"Mobility work" has become a huge catch phrase in training today.
Hell, there are entire websites dedicated to becoming more mobile. They list off exercise after exercise that will help you improve your mobility so that you can, you know, exercise.
I want to preface what I'm about to write by saying that I am not against mobility work. I'm just against it when it's not needed.
Far too often now I see mobility work as a major component in strength programs and I often question why.
"Is this lifter injured?"
"Do they have previous injuries that keep them from performing certain movements pain-free without said mobility work?"
"Are they a novice, or someone that can't perform certain movements through a full range of motion yet?"
I ask these questions because I believe that people often do mobility work for the simple fact that they believe they need to be more mobile, but they aren't always sure why.
When Do You Need Mobility Work?
My general set of rules as to when mobility work may be needed are as follows -
- When you can't perform the movement through a full range of motion.
- When you can't perform the movement through a full range of motion in a technically efficient/sound manner.
- When you can't perform the movement through a full range of motion pain free.
The fact is, if you can perform your barbell and dumbbell movements through a full range of motion pain free, and with good technique, then I don't see a cause or reason for mobility work. If certainly movements cause you pain, then the first thing you need to assess is whether or not you’re performing it in a technically sound manner.
There will never be a good reason for strength athletes to become overly mobile or flexible. In fact, doing so can actually be detrimental to the strength athlete because it can reduce stability. As a strength athlete, you want a certain amount of "tightness." When it comes to moving weight or being explosive, being tight and creating tension is far more optimal than being overly flexible or mobile.
The good news is, you don't have to do boring mobility work to become more mobile or regain your lost mobility. You can select movements that help mobility.
The other reason a lot of people think they need mobility work is because they may have trouble holding a certain "position" in movements. Again, if you're pain-free in a movement, but have trouble in that position, you have to ask yourself one question...
"Am I mobile enough, or just not strong enough to hold the position?"
I once did some yoga classes, and despite the fact that I could deadlift over 700 pounds and do pause squats with over 600 pounds, I had trouble holding certain positions for very long. I didn't have trouble getting my body into yoga positions mind you, I just hadn't strengthened the muscles in a way that allowed me to perform them without struggling.
It wasn't an issue of mobility. It was an issue of strength.
The squat is another example. When someone has their knees cave on the concentric portion of the squat (standing back up with it), it usually means that their glute medius (and glutes in general) isn't strong enough to hold the knees out in an efficient manner, as to counteract overactive hip adductors. This tells us that instability in the hip is caused not because of immobility, but lacking the strength to hold a position.
As not to downplay the benefits of being mobile, I can say without a doubt losing mobility in certain movements can set you up for injuries. This can cause training problems down the road.
For lifters that stick to a lot of barbell only movements and don't do single limb, extended ROM, or dumbbell movements, they can end up being or becoming overly tight in the primary movers. This can put them in a position for injury down the road by becoming too minimized in their training, and movement selection.
You Don't Have to Do Boring Mobility Work
The good news is, you don't have to do boring mobility work to become more mobile or regain your lost mobility. You can select movements that help mobility, add muscle, and decrease your chance of injury.
That is good training economy and efficiency.
A Note Regarding Controversial Movements
Some of the movements I suggest here for adding mobility to your strength training will be labeled as controversial, or ones that you have been told to avoid. My personal opinion about this is that it's bullshit.
Over the years, certain movements have gotten a reputation as being bad because exercise physiologists or sports medicine specialists have deemed them to be dangerous. After 25 years of training, I can tell you that everything from deadlifting to squatting to overhead pressing has been proclaimed by someone to be bad for you.
Any movement can get you injured, or cause overuse injuries if performed incorrectly. Using my rules of mobility that are listed above, if you aren't mobile enough to perform a movement correctly, then you can and will end up injured or with an overuse injury.
Some end up not being able to perform movements that maintain healthy mobility. This happens for the simple fact that they have avoided them because, as mentioned earlier, they were deemed dangerous by someone else.
For example, lots of people avoid any type of movement performed behind the head or neck. They have read over and over again that it's dangerous. And it is....for those that are too weak to have stability in that range of motion, or are too tight in the rotator cuff to perform them without pain.
I was told by a world-renowned strength and Olympic lifting coach that he judged whether or not a lifter had healthy shoulders by their ability to do behind the neck movements. Some may scoff at this, but its because they have read and bought into the bullshit that behind the neck work is dangerous.
Nevermind that the shoulders are the most flexible joints in the entire body. The fact is, if "behind the neck" anything gives you pain or trouble, and you don't have a pre-existing injury in that area, then you're just not strong or flexible enough in the rotator cuff to perform those types of movements.
Olympic lifters do all sorts of frequent behind the neck work without issue. It's not that the movements are bad for you. It's that they are bad for people who are weak and immobile in that range of motion. There are guys that are so tight in the shoulders that doing low bar back squats becomes painful for them. Does this mean low bar positioning for squats is bad? No. It means they have become too immobile or inflexible to do them without pain.
So how do we remedy this?
By performing these movements, or movements that allow these lifts to eventually be performed pain-free through a full range of motion.
Some movements I suggest here for adding mobility to your strength training...you have been told to avoid. My personal opinion about this is that it's bullshit.
Shoulders and Upperbody Mobility Movements
Movement #1 - Shoulder Dislocates
This is a great movement for guys who aren't able to do behind the neck movements, or low bar squats without discomfort. You can use a broomstick or bands to perform these. If you use a broomstick, then grab it very wide, bring it up over head, and down behind you as far as possible.
A band works really well for these because it will allow your joints to move a little more naturally and not be in a "fixed" position throughout the movement.
Do 4 sets of 12 to 15 repetitions of these before you do your overhead work. After a few weeks, you can move on to doing the next movement...
Movement #2 - Barbell Press Behind the Neck
The key here is to grab the bar wide, just like with the broom stick. You don't have to actually lower the bar all the way down to the base of the neck mind you. I generally touch the middle of my neck. Of course, start light on these and then add weight over the coming weeks until all the muscles involved in that movement are strong enough to have stability while performing it.
As you can see now, we have accomplished two things. First, we became mobile in the range of movement. Then we added stability by getting stronger in that ROM. Again, adhering to the principles laid out above.
My suggestion is to start with 4 sets of 12 and go very light. Slowly add weight each week until you can use heavier weights in a full ROM without discomfort. How heavy? I've done 365 pounds on this movement with no issue, and I have a permanently separated shoulder. Klokov has performed snatch grip press behind the neck with 275 pounds for triples. If your have good shoulder mobility, and you have stability in them by strengthening them correctly, these movements are not dangerous.
Movement #3 - Dumbbell Flyes
This is another movement that lots of strength athletes have avoided over the years for various reasons. I guess they figure that because bodybuilders do them, they should be avoided. Nonsense.
The primary function of the pectorals are to move the shoulder joint. Namely, the flexion, adduction, and medial rotation of the humerus. The primary function of the pectoral major is to essentially bring the humerus across the chest, i.e. a flye motion.
With dumbbell flyes we are in fact strengthening the pectorals by asking it to perform its primary function against resistance, with a stretch. You don't have to go heavy on these at all to get the benefits from this movement. Concentrate on the stretch portion and making the pectorals contract to actually move the weight. 4 sets of 12-15 reps here will work great.
Another alternative here is the "fancy boy" cable cross-over machine. Again, don't demonize a movement because too many skinny runts are using it. Use it for a purpose that benefits you. Not because too many dudes that should be squatting, rowing, and pressing are using it for the wrong reasons.
If you can perform your barbell and dumbbell movements through a full range of motion pain free, and with good technique, then I don't see a cause or reason for mobility work.
Lower Body Mobility Movements
Doing single leg work isn't something that is a big emphasis. Your rarely see a lot of strength athletes and bodybuilders these days using them. Why this is, I am not sure.
Single leg work helps to create balance across the lower body. This is especially important on closed chain movements like squats, where most lifters tend to shift to their dominant side, whether they realize it or not.
Lifters will sometimes attribute things like their IT band being tight or painful because a lack of mobility or flexibility. But often times it’s because they are simply shifting to their dominant side.
One program I learned from a very smart physical therapist was something called the "lunge matrix". Here is how it is performed.
Movement #1 - The Lunge Matrix
Pretend you are standing on a clock face. Now perform 5 reps of lunges per leg at the following positions on the clock.
- 5 reps straight ahead at 12 o'clock
- 5 reps at 1:30 and 10:30
- 5 reps doing side to side lunges at 3 and 9 o'clock
- 5 reps at 5:30 and 7:30
- 5 reps at 6 o'clock (reverse lunges)
You can repeat this matrix 3 or 4 times at the end of a training session, or 2 times before you perform the big compound movements on leg day. This will get the hips warmed up.
This is a great program. It will let you know immediately where you are lacking in terms of mobility and flexibility, and if you have lower body strength imbalances. Keep it in your program as pre-hab work, or at least some type of lunge to keep your hips healthy.
Movement #2 - Barefoot Walking Lunges in the Grass
I wasn't sure what to call these to be honest. So I just named them how I perform them.
I take my shoes off, and lunge up and down my back yard. The reason for this is not only because it is good hypertrophy work, but also to strengthen the ankle and some of the smaller stabilizing muscles in the hips.
My yard, like most, isn't perfectly even. It makes me stabilize more than on an even surface. If you don't think so, try it out (not in my backyard though). You will notice that you wobble more, and generally feel more "off balance".
Before you compare it to some goofy shit you see in the gym like some dude trying to squat on a bosu ball, this actually has real merit to it. It will help to build up all the small stabilizing muscles in the lower body, and if you are taking big strides in the lunge, will also aid in increasing flexibility. Make sure you open up your hip by getting the knee out on the plant foot. This external rotation in the hip joint will bring the glutes more into play.
I generally do these at the end of my training and use it a "finisher". So basically, I do them until I cry uncle.
Movement #3 - Deficit Stiff Legged Deadlift
These have been a staple of mine for a long time. They build the posterior chain like no other movement, including conventional deadlifts, and because of the extended range of motion will really stretch out the hamstrings.
I use a 4" deficit to do these on. However, if you're too stiff to perform them that way you can simple start by standing on a 45 pound plate.
Now when I write "stiff-legged" you aren't actually in a "straight-legged" position. So it's a bit of a misnomer. You want a soft knee, meaning it's slightly bent, when you perform these. The knee stays locked in that position throughout the movement. Don't turn it into a partial conventional deadlift by bending at the knee more as you get fatigued, or the weight gets heavier.
Bend at the hips to get into position, and hold the soft knee position to start the movement. Keep the low back neutral or just slightly arched.
I actually go quite heavy on these. Sometimes up to over 600 pounds for reps. Generally, I stay around 500 and do several sets of 5-8. If you find yourself losing that neutral spine or bending too much at the knee, then lower the weight and the deficit height, and build back up from there.
This isn't a "mobility" workout, per say. This is a way to incorporate movements so that a lack of mobility doesn't become a factor, or if it is, to get mobile enough to train in a productive way again.
If you need mobility work because of the reasons I outlined above, then do it. Then try to incorporate movements such as these into your training so that your joints and your new mass from them, thank you for it.