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Mobility for gym rats

Don't overstretch your means

Walk into any modern gym, and you'll stumble over people lying on the floor while rolling on balls and tubes, or find them hanging in bands in all kinds of adventurous positions. All in the name of 'movement prep'. Of course, if your goal is to be able to fold yourself in a suitcase, mobility training is paramount, but how necessary are these drills if you are just looking to stay healthy and train hard? In this week's article, I will share my opinion on mobility training as an addition to strength training.

photo by @wearebru

Let me start by coming clean here, right away: up until about eight years of training, I had never done a single mobility drill in my life. And I was never injured, in spite of the punishing powerlifting routines I habitually pushed myself through. This naturally convinced me that mobility followed strength, and was not a goal worth pursuing. When I crossed the ten year mark, however, I got my first few serious injuries. And at least one of them - bursitis in my right shoulder - was resolved partially due to targeted mobility drills that helped free up some range of motion that I had lost over years of bench pressing specialization.

"Properly executed strength work therefore also serves as mobility training."

The thing with those first eight years of training, is that I was right. Kind of. In essence, mobility techniques like stretching are little more than ways of spending time in the end ranges of your joints in hopes of increasing these maximal ranges. When you go through common basic exercises like squats and overhead presses, you are not just strengthening the muscles and passive tissues - you are also working major joints like your ankles, hips and shoulders throughout their full range of motion. Much akin to stretching. A carefully balanced strength training program should therefore also suffice as a general mobility program. But there is a caveat. Or two, actually.

The first has to do with most basic strength exercises requiring a solid base of functional mobility in order to be able to safely execute them in the first place. If your groin is too tight, for example, you'll have a hard time opening your hips and lowering yourself to a proper squatting position. You'll then either end up not doing the exercise, or worse: putting your back at risk. Either way, you will not be reaping strength training's mobility enhancing effect. Simply because you'll need a foundation of mobility to be able to cultivate more of it. In such a case, targeted stretching techniques can help free up some lost range in your hips, and allow you to assume a safe squatting position.

"It is a good idea to make sure that you are maintaining mobility in positions that you are not actively practicing."

Second, If you look at a major joint like the shoulder, movement patterns like flexion and extension are commonly expressed during basic exercises, but rotational elements are minor. And as always with the body: if you don't use it, you may lose it. If you are now wondering why you would need range of motion that you are not using: your physio will be happy to let you know that your joints need a healthy range of motion in order to function properly. If you're doing a lot of specialized training, it is therefore a good idea to make sure that you are maintaining mobility in positions that you are not actively practicing. And those easy-to-perform drills with lacrosse balls and stretching bands will come in handy there, because you'll want to save your energy for the actual training itself.

In conclusion, the question as to whether you should actively pursue mobility depends on your ability to properly execute all basic exercises, and how much you are practicing these movements. If you can squat, press, pull, clean, and lunge with crisp form, then you have all the functional mobility that you need. Everything beyond that point is fine if you're looking to achieve a cool skill or impress your yogi, but it won't be necessary neither inside nor outside the gym.

Bryan Wolters

MSc. Human Movement Sciences, former powerlifter, and current trainer at Vondelgym Amsterdam.

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