You might think of mobility as just stretching but there is a little more too it than that. Mobility is actually the combination of strength and range of motion and to have these means you can efficiently move your joints as much as is required and this movement is driven by strong prime movers and supported by opposing muscle groups and stabilisers. So, to acquire mobility means you need to do strength training and everything that helps to free up a joint for larger movements (foam rolling, static and ballistic stretching, dynamics, free flowing movements). Which would you do first, you need to do strength exercises but you might not have joint range yet, well I believe it’s simply a case of starting out simple and progressing sensibly towards exercises which are perhaps more technical and which may allow for heavier weights to be lifted.
Taking time to perfect movement from the start allows for longevity in training, lets look at the squat as an example of how mobility plays such a key role in one of the major functional movements. If you start to squat more in your training programme the body will have to adapt in a number of ways to allow the movement to become safer and more efficient. Firstly prioritise range! If you always try to squat as low as possible then you will eventually become stronger and more stable through this entire range. With full squat range you have to work harder so your workout is more effective with greater return as opposed to just squatting half the depth. Full range is a movement quality which transfers to things like sports performance and joint stability when running, jumping and changing direction. Full squat depth can also transfer to other exercises such as Olympic Lifting further down the line in your training programme. For example you can clearly see that during a clean and Jerk there is basically a deadlift (pull from the floor), a full squat (catch) and a press (catch overhead) involved. So before Olympic lifting it would seem mastering Deadlifts, Presses and Squats are essential prerequisites!
Increasing the Intensity is where you really make strength gains but this must be done sensibly and progressions in intensity must only take place once technical competency has been demonstrated. Sticking with the squat example it would appear that the very popular strength exercise the Back Squat looks pretty straight forward and that the movement requires little technical requirement, well you couldn’t be further from the truth. This is an exercise with a complex technical model and is high in intensity. Putting a bar on your back can be incredibly restricting, as the upper back tightens up against the bar and you are asked to move the bar downwards in a perfectly straight line suddenly a lot of range of motion is required at the knee and ankle otherwise the lower back is in trouble. If this is the case take the bar off your back and try another movement which allows for greater range at a lesser intensity. Here are some examples of squat variations which could be used to help improve mobility (strength and range) and which will later pave the way for the more technical and higher intensity exercise back Squat.
- Just get sitting down as low as possible, a rounded back and wobbly knees is probably not too much of a concern during this unloaded squat. Just do it slowly and look to improve on these movement disfunctions as you continue to practice with lots of volume.
- Work on good knee and foot alignment i.e. knees tracking over toes
- Practice keeping weight in the middle of the foot and towards the heel at the bottom of the squat
- Work on an upright posture
- Work on a bog chest and pull shoulder blades together
- Squat with a natural neck
- Keep sitting down as low as possible maintaining all the above
- Lots of volume i.e. loads of slow reps to train up a perfect squat
- When we have a perfect body weight squat we can start to challenge it with loading (weights)
- Individual is forced into an upright position with the anterior loading of weight
- The upright position means less range is required at the ankle (often a troublesome joint for many when it comes to mobility)
- The upright position results in greater depth which makes it easier to target the Glutes and Hammstrings, the major muscles required in stand up phase of the squat
- Holding the weight in such a manner requires less mobility at the shoulder and wrists, joints which can also suffer at the hands of the back squat.
- The upright position also forces the individual to load their knees. In this exercise this is done in a controlled manner and at not too high an intensity, a strong stable knee is a winning!
- Holding the weight still during the entire set also benefits shoulder stability
- You are limited by how much weight you can lift in this exercise but in our early squatting days (remember we are trying to improve mobility) this is a good thing. Why? Because we can do more reps, more reps means more volume and higher volume is essential to “training up” quality movement and technique. You can’t train up technique with 3 sets of 5 reps, the body need more reps to work with in order to make the adaptations.
Mobility has improved as we mastered the Goblet Squat so now we could look to reduce the volume but up the intensity (increase the weight), so from a Goblet Squat we could perhaps advance to a Front Squat.
- Front Squat is technically very similar to the Goblet Squat so you are already familiar with the movement pattern but we’ve simply found a way to make it harder (Bar “racked” on shoulders allows for more weight to be loaded)
- Incredibly beneficial abdominal bracing drill
- Excellent for Shoulder stability
- Mobility required at the shoulder and particularly the wrist, which is another restrictive hotspot for many. Could be problematic but improved mobility at these joints opens up the possibility of performing so many new exercises
- Can be no forward lean otherwise we “spill” the bar, this helps keep the lower back safe
- Front “rack” could be performed with folded arms technique, Front rack elbows up is a more transferable technique though (e.g. the clean)
Front and Goblet Squats tend to elicit sound squatting technique naturally, Ideally the Front Squat Technical model is what we would want to see during the back squat, all we are doing is putting the bar the other side of our head so why shouldn’t we expect to see the same. So via the goblet squat and appropriate progression to and use of the front Squat we can expect further gains in mobility to be made, gains such as Greater Squat depth with heavier weights (strength through range), ankle and knee range challenged and loaded with weight, wrist and shoulder mobility tested, stronger Glutes and hamstrings and all other musculature contributing to the movement – this is all mobility and all a prerequisite to the back squat.
Assuming our ankles and knees can move freely and have been strengthened using goblet and front squats, out “core” is stronger and can take the extra loading back squats will require. Improved shoulder and wrist mobility allows us to sit the bar on our back more comfortably. Intensity can increase (more weight can be lifted) now the bar is sat on our shoulders over our centre of mass as opposed to on the weaker front rack structure of the front squat. Through these progressions we have always prioritised moving well, in full range and building the strength of this movement. That is the mobility of the squat!