You want to get bigger, stronger, and faster? If your weekly routine just consists of lifting and conditioning work, you’re only incorporating two of the three ingredients necessary to reach this goal. What’s missing? Your ability to actually move all that meat and muscle around—also known as mobility.
Lots of lifters associate mobility with yoga and dance. And for most guys hitting the bench station at your local gym, mobility is limited to a few minutes of foam-rolling before a heavy lift day (at best).
In reality, though, mobility has long been the secret sauce for seriously fit people. Almost every obstacle elite U.S. Armed Forces have to conquer requires optimal range-of-motion. Conor McGregor gets after grueling gymnastics moves like muscle-ups to be in fighting shape. In 2016, the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team told Men’s Fitness how they boost their strength to complement their flexibility, and vice-versa. (See also: Bruce Lee.)
“Everyone should be including mobility work in their training to ensure they’re performing at their best and decreasing their risk for injury,” says Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a New York-based physical therapist and creator of Movement Vault, an online library of active stretches, muscle contractions, joint mobilizations, and myofascial techniques.
And while Wickham admits mobility may not be as Insta-worthy as a super-heavy deadlift or clean-and-jerk, mobility is certainly having a moment. With the help of guys like CrossFit mobility guru Kelly Starrett and the rise of “ROMWODs” (that’s “range-of-motion workout of the day”), CrossFitters and old-school lifters alike are making mobility top priority.
Why? Athletes are realizing that without range-of-motion, performance will suffer.
“If you can’t get into a good position to execute a lift, you won’t be able to engage the muscles you’re trying to work, and you’re just increasing your risk for injury,” Wickham adds. So if you really want to get all the gains, it’s time to work mobility into your week.
What is mobility training?
So: What exactly is mobility work? Stretching? Yoga? Bear crawls and walking lunges? It could be any of these things.
Mobility designates exercises that will increase your range-of-motion and your stabilization, or control of the muscles that surround each joint, Wickham explains. Mobility isn’t the same as flexibility, though it is close. Mobility incorporates flexibility and strength, and it’s crucial to help you squat deeper, push harder, and jump higher.
Why you need to start working on mobility (or start doing it better)
You’ve probably heard this before, but it’s worth repeating: “Because we spend so much time in poor, static positions including in front of the computer, TV, or phone, our body gets ‘tight’ and lacks both optimal range-of-motion and adequate activation of specific muscle groups,” says Wickham.
Head into a workout with limited range-of-motion, and your assistance muscles will start to compensate. Because assistance muscles are typically smaller and weaker, forcing them to handle excessive torque is a recipe for pain and injury. Worse, if your lifts aren’t activating primary muscles because you can’t achieve full range-of-motion, you probably won’t even build the muscle you’re working toward.
But let’s say you already warm up when you get to the gym. Isn’t that enough? Well…probably not.
“In my experience, most people either don’t know that they need to spend time working on their mobility, don’t know what they should be doing, or are wasting their time performing ineffective techniques,” Wickham says. And you never really know it’s trouble until it’s too late: “Most people can get away with poor mobility and movement for a finite amount of time—until your body has had enough, and injury and pain set in.”
Who should do mobility work?
Literally everyone should add movement work to their warm-up. Just because you know your way around a gym doesn’t mean you in any way have good range-of-motion, says Joe Holder, a performance specialist at S10 gym in New York, Nike trainer/run coach, and founder of The Ocho System. “Mobility isn’t a skill that is contingent upon body-fat percentage.”
Wickham agrees: “Your body doesn’t care how long you’ve been working out. If your shoulder has limited range-of-motion and you keep jamming it every time you perform a pushup, bench press, or snatch, it’s eventually going to push back by way of injury.”
How will mobility really help?
There are two reasons to do mobility work: to prevent getting injured and to get stronger. We know, you only want to hear about the latter—but nothing will put the hurt on your gains like an impingement or strain that prevents you from lifting in the first place.
“Inadequate mobility and stability lead to about 90% of the injuries that come into our physical therapy practice,” says Wickham. Of course, no one cares about their injury risk until one seemingly typical lift goes awry in the matter of a few seconds. But you should. Just 15 minutes of mobility warmup work every day can prevent a devastating injury—torn rotator cuff, slipped disc—that’ll keep you out of the gym (and in a lot of pain) for months.
How will mobility work help? Consider the deadlift: To achieve optimal deadlift position, you need flexible hips and mobility in several other joints and muscles. (Tight hamstrings, for example, will limit your hip motion.) When you have inflexible hips or hamstrings, neighboring joints that can’t handle so much weight at that angle—like, say, your vulnerable lower back—will have to pick up some of the strain.
A day later, that extra lower-back work may just feel like a little soreness in your lumbar spine. But keep lifting like that, and chances are pretty high you’ll eventually pay the price—whether from another tight deadlift or just bending down to lift your kid off the floor.
If you do mobility work regularly, though, you improve that range-of-motion—looser hips, more flexible hamstrings—and your body can use your powerhouse muscles to muscle that barbell off the floor instead.
Furthermore, limited range-of-motion translates to limited muscle growth. (Looking at you, Mr. Load-Up-the-Legs-Press-and-Move-It-an-Inch.) One study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that, compared to 12 weeks of shallow squats, doing deep squats built more thigh muscle, improved knee extension and flexion, and boosted squat-jump power.
“Having optimal mobility and movement lets you achieve better positions, which will allow you to be more efficient in your lifts or movements, which will translate to getting stronger and faster,” Wickham says.
How to do mobility right
Don’t think of mobility as a specific type of workout, but rather as a general athletic skill, like strength or power or speed, Holder says.
And as with building strength or speed, you need to build mobility with multiple techniques.
At the bare minimum, Holder suggests a warmup routine with three components:
- Myofascial work like foam rolling or ball rolling,
- Controlled dynamic stretches,
- Bodyweight movements, like the squat or lunge.
Most important: move slowly and deliberately. Controlled dynamic stretching will increase joint range-of-motion and enhance muscle power better than both static stretching (stretch and hold) and ballistic stretching (stretch and bounce), according to an October 2017 study published in Sports Medicine.
Second, base your warmup on your workout. Before lower-body workouts, do hip circles, legs swings, and Buddha squat holds to open up the musculature around your hips, quads, hamstrings, calves, and ankles. Before upper-body workouts, do scarecrows and shoulder circles to increase range-of-motion in the shoulders (specifically the rotator cuff).
Matching your warmup with your workout will not only activate the muscles you’re focusing on, but also cement proper joint alignment and muscle activation in your brain, Holder adds.
In addition to pre-workout mobility, incorporate functional movements into your daily workouts. Trade your typical cardio for swimming or rowing to improve upper-body range-of-motion. Work moves like bear crawls or duck walks into your strength sessions, or try this bodyweight routine to improve mobility and athleticism.
Lastly, for serious range-of-motion gains, turn active recovery day into a low-intensity mobility day. Take a yoga class or do one of your warmup routines that focuses on your trouble areas, like tight shoulders or hamstrings, Holder suggests.
Get started with Holder’s basic movement warmup: the five best stretches to open your hips before lifting and the ultimate shoulders warmup. When you’re ready to get seriously mobile, check out the Movement Vault, Wickham’s database of the most effective techniques to increase range-of-motion.
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