The Best CARS Mobility Exercises: Controlled Articular Rotations Guide

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Unless you are a physical therapist, occupational therapist, or other movement professional, there’s a good chance you are entirely unfamiliar with CARS, or controlled articular rotations. 

So, what is CARS? What does CARS stand for? Do CARS mobility exercises work? What are the best CARS physical therapy exercises or CARS stretching and mobility exercises?

In this guide, we will discuss what CARS stands for, the type of controlled articular rotations mobility exercises and CARs stretches you might do, and step-by-step instructions for one of the best CARS mobility exercises.

We will cover: 

  • What Is CARS Physical Therapy? What Are Controlled Articular Rotations?
  • What Are the Benefits of Controlled Articular Rotations Exercises?
  • What Are the Best CARS Exercises?

Let’s dive in! 

A physical therapist working with a patient.

What Is CARS Physical Therapy? What Are Controlled Articular Rotations?

Even if you don’t work in the world of physical rehabilitation or conditioning, it can be quite helpful to be aware of the most effective approaches to healing and improving the function of your body.

Enter CARS PT exercises.

CARS stands for controlled articular rotations.

But, what are controlled articular rotations exactly?

“CARS physical therapy“ or “CARS exercises“ are a specific form of mobility work that can improve joint health and methodically improve your range of motion within each joint.

If we break down the term controlled articular rotations, each component of the physical therapy CARS acronym, we can get a better understanding of what CARS exercises are and what controlled articular rotations PT exercises entail.

A physical therapist working with a patient.

So, what is a controlled articular rotation exercise:

Controlled

The “controlled“ term in the CARS exercises refers to the fact that CARS mobility exercises involve small, incremental, deliberate movements rather than large, sweeping ranges of motion, rapid swinging of the body, or freeform exercises.

The purpose of controlled CARS exercises is that you do want to move the body in order to stimulate the movement of the synovial fluid, which is the natural lubricant inside the joint capsule.

Synovial fluid can be likened to motor oil in a vehicle. It lubricates the cartilage, which is a strong, relatively inflexible connective tissue found at the ends of the long bones in a joint.

The cartilage coats the bones, providing a smooth and protective covering to reduce friction.

Coupled with the synovial fluid, healthy cartilage and ample synovial fluid provide for unrestricted movement and joint mobility in a synovial joint like the knee, shoulder, hip, or elbow.

Inactivity causes the synovial fluid to become stagnant, which compromises the smooth gliding of the two adjoining bones in a joint.

If you are dealing with pain in your joints or a limited range of motion due to pain or some sort of tissue restriction, haphazardly moving your joints freely in an uncontrolled manner may exacerbate some sort of tissue injury, which is why CARS stretches and mobility exercises are specifically designed to be controlled and deliberate.

A physical therapist working with a patient.

Articular

The “articular“ term in controlled articular rotations for CARS exercises refers to articulation, which is just a medical term for a joint. An articulation, or a joint, is where at least two bones in your body meet together to afford movement, such as your knee or ankle.

Rotations 

The “rotations“ component of the controlled articular rotations exercises refers to the specific movement pattern used in CARS mobility movements.

When performing CARS rehab and mobility exercises, you rotate one of your limbs by moving it in a circular direction, either toward or away from the midline of your body, keeping the joint in a fixed position to help increase range of motion and usable mobility at the particular joint.

Thus, the CARS movements are small rotations at a joint, so you might see CARS shoulder exercises that involve taking your arm out to the side like the letter T and then making small circles forward and backward.

The ultimate goal of CARS exercises is to increase the end ranges of motion of a joint, which refers to the furthest point that your muscles controlling a particular joint can extend.

The greater your ability to utilize these end ranges of motion, the less restrictive your movement patterns will be for everyday life activities as well as specific exercise settings, whether running, cycling, weightlifting, etc.

People stretching.

What Are the Benefits of Controlled Articular Rotations Exercises?

Now, let’s answer the important question: “What are the benefits of CARS exercises?“

A key aspect of explaining CARS exercise benefits is the distinction between flexibility and mobility.

Although we often tend to conflate these terms, they are interrelated yet different.

Flexibility refers to how much potential range of motion you have in a joint in a passive way, meaning that if you use some sort of external aid to stretch, such as a stretching rope or another person pressing against your limb, how far can you move the joint?

On the other hand, mobility refers to how much active range of motion you have at a joint or your ability to actually use your flexibility in a functional manner in everyday settings or when exercising.

Thus, you can sort of equate mobility to functional or usable flexibility.

A knee hug exercise.

Ultimately, your mobility determines how your body moves and what sorts of restrictions you have in common movement patterns.

Research has found that poor mobility and low-quality movement patterns due to mobility restrictions increase the risk of injury sevenfold. 

For example, researchers have found that they were able to predict the occurrence of an injury based on an individual’s movement pattern quality with 73% accuracy.

This is because your joint mobility, or lack thereof, is a key component of being able to perform a movement correctly and safely.

Controlled articular rotations not only help increase mobility but also improve joint health by lubricating the joints with synovial fluid flow.

This can help prevent mobility problems and support proper, high-quality movement by making sure that your joints glide smoothly and naturally.

Another CARS mobility benefit is that CARS exercises are performed unilaterally, which means that you do a controlled articular rotation exercise on one side of the body at a time.

People warming up at the gym.

This can help correct imbalances in the range of motion between the right and left sides of your body and address functional deficits in mobility, further decreasing the risk of injury and improving movement mechanics.

Ultimately, the benefit of CARS exercises is that the various CARS stretching and mobility movements aim to enhance your ability to use whatever range of motion you have while simultaneously increasing your usable range.

In this way, CARS physical therapy movements increase flexibility as well as neuromuscular control for that flexibility.

Finally, CARS PT exercises improve joint health by stimulating the movement of synovial fluid and preserving the range of motion in a joint, which is an essential component of staving off some of the natural mobility impairments and weakness that comes with advanced age.

In this way, CARS exercises can also be an important aspect of prehab as much as they are rehab movements, useful for athletes who are aging or beginning to feel like they are becoming “stiffer“ or less agile as they get older.

The Best CARS Mobility Exercises: Controlled Articular Rotations Guide 1

What Are the Best CARS Exercises?

There are no “best CARS exercises“ for every person because the best CARS mobility exercises for you will depend on your own personal joint health, mobility problems, and fitness goals.

There are specific CARS exercises for most of the major joints in the body, such as the shoulder, hip, spine, etc. 

You can use CARS exercises as part of a dynamic warm-up before a workout.

Here is an example of a CARS hip exercise:

Hip CARs

  1. Kneel on all fours in a tabletop position.
  2. Keeping your back neutral, your core engaged, and your hips steady, lift your right leg, keeping the right knee bent at the 90° angle as you draw it up toward the back of your right arm.
  3. Then, bring the right leg out to the side as if you are a dog peeing on a hydrant, keeping the bend in the knee but extending the foot up into the air. Feel the hips opening up through flexion, extension, abduction, and internal and external rotation.
  4. Bring the leg full circle to the starting position and then reverse that entire cycle. That’s one rep.
  5. Perform 10 reps on the right leg and then switch sides.

The goal should be to go slower and slower with each subsequent rep, increasing the range of motion in a 360° fashion with the rotation. 

If you are interested in delving deeper into CARS PT exercises, consider working with a local physical therapist who is trained in controlled articular rotations.

For a dynamic warmup before your workouts to get your body moving, click here.

A person stretching their arms.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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