Mobility or Weakness?

Sara Fleming

Instructing a more ideal center of gravity on the clean can greatly improve power expression and balance.

I have a bit of an eclectic training practice. I train middle aged men and women who are fairly new to everything barbell related. I train elementary school children. I train competitive crossfitters and Olympic weightlifters and I train beginner and novice powerlifters. I train people in their seventies and beyond who are still going strong and some who are beginning something completely new. I have also trained a fair number of individuals with rather severe disabilities and/or injuries. The beauty of training all these different kinds of people is that over the years, I’ve figured out that there is a great deal of similarities between all of these ages and ability levels when pain or dysfunction occurs. Mainly because they are all human beings and therefore function somewhat similarly on a basic level.

When a new person comes into my gym and says, “I can’t do X, Y, or Z, because I lack the mobility/flexibility/etc.”, my first response is to bite my tongue. And then I set about figuring out where their weaknesses are. In my practice, I have rarely found flexibility or mobility to be a limitation for most basic movements such as the squat, press, or pull. The inability to hit these basic positions is usually the direct result of a weakness of some kind. Sometimes, I need to farm them out to a bodywork specialist of some sort, or make accommodations for a replaced joint or old injury, but usually, its simply a matter of being patient. If I am able to convince them to put in the time and practice, we can fix just about anything.

Before you go blaming mobility or flexibility as the reason you can’t squat heavy, press overhead, or bench, think about the following reasons most people develop “mobility issues” to begin with:

They don’t practice good posture

Let the volume do the work.

Good posture should be the goal no matter how heavy your training loads are.

Whether this is the office worker who is constantly hunched over his desk or the big guy squatting heavy with a rounded back, the problem is the same. If you cannot stabilize your spine and practice good posture when doing your activity of choice, you will develop an inability to stabilize your spine and maintain good posture. Walk with good posture, exercise with good posture, and most importantly, do not allow your posture to be compromised when strength training. Lifting too heavy, too often is often the cause of strength plateaus. But, its not because the person can’t get any stronger, its because when the form becomes compromised regularly on heavier weights, the individual is basically training to have a biomechanical disadvantage at heavier weights. A guy who continually folds over on heavy squats needs a lot more practice maintaining his posture under moderately heavy squats.

They ignore important areas of the body

Being strong is functional.

ZS Eric squat 1
A classic powerlifting squat. No doubt Eric’s hips and posterior chain are very strong.

Just because an exercise doesn’t look like exactly something else you do in daily life doesn’t mean its not functional. It became en vogue a few years back to bash the bench press as a bodybuilding movement and favor the overhead press instead. The problem with this is that the bench press is not just a chest movement, it strengthens the upper back in ways that overhead press cannot. Without a strong upper back, its hard to stabilize heavy weight overhead and range of motion diminishes. Face pulls, rows, and especially the bench press are some of the best fixers of upper body “mobility issues”. Likewise, the wide stance powerlifting squat has gotten quite a bit of flack in recent years as well. However, it is one of the best ways to fix the squat for people with hip flexor “mobility issues”. Yes, your hip flexors may be tight, but what is more important is that your hips and posterior chain are weak and you cannot open your hips and sit back in the squat. Instead of worrying about stretching your hip flexors, try squatting with your hips open. I’ve seen this problem in older women who have never squatted, and I’ve seen and fixed it in relatively young people already squatting twice their bodyweight. If you whole body is strong through a full range of motion, most “mobility” problems will fix themselves.

They don’t warm up or rest properly

Without a proper warm up or recovery, your warm up becomes your workout.

Ever see someone spend 30 minutes doing mobility work and then jump into a heavy squat workout with only a few warmup sets? And then proceed to do sets every minute or two until failure? And then move on to something else? Are they actually practicing to squat well or practicing to fail? I’d say the latter. I have my clients do a brief dynamic workout and then have them foam roll anything that’s particularly painful (but that’s rare) and we get right to business. Four to six warm-up sets are typical and if we’re going particularly heavy, they will be taking two to four minute rests between their heavier sets. The reason is, every set must be fresh such that they can practice good form. The point is not to jam as much work in before they get fatigued, it is to practice good form under load. A good strength workout shouldn’t feel like an endurance workout. You should leave the session feeling relatively good.

This may seem like a simplified approach and it is. Mobility work has its place and certainly as we age a good bit of stretching helps a lot. However, don’t get lost down this rabbit hole. Instead, consider how you can perform the exercise better for your leverages and where your weak points are. Unless you are a powerlifter, strength exercises are primarily for making you better at the other stuff you do. It should not confound the process or become overly complicated. Fix the little stuff and the big stuff will get better too.

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