You probably just read that title and did a double take – doesn’t he mean “mobility for strength training?” NOPE 🙂 While doing mobility work to help with strength training is for sure a thing (and a good thing), it is a two-way street: one of the best ways to improve mobility is through thoughtful and purposeful strength training.
In a previous article I highlighted a few sub-categories of mobility, including suppleness, passive range of motion (ROM), and active ROM. Typically the main goal of mobility is to improve active ROM, and improving the other sub-categories are means to that end. Active ROM is the primary goal here because that is the measure of how much ROM you can actually use in your activity of choice (lifting weights, martial arts, team sports, outdoor activities, etc.). Additionally, a big gap between your passive and active ROM can be an indicator of increased risk of injury – nearly everyone has more passive ROM than active, but the gap between the two should be as small as possible.
OK, so you are probably asking where does strength training come into this? Well, one of the best ways to increase active ROM is to teach your tissues to generate tension (aka get stronger) near the limits of their range of motion. Typically the way muscles work is that they’re the strongest in the middle of their range, and weakest when they are stretched near-limit or shortened near-limit. The good news is that both of those weak points are trainable, and will get better if you work at it. The more tension you generate in a particular position, the stronger a signal it sends to your body, and the more adaptations you are likely to get from it; and since tension = strength, we will use strength training to help improve your mobility.
There are a lot of ways to breakdown / categorize / organize ways to do this, so I’ll try to offer one way that should be straight forward and easy to understand. There will basically be two variables:
1) Isolated vs. compound exercises
- Isolated means to focus on one specific joint or muscle group
- Compound means to focus on multiple joints and muscle groups
2) Isometric vs. dynamic
- Isometric means to generate tension in your muscles without them actually moving (lengthening or shortening). Think about trying to push a car that has its parking brake on – you work your muscles hard, but the car doesn’t move and neither do you.
- Dynamic is basically the opposite of isometric; now imagine that the car has its parking brake off, so your efforts actually result in movement. For the purposes of this article “dynamic” does NOT mean fast or quick – in some instances people do use it with that intention, so it is important to clarify.
So that leaves you with four potential combinations:
- Isolated isometric
- Isolated dynamic
- Compound isometric
- Compound dynamic
So, where do you start (and what does that all mean)? I recommend starting at the top, with isolated isometrics. Isometrics are inherently one of the safest forms of exercise (they are usually hard to screw up) and by focusing on an isolated area you can really pin-point what you want to work on. Some body parts, such as your core, will probably be trained MOSTLY some version of isometric training indefinitely (e.g. your core itself doesn’t move much at all, but you might be moving your arms / legs to challenge your ability to keep your core stiff). Other body parts, such as your hips and shoulders, CAN be trained isometrically with some level of effectiveness, but really you’ll need to get some dynamic work in since those are the main joints we use for motion.
As you gain proficiency and confidence then including some “compound dynamic” exercises can be a good idea. That term probably makes it sound more complicated than it really is – this can be as simple as taking an exercise that you already do, and doing it through a bigger range of motion and at a slower speed. Needless to say, you’d adjust the weights you use to reflect the more challenging parameters of the exercise. Using a specific example might be helpful – let’s take the Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat or RFESS (many people call this a “Bulgarian split squat”). In this exercise, all you’d need to do is also elevate your front foot, and be sure to still touch your knee to the ground every rep. By also elevating the front foot 2-6”, you’d then be able to get 2-6” deeper into the bottom position, and you’d be working all your major muscle groups through a bigger ROM – gluts, quads, hamstrings, hip flexors, groin, and so on. This will pay BIG DIVIDENDS when you go back to an exercise like a normal barbell squat because you will be accustomed to going so much deeper, that hitting full depth on a regular squat will now almost feel like cheating. By the way, the photo at the top is of this exercise, so if you’re having a hard time visualizing it then just refer to the photo.
A good example for an upper body exercise could be a Turkish get up. The TGU is already a great exercise for shoulder health and mobility, but it can deliver even more by including a few modifications. One way could be to scale the weight down a little bit (a size or two) and pause for 3-5 seconds at each spot on the way up and down. These 3-5 second isometric holds will give your tissues more time to develop tension in each angle / position, thereby helping them get stronger at each of them. Another version of that would be to use a really light weight (maybe half of your normal weight) and add “screwdrivers” at each spot. For the screwdrivers you’d keep your elbow locked and rotate your shoulder back and forth a few times before re-centering and moving to the next position. These screwdrivers both help you spend more time in each position while adding different amounts of rotation for your shoulders to adapt to.
If you like Turkish get ups (and kettlebell training in general) then keep an eye out for an announcement from us soon about our kettlebell classes where we combine mobility, strength, and endurance into a total package workout. More info coming soon …