuffling, and quick move­ments from side to side and forward and back.”

Mobility

Butterfly Stretch
Add this stretch to your dance class warm-up and cool-down.

butterfly stretch

Full Instructions
  • Sit or lie on the ground and place the soles of your feet together. Adjust how close your feet are to your body to find the appropriate intensity of stretch. (Move the heels in toward the body for a more intense stretch; move them away from the body to reduce the stretch.)
  • Allow your knees to gently drop toward the floor. Don’t force them to drop; let gravity do the work.
  • If you’re seated, keep your posture tall by reaching the crown of your head toward the ceiling. If you’re lying down, lightly engage your core to keep a neutral spine and avoid arching your back. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds.

Strength

Goblet Squat
Perform this exercise up to three
days per week.

illio goblet squat

Full Instructions
  • Stand with your feet hip width apart, toes pointed slightly out, and hold a kettlebell or dumbbell at chest height with both hands, palms facing in.
  • Push your butt back and bend your knees to squat down as far as you comfortably can. Keep your chest up; shoulders down and away from your ears; and knees in line with your toes.
  • Distribute your weight evenly within and across both feet as you push up to return to the starting position. Do three sets of 10 to 12 repetitions.

Basketball

“Basketball is one of those sports where the body is constantly going in different directions, changing pace, and going through explosive movements,” says former professional basketball player Lorenzo Orr, who’s now a basketball trainer with Life Time. “Being able to stop on a dime is very important, and you need that joint flexibility and stability to prevent injuries.”

You especially need mobility — a combination of flexibility and stability — in the lower body joints: the ankles, knees, and hips. Using an unstable surface for step-ups is one way to improve range of motion while also challenging stability.

In addition to stability, explosive strength is key for superior performance. Explosiveness helps you jump higher, run faster, shoot farther, and change directions more quickly. For basketball players, building power in your glutes and legs offers the most bang for your buck, as much of the sport’s demands recruit the lower body. Orr favors box jumps for creating lower-body explosiveness.

Mobility

BOSU Balance Trainer Step-Up
Do this exercise
twice a week.

illio person stepping up onto a bosu ball

Full Instructions
  • Position a BOSU balance trainer with the flat side facing down. Place your left foot onto the center of the BOSU and step up with control.
  • Keep your core engaged as you stand on your left leg, keeping your opposite (right) leg aloft behind you.
  • Return your right foot to the floor to return to the starting position. Do three sets of 10 repetitions per leg.
  • If you’re struggling to balance on one leg, lightly grasp a railing or place your hand on a wall for support. Work toward removing this support over time.

Strength

Box Jumps
Do this exercise two to three times per week, give yourself at least 24 hours of rest between sessions.

illio person doing a box jump

Full Instructions
  • Stand with your feet hip width apart, about a foot behind a plyo box or other sturdy elevated surface. (Plyo boxes range from 6 inches to more than 42 inches in height. Beginners should start with the shortest option, only increasing the height once they feel confident.)
  • Hinge your hips, bend your knees into a mini squat, and swing your arms back.
  • Explosively extend your hips and legs as you swing your arms forward for added momentum and jump onto the box.
  • Land gently on the balls of your feet with knees soft, then plant your feet on the box. Don’t land with your heels hanging off the box or on your knees and hands.
  • Straighten your legs and drive through your hips to stand tall.
  • Step down one foot at a time, alternating legs after each jump. Do three sets of seven to 10 repetitions.

Cardio Kickboxing

Thanks to the kicking and punching, cardio kickboxing involves a lot of dynamic movements. In particular, kicking recruits the hamstrings and hip flexors, which can cause them to become tight, especially when paired with prolonged periods of sitting, says Lindsey Bomgren, a NASM-certified personal trainer and owner of Nourish Move Love. Loosening the hamstrings and hip flexors can improve mobility in the hips and legs, helping you pivot, twist, and strike powerfully and efficiently.

This sport also relies heavily on power and explosiveness. “Having good muscle mass translates into harder kicks and faster punches,” Bomgren says. You need solid strength in your core and legs to pivot, twist, and kick without injuring yourself, she notes.

Front-rack reverse lunges build leg and core strength. As she explains, it works your muscles in a position that you’ll often find in cardio kickboxing: stepping one foot behind you and then returning it to the starting position while keeping your arms lifted.

Mobility

Half-Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch With Hamstring Rockback
Include this stretch in your cardio kickboxing warm-up and cooldown.

illio hip flexor and hamstring flow

Full Instructions
  • Kneel on the floor on your left knee and tuck your back toes so you’re on the ball of your foot. Your right foot should be on the ground in front of you, your right knee bent 90 degrees. Rest your hands on your right thigh.
  • Tuck your tailbone slightly by pulling your belly button toward your spine. Then, gently push your hips forward until you feel a stretch along the front of your left thigh and hip.
  • Hold for three seconds then rock back to sit toward your left heel, flexing your right foot and straightening your right leg for a gentle hamstring stretch. You may want to bring your hands to the floor for added stability and/or adjust the placement of your right foot to fully extend that leg.
  • Hold for three seconds before releasing and moving into another hip flexor stretch. Continue for one minute. Switch sides.

Strength

Front Rack
Reverse Lunge
Do this exercise two to three times per week. You can do it on cardio kickboxing days or off days.

illio person doing reverse lunge

Full Instructions
  • Hold two dumbbells at shoulder height and stand with feet hip width apart.
  • Step your left foot back and lower into a lunge, aiming to bring your left knee to the floor. Don’t let your right knee creep past your big toe. Keep the dumbbells up and your chest lifted.
  • Drive your right foot into the ground to return to standing, bringing your left foot back to the starting position. Do three sets of 10 repetitions per leg.
  • If the front rack position is too challenging at first, practice lunging with the weights down by your sides first. As your lunge becomes more stable, progress to holding the weights at shoulder height.

This article originally appeared as “Level Up” in the July/August 2024 issue of Experience Life.

Illustrations: Kveta
Lauren
Lauren Bedosky

Lauren Bedosky is a Twin Cities–based health-and-fitness writer.

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