My Take on Mobility Work

Written by: Kevin Cann


This was a topic of discussion over the last week.  In fact, I had a local gym owner even throw a dig at me in an article about this topic. It made me realize that ignorance runs rampant on this subject matter.


This is one of my biggest problems with this field in general.  No one ever thinks for themselves.  I think in part it is due to the low level of entry into the field. It only takes getting a quick certification to start coaching people, or in this case, owning a gym.


The lack of formal education in the field is a problem.  This leads to a lack of understanding of actual principles.  These commercial companies within the industry use this to make money.


They present a product, with enough logical information that gives the gym owner and trainer something to allow them to answer some questions and help people.  Most people are in this field because they do want to help people.


The problem lies with the information.  The majority of the field does not know any better, so they sit there and believe every word that the presenter says.  This may be a direct result of our educational system.  We sit in a chair and believe every word the teacher tells us because it is on the test and we need to pass that test.


The information presented is not always correct.  We are presented information that says we need to do these special warmup exercises such as breathing drills, Reflexive Performance Reset (RPR), corrective exercises, foam rolling (and even this has gone out of hand with the use of metal weighted pipes to roll), banded distractions, activation exercises, and more.


The problem with these things is that they are not proven to do what they say.  However, they temporarily make people feel better and that is all they need to get you to buy in.  The problem is that they are not doing anything that they say they do other than making you feel a little better in the short term.


This may sound great, but it isn’t necessarily a good thing.  You tell clients that they need to do these things to feel well before they train.  It creates a reliance that can limit someone’s ability to get stronger.


We all know the person that thinks they need to do their breathing drills, rub their body, foam roll, and perform activation exercises to be able to squat to depth.  Yes, they are performing strength training which is great at the end of the day.


However, they feel they can’t get stronger without a need for these special warmups.  Something that can only temporarily aid the person has become something they rely upon to train every single session.


As coaches and trainers we do not help by programming these things in every day either.  When did mobility and strength training become two separate things?  Most of these companies will tell you that the client needs strength training on top of this. Strength training is what actually creates the benefit!


People will often ask, “Well what if I can’t squat to depth.”  This was told to me by Boris Sheiko and I heard Malanichev say the same thing, ‘Just squat deeper.”  I know that seems crazy to people, but it works.


Put the right weight on the bar that allows you to squat to depth and a good coach will be able to get you there.  If you can’t squat to depth with a low bar position, go high bar, start with front squats, or even goblet squats if you are brand new.  You will be able to squat to depth.  I have not had an issue with getting somewhere there and I only coach powerlifters, some were complete beginners.


This does not mean that we don’t warmup.  We need to do that.  We take the empty bar for 3-4 sets of 10 reps.  I then write out all of their reps from 50% of 1RM and up.  If they come in and feel a little stiffer than normal, they will just take the empty bar for some extra reps until they feel better.


Sitting on a foam roller and stretching and activation exercises are just doing the same thing. They are warming you up.  Shouldn’t we warm up the actual movement we are doing? What is better than that?  If we don’t need those other things why would we use them?


Those warmups are not activating any muscles, breaking up any scar tissue or adhesions, or doing anything magical to make you perform better.  If anything it is building a reliance on something that is not needed and this can actually lead to pain down the road.


If we believe our hip flexors are tight or our breathing is off making our backs more vulnerable, we are actually increasing our risk for pain.  Instead we should be empowering them that they can do these things without any special exercises and letting them know how strong they are.  This empowerment is the life changing piece.


In a calendar year my team missed 4 training session total.  That is 40 lifters that missed a combined 4 training sessions in a calendar year.  The average is 4 per 1000 training hours.  We get double that in a month.  Out of the 4, 3 could have trained that day and one actually hit a deadlift PR the next training session.


We do this by monitoring volume for one.  I have written about this in the past and am not getting into the details here.  We also vary training quite a bit.  60% of our total volume comes from variations. This is to avoid adaptive resistance and to also prevent overuse injuries.  Variations also allow us to keep effort higher but load lower.  This is a means of load management.


We also do accessory work that makes up at least 20% of our total volume.  This generally targets important muscles used in powerlifting. However, it also allows us to strengthen other angles and stay healthy.


Elbow pain is a pretty common complaint in powerlifting.  We add in bicep curls for this reason.  Any tendon issues the solution is almost always to load it to force it to adapt.  We don’t do any special lacrosse ball drills, shoulder “mobility” exercises, we load the tendon.  This works best.  If it gets too bad, we can high bar squat for a few sessions to give it a break.


Explaining that it is normal to have some pain and explaining it will get better in a few days is far better by telling someone they have poor shoulder mobility and that they need to do special exercises to fix it.  This can be interpreted by the lifter as having an increased risk for shoulder pain.  This can actually lead to shoulder pain!


For shoulder health we do dumbbell bench press, dumbbell overhead press, all kinds of flies, pushups, and a ton of pulldowns and rows.  Again, loading various joint angles builds a strong and robust lifter.  These joints are being asked to move maximal weights.


Passive stretches, “mobility” drills, and all the other gimmicks out there are nothing more than gimmicks. They are not a magic pill that come with any health benefits other than they get you moving around.  If you are at the gym already, you will be moving around so it is unnecessary.  Save your money.

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