Increase Mobility By Lifting Heavy
by Dan Blewett T-Nation
Stretching and mobility drills, popular as they may be, just plain suck. They're tedious, time-consuming, and feel downright awful. Joint mobilization, foam rolling, stretches, and yoga class – I've done them all and have had my fill.
Many of us reluctantly accept these exercises as a part of our lives, but few realize how much we can increase our joint mobility with the lifts we already know and love.
Today is your lucky day – I'm going to give you five exercises that will increase your mobility as you go heavy with the iron.
A Tumultuous Romance With Stretching
I remember the first time I saw Westside Barbell videos on YouTube. I was amazed at how these huge dudes exhibited such amazing lateral hip mobility. Moving 700 pounds with what looked like a 5-foot-wide stance? Crazy.
Years ago, I had tight hips and no chance of achieving such a squat stance. And anyway, I liked squatting narrow; it felt natural.
But I thought of the carryover to my sport. As a baseball pitcher, good performance on the mound meant having optimum stride length. An optimum stride would require as much lateral hip flexibility as possible.
Before my powerlifting epiphany, I'd been endlessly performing hip mobility drills aimed at preparing gymnasts for splits – they sucked. Hard.
My flexibility increased with these stretches, but my hips constantly hurt. I wasn't increasing my hip strength in concert with my flexibility, and I felt weak in the new range of motion. I eventually backed off and abandoned this stretching routine.
Fast forward 8 years and I decided to give wide squatting another look, at the very least for the hip strength that Louie Simmons was advertising.
As a strength coach of baseball players, I needed the biggest bang for my buck – hip strength and mobility in one exercise. I thankfully have too many athletes, too few man-hours, and too little space to spend 20 minutes per session on mobility work.
The answer? Exercises that make us strong and flexible at the same time.
1. Mobility Problem: Tight Lateral Hips
Strength Solution: Sumo Front Box Squat with Toes Forward
When a client comes in and I ask him or her to perform a bodyweight squat, they typically won't break parallel on the first try, and if they do they're perched high on top of their toes.
When asked to get to parallel or below while staying on their heels, the most common way to thwart a lack of mobility is with forward trunk lean. What squat variation strongly discourages forward lean? If you answered "front squat," you get a gold star!
The other problem I constantly see is tight hip external rotators, which is a major detractor from throwing, hitting, and sprinting speed. When newbies squat, their toes flare out farther and farther as they descend; this compensates for a lack of internal rotation. I see toes and knees pointing out as much as 60 degrees by the time they reach depth.
Our solution here is a wide front box squat with toes dead ahead. This is a great exercise for squat mobility for four main reasons:
The front squat forces a more upright torso, which places more weight on top of the pelvis to drive it down.
A wide stance causes the femur to move more along the frontal plane, thus forcing more lateral range of motion.
A toes forward stance amplifies the stretch by forcing the hip into internal rotation, which causes the external rotators to relax and stretch.
The box is used as a guiding tool and depth indicator. While the regular wide front squat is fine, we can lower it incrementally as mobility increases. It's common to gain 3-6 inches in depth over just a handful of sets.
Note: watch how the knees track while using this exercise. Q- angles differ widely from person to person, and having toes forward while wide will make proper knee tracking (over the second toe) more difficult.
If the knees can't stay out, then the stance might be too wide for that individual, or it's time to allow a slight outward flare of the toes.
2. Mobility Problem: "Butt Wink" At Bottom of Squat
Strength Solution: Overhead Barbell Squat
As a trainer of overhead athletes, I don't like to load the overhead barbell squat for a number of reasons that I'm not going to address.
Fortunately, an empty barbell is typically all we need to drastically increase squat mobility and reinforce a strong lower back arch.
Having the bar overhead forces the lumbar to stay incredibly tight, which in turn helps mobilize tight hamstrings and coach athletes out of "butt wink," the phenomena where the pelvis tucks down at the bottom of a squat.
We want the arch tight at the bottom of our squats so that no additional stresses are put on the ligaments of the lower back and spine.
Most gym goers don't have access to bumper plates and/or a suitable lifting platform, which makes the loaded version of this exercise impossible and completely inappropriate.
However, we use overhead barbell squats in my facility as "the warm up for those who hate warm ups" – a way to use weight in place of bodyweight knee-squats and the countless variations of them.
Core stability is also a major factor in the ability to squat deep, and maintaining the bar overhead builds tremendous stabilizing strength without risking shoulder health.
The video above shows one of my few adult trainees, John, the father of one of my high schoolers. This isn't one of those videos with the expert demonstrating superhero form, but it's a great depiction of what the average gym goer can achieve with mobility work.
John's mobility has improved tremendously over the past year, but he's not perfect – you'll see he has to work to keep his weight back, toes forward, and low back tight.
He's a real-world example of how you're going to look doing these, and both he and I are pleased at how well he now squats and moves. Maintaining good mobility is a continuous battle and you'll always be working out a few kinks.
To do these, grab an empty barbell with a wide grip, throw it overhead, and squat deep. Hold your lower back as tightly arched as possible the entire time, and don't let those elbows bend. The elbows need to remain straight to allow the lats to keep tension on the pelvis.
The limit of your hip mobility will be quite obvious – that awful feeling in the hips as parallel approaches – so take these squats slow and push slightly down when the mobility sticking point is reached.
As proficiency increases, widen the feet and the challenge will be re-upped. If you want to squat wide and deep, 10-20 reps of these should precede every workout.
3. Mobility Problem: Tight Hip Flexors
Strength Solution: Bulgarian Split Squat
I stated in the introduction that lifting is more fun than stretching, but I need to take a moment to clarify my use of the word "fun" concerning Bulgarian split squats. They're not fun. Rather, they're the opposite of fun.
Bulgarians are the #1 most hated exercise by literally every athlete I train and lifter I know. They're the prostate exam of the training world – healthful but awful.
If you can't get your knee to within 3 inches of the ground on a regular-stance Bulgarian, then simply performing more of them will be beneficial.
If you can get down using the vanilla version just fine and want to challenge your mobility a bit more, there are three small tweaks that will keep increasing your range of motion, though likely in sacrifice of some bar weight.
1. Raise the Height of the Bench. This will make the ROM larger while keeping your balance leg in a pre-stretched position. This is easily accomplished by putting plates underneath the bench, or by raising the bar if you're using the "barbell with neckpad" method. Don't go crazy, though – a few inches is plenty.
2. Go Long-Stance. The longer the distance between working leg and bench, the more hip separation you'll get at the bottom and thus greater stretch.
Also, be prepared for the hamstring demand to increase dramatically as the tibia stays more vertical. A longer step is thus ideal for training to increase your powerlifting-style squat and deadlift.
3. Elevate The Front Foot. This is simple and requires little explanation – elevating the front foot allows for more range of motion downward regardless of the stance.
Also, it's important to note that if you're not monitoring the depth of your back knee, you're not going to be able to track your mobility gains.
I suggest taping the knee to a towel or placing an Airex pad on the floor a la Mike Boyle; just be sure to raise the pad with plates beneath as spacers if you can't reach it at first. As range of motion increases, remove the spacers until your knee is capable of touching the floor.
Lastly, I highly recommend using a pair of dumbbells for these variations rather than a barbell on the back. In the above video you can see me lose my balance slightly on rep number two. While the barbell version is manly and will get you more chicks, it can get dangerous when using variations that strain your balance.
4. Mobility Problem: Tight Hamstrings
Strength Solution: Toe-Elevated Good Morning
Tight hamstrings are a common problem and we all remember the hurdler stretches from middle school gym class. Rather than relive your days of headbands and 8" inseam cotton nut-huggers, let's get after it with a barbell.
Good mornings are one of the best exercises for adding strength and size to the back and hamstrings. If you're really tight, simply performing them at all will help a great deal. If you're looking for a more aggressive stretch, consider the following options:
1. Experiment With Your Stance. Mix it up and don't train your good mornings with the same stance too often. You'll stretch and recruit each of the three hamstring muscles to a different degree depending on your stance width, and this is going to vary highly from person to person.
2. Use less knee bend. I never recommend locking the knees, but get straighter if your good morning looks more like a squat. If you tend to get a good deal of knee bend with good mornings, consider lightening the weight and decreasing the knee angle.
3. Elevate the toes by standing with balls of the heel on top of a 5-pound plate or rubber mat. This will pre-stretch the hamstrings, which will do two things: force higher recruitment of the hamstrings, and increase the stretch felt with a normal range of motion.
Try these for a few weeks and then go back to the feet-flat version – you'll feel a world of difference.
5. The Mobility Problem: Lack of Shoulder Flexion
Strength Solution: Stability Ball Rollout
The barbell rollout is probably the manliest of all rollout varieties. You get a bar, load it up with weight (even though you and I both know the weight is irrelevant), and coast out with your mighty arms for all to see. You then pull back in with the abs of Thor and declare all a success.
A high volume of benching, overhead pulling, and lots of upper-body mass in general can lead to decreased range of motion at the shoulder. We can restore some of this by actively taking the upper arm through shoulder flexion, which is easily achieved with the rollout.
The problem is, the straight-armed version leaves most of us still below 180 degrees at end range. It's a long lever and a tough exercise on both the core and the elbows. Same goes for the body saw, blast strap rollout, etc.
The best solution is with the ol' stability ball. By starting in plank position on the knees for our rollout, we shorten the lever arm and make it easier to get to 180 degrees of flexion and provide mobilization of the shoulder.
Oh, and before you declare this one not a "heavy" lift, roll that ball away from you a little more. Most strong men can't achieve full 180-degree flexion from their toes. If this describes you, stay with your knees grounded and don't whine about a lack of weight – you're not that strong.
Declare The Barbell Your Foam Roller!
I hate mobility drills and finding ways to multitask around them is a dream come true. If you're pressed for time in the gym and need to get the most bang for your buck, throw these mobilizing drills into circulation.
Cycle them in every handful of weeks amongst your favorite lifts and you'll be moving better – with no time wasted on the yoga mat!