If you’ve spent any time in the gym at all, and I’m assuming you as a reader of this gym blog has, you’ve more than likely heard that it’s important to train and maintain mobility. There are thousands and thousands of different mobility exercises and stretching routines that athletes across all sports are told to follow by their strength coaches. You’ve probably done some of those exercises yourself trying to increase your own mobility for whatever reason you deemed necessary. On social media, you will find people who will say that you need to be able to move this way or that way, and sometimes to what may appear to be an extreme range of motion. But how mobile do we really need to be? Is it necessary for us to take yoga five times every week and fold ourselves into a pretzel?
To answer that question, we should probably define a couple of things. The first is to define exactly what mobility is. It is simply the joint’s ability to move in the socket. That’s it; there’s no deep meaning to the word mobility. This should not be confused with flexibility. Flexibility is the muscles’ ability to stretch. Flexibility is connected to mobility, but not the same. The next thing we have to answer is why are we being mobilized. Now, every person on the planet, barring any physical handicaps, should have a basic level of mobility. Everyone should be able to touch their toes. Everyone should be able to do a deep bodyweight squat depending on their body’s structure. Once we start diving into the specificity of mobility, things get a little weird, especially when we are talking about displaying mobility under load. To explain this, we should take a look at strength sports, as most of you reading this are probably engaging in one. Every athlete is going to be different. We all have varying degrees of range of motion depending on how our bodies are built; so, we are going to look at mobility with a wide lens within the sports of powerlifting, Olympic lifting and strongman. I’m not going to talk about CrossFit specifically, because in a lot of ways it is very similar to strongman in that there is a wide variety of events for their athletes to do. Except you guys run a lot. Gross.
Mobility in Powerlifting
The objective in powerlifting is pretty straight forward. Lifters have to move as much weight as possible on the back squat, the deadlift and the bench press. When it comes to mobility, the most important question is whether or not the lifter can get into position under a heavy load. Let’s take the squat for an example. Lifters need to have the shoulder and thoracic mobility in order to support the bar on their body with stability. They also need to have a degree of ankle and hip mobility so that they can properly hinge and descend to the required depth to satisfy the rules. The general rule is that the hips need to break the plane of the knees. For the sake of the sport, powerlifters do not need to display more mobility than that during a competition. Would it be better for the lifters to be capable of a greater range of mobility for both general fitness and sport specific performance? Absolutely, but it is not necessary to have an extreme degree of mobility. So, for the sake of competing in the sport of powerlifting, lifters only need to make sure that they can put themselves in the position necessary to lift a maximum load within the scope of the rules.
Mobility in Olympic Lifting
In the strength sport world, Olympic lifters probably have to be able to display the greatest amount of mobility while moving a load. Olympic lifters are not going to move as much weight as powerlifters in competition, but they aren’t just moving weight statically. They have to move a heavy load from the floor to over their head in an explosive and fast manner. To perform a snatch and clean and jerk, lifters have to be able to move heavy loads from under them to on top of them. Most people who perform Olympic lifts in the gym are not actually doing the same lifts that competitive lifters do. Most people are doing power cleans. In competition, lifters are doing squat cleans, in that they are in a very deep squat when the load is in the front rack or overhead position depending on their style. If you’ve ever seen the Chinese lifter Lu Xiaojun, you will notice how low he squats when performing his lifts. Olympic lifters are the “ass to grass” squatters. They must also have a very good degree of mobility in the shoulders, as snatching a heavy weight can put a tremendous amount of stress on the shoulder joints. While building power and stability, Olympic lifters also have to train and maintain a high degree of mobility. It also helps that they are generally much more flexible.
Mobility in Strongman
In terms of mobility, strongman athletes are somewhere in between powerlifting and Olympic lifting. Lifters are usually going to have to display more mobility than a powerlifter, but not as much as an Olympic lifter. There is very little specificity in strongman. Strongman athletes need to be able to hinge, carry and press overhead. That’s as about as specific as I can really get. Because of all the different event possibilities, strongman athletes will need a good level of mobility. Sometimes athletes will be required to squat quite low in order to pick an implement. So, if you’re a strongman competitor, it would really benefit you to work on your mobility. The greater your range of motion, the easier it will be on you as a competitor, but don’t stress over it too much. The good thing about strongman is that the rules are fairly loose. You can take an approach that is best for you in many cases.
How to Improve Mobility?
There are a few ways that I know how to improve mobility. The first way is to simply spend time in the position you want to build mobility in. So, if you’re someone who has trouble squatting, then you need to squat. The more you practice a movement pattern, the better you will be at that movement. Be sure you build the foundation for movement before you start trying to add a lot of load. Moving well is one thing, but it takes time to build on that movement under load. Isometric holds are a great way to build mobility, too. For example, I have a lack of mobility in my hips. So, I will take time to put myself in a deep bodyweight squat, or do good morning and emphasize pushing the hips back and holding the position in those exercises. I will hold the position until I can feel myself being able to put myself in the position I need to. I will also do unilateral exercises during my warmup to make sure that I am isolating movement patterns. Exercises like single leg Romanian deadlifts, split squats or single leg reverse hypers are great to help improve movement. Static stretching is also a good way to help improve mobility. Stretching the muscles and tendons can make it easier to move, but be careful. If you want to be able to exert maximum force, you don’t want to stretch statically too much, as the muscles need to have a certain degree of tension to produce force.
When assessing your mobility, you need to understand why you’re worrying about it. Just because someone on social media said that you need to be able to perform something, it does not make it true. There is a basic level of movement that everyone should be able to do, but our bodies are all individually built. How we move will vary on what we are trying to do and how our bodies are put together. A large part of strength sports is figuring out how to move and perform the task at hand. The numbers often come second to that. If you can perform the necessary exercises without pain, then you probably don’t need to be overly worried.
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