Range of Motion Exercises

Tamsen Butler
Reviewed by Terri Forehand RN
Person testing range of motion

Increased range of motion in joints can result in increased performance for not only athletic pursuits, but also activities of daily living. If you have injuries, it's best to get range of motion exercises from a licensed physical therapist who has knowledge of your physical limitations. Additionally, speak to a physician right after any new injury before attempting to self-treat. If you're injury-free and simply want to increase your range of motion, there are some exercises you can do.

Range of Motion Explained

Range of motion refers to the ability of a joint to move. Human joints move in two directions (flexion, which decreases the angle between two body parts and extension, which increases the angle). Range of motion can vary depending on heredity, conditioning, age, and previous injuries.

Caution Before Exercise

Starting up any new exercise regimen, it's important to consult with a physician or physical therapist to enure your readiness for the activity. This is particularly important when it comes to range of motion exercises, as doing these improperly can result in injury. Passive range of motion exercises (those that are assisted by a person or device) should only be done by physical therapists or doctors of osteopathy.

Sample Exercises

Following are some sample range of motion exercises, designed to help increase flexibility and range of motion. Add these exercises to your stretching routine, holding each for 20-30 seconds, three times through. If any stretch causes discomfort, immediately stop the stretch. You should feel a stretch, but not discomfort and certainly not pain.

Neck Exercise

This simple exercise is particularly good for people who sit at desks for the majority of the day, as they typically hold a slumped-over posture, keeping their neck in one position for long periods of time.

  1. Sit (or stand) tall.
  2. Drop your right ear to your right shoulder, keeping your shoulder down. Don't allow the shoulder to come up to meet the ear - instead, drop the ear to meet the shoulder.
  3. Repeat on the left side.
Woman doing neck exercise

Shoulder Exercise

The shoulder is a common joint that loses range of motion with age or injury. Try this exercise to help increase the shoulder's range of motion.

  1. Sit (or stand) tall.
  2. Cross your right arm across your chest. Keep your shoulder dropped and don't allow it to migrate upward.
  3. Use your left hand to grab above or below your right elbow to press the right arm into the chest, deepening the stretch.
  4. Repeat on the left side.
Woman doing shoulder exercise

Elbow Exercise

The aid of a flat surface (like a table or desk) helps with this elbow stretch.

  1. Sit or stand in front of a table or other flat surface that is high enough to where you can put your elbow on the surface without slumping over.
  2. With your elbow on the flat surface, flex the elbow to bring your hand up toward your shoulder.
  3. With your palm up, lower your hand to the flat surface.
  4. If you already have excellent range of motion in your elbow, do this exercise standing and bringing your hand all the way down to your side (like a biceps curl) instead of to a 90 degree angle on the table.
  5. Add a light hand weight or weighted ball for more challenge if you'd like.
  6. Repeat on the other side.
Woman doing elbow exercise with therapist

Wrist Exercise

This wrist exercise is common to weight lifters and rock climbers - anyone who challenges their grip strength in exercise.

  1. Extend your right arm out ahead of you.
  2. Using your left hand, grasp the fingers of your right hand.
  3. Gently pull back, taking care to not pull to the point of pain or discomfort.
  4. Follow this move with wrist circles in both directions.
  5. Repeat on the left side.
Woman doing wrist exercise in park

Hip Exercise

This isometric exercise should only be done after warming up the muscles. A walk, cycle, or light jog are good options to prepare before this stretch.

  1. Sit on the floor with your torso tall and shoulders back and relaxed.
  2. Allowing your knees to bow out, pull the bottom of your feet together.
  3. If you're able, hinge at your hips to drop your upper body forward, drawing your knees closer to the ground.
  4. Once you reach the point where you feel the stretch (but no discomfort), hold. Continue to breathe throughout the exercise.
Three people doing hip exercise

Knee Exercise

Knee exercises can help increase your range of motion and strengthen the muscles surrounding the knee, making you less susceptible to injury. Those with knee replacements or knee injuries should consult with their physical therapist before doing exercises specific to this joint. The simple exercise of walking frequently can also help increase range of motion in the knee.

Ankle Exercise

Do this exercise sitting in a chair, or if you have excellent balance you can do it standing.

  1. With your right foot off the ground, point (plantar flexion) your toes down toward the ground.
  2. Now point your toes toward the ceiling (dorsiflexion).
  3. Do ankle circles in one direction before switching to the other direction.
  4. Repeat the sequence with the left foot.
Doctor stretching woman's ankle

Maintain Your Flexibility

Range of motion exercises aren't exclusive to people recovering from injuries. Doing these exercises will help you keep your range of motion as you age. Speak with a medical professional about proper range of motion exercises for you if you have a history of injuries or surgeries.

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Range of Motion Exercises