There’s a common understanding that weightlifters, powerlifters and those involved in sports need to maintain a baseline of functional mobility. However, in a majority of discussions regarding mobility the focus is strongly placed on squatting – whilst this is totally understandable (the squat is a key movement for everyone), this results in a lack of focus for the various applications of mobility in other body parts and in other movement patterns. Today, we’re going to work our way from the top of the body down, and explain why any strength or power athlete should really focus on universal joint health and mobility.
The shoulder girdle is notorious for injuries and complicated mobility demands: the rotator cuff takes a severe amount of punishment in weightlifting (the overhead movements), Powerlifting (bench, especially) and most field and team sports through various mechanisms. The number of small muscles, coupled with the fact that the joints are so complicated, results in an increased likelihood of RC injuries, shoulder impingement and other conditions. Excessive tightness through the chest, anterior delts and smaller stabilising muscles will result in the production of a rounded upper back, increased stress on the shoulders and the weakening of the scapular retractor muscles.
For those involved with Weightlifting, Powerlifting and Sports training, such a condition is unacceptable since these overhead movements are a fundamental demand of most sports. To suggest that an individual athlete could be an effective weightlifter whilst suffering from shoulder impingement or a full rotator cuff tear is to hugely underestimate the pain, discomfort and mechanical severity of these conditions. Thus, to even continue competing in sports, it’s important to avoid structural injuries – this will require the adequate stretching and mobilisation of the chest (Through stretching [here], foam rolling and generally focusing on full-ROM movements), continuous strength of the scapular retractors (see here) and ensuring that programming includes a good balance of retraction to counter any protraction of the shoulders (especially for powerlifters, this will mean achieving a healthy push/pull balance in your training).
Additionally, balancing the training and mobility of the elevation and depression of the scapula will be essential to achieve the positions necessary in strength and power sports, as well as reducing the negative results of failing to do so. Tight scapular elevators (particularly the traps and neck muscles) will result in headaches and an inability to properly retract/depress the shoulder blades – an essential movement as the lats perform a secondary function of stabilising the spine and maintaining proper positions in the snatch, clean, jerk and bench press, as well as improving performance in a variety of other strengthening movements (such as the back and front squats, and the deadlift).
The finish of the pull also demands a lot of mobility through the upper body – during the final portion of the snatch, particularly, good technique is characterised by remaining close to the bar, allowing the shoulders and elbows to rise with the momentum of the leg’s drive against the floor. This position, demonstrated often by the Chinese style of pull (below), requires mobility through the traps, chest and upper back more generally – the longer the athlete can pull (either pulling the bar up or themselves down), the more effective the lift. Needless to say, inhibition in the shoulder joint will result in a short pull or looping of the bar away from the body: in athletes demonstrating these problems, there are often more fundamental problems with the pull, but where everything else is equal, the athlete with greater shoulder mobility will have a more effective transition between the hips and the catch.
The applications continue into the clean – during the pull, the same lat involvement mentioned above is key, but during the turnover into the catch and squat portions of the lift, shoulder mobility takes on new roles. During the transition, the mobility afforded through the shoulders will determine the athlete’s ability to maintain grip on the bar and the positioning of the elbows in the receiving position. Both of these play monumental roles in maintaining upper back tightness, connection to the bar and ultimately make or break a clean. They also determine how effective an athlete will be coming into the jerk portion of the lift: tight shoulders will pull the weight of the barbell-athlete complex forward during the dip portion of the lift. If the athlete demonstrates good mobility through the shoulders, it will be much easier to keep a full, relaxed hand on the bar whilst keeping the elbows high and not compensating through the T-spine, hips or weight distribution.
The thoracic spine has become a bit of a star in recent times: through the involvement of CrossFit in the weightlifting world, it has become common to see individuals with poor overhead positions claiming that the thoracic spine is the key to improving their lifting, when the reality is that their pull is flawed in some fundamental way. As a result, there has been a lot said about the thoracic spine that has obscured the real role that it plays in the development of proper technique.
The overhead position in the snatch is the most common diagnostic for poor thoracic mobility – if an individual can sit low in a back squat with proper positioning, but struggles to perform a snatch, snatch balance or overhead squat without rounding through the back, its obvious that there are some problems with mobility that aren’t hip-based. In this situation, the benefits of proper T-spine mobility are simple: keeping the chest open and the proper alignment of the barbell, shoulders, hips and feet. The same can be said of the clean, however – it is common to see less experienced weightlifters failing to keep the chest high and the back tight through the squat portion of the clean. This is often the result of an inhibition of the muscles of the thoracic spine, but possibly also as a result of poor mobility – if the individual struggles with kyphosis in the upper spine, it is necessary to both loosen the inhibitory demands on the T-spine whilst simultaneously strengthening the erectors and secondary stabilisers (This may also be related to tightness through the shoulder girdle, mentioned above).
Proper mobility and stability through the T-spine are also essential for the setup of the Olympic lifts. In the snatch, a high chest position can be inhibited by poor mobility in the T-spine, resulting in the athlete dropping the chest from the floor, overcompensating through the lift or generally demonstrating poor technique. Whilst the clean is less demanding on the athlete’s mobility, it has similar demands: a failure to keep the chest up decreases efficiency through the pull, ruins the transition to the catch position and, crucially, increases the risk of injuries. Finally, rounding through the T-spine will wreak havoc on a jerk, where the main aims of the athlete are to keep the chest high and avoid displacing the shoulders forwards, backwards or down – a task that becomes almost impossible if the Thoracic spine is stuck in a flexed position.
The hips are often discussed as an important place for strength in weightlifting – it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that 90% of weightlifting occurs between the knee and the hip – all proficient lifters rely primarily on their quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes and spinal erectors. There is no doubt that the hips and surrounding musculature need to be strong and stable, but there is also a demonstrable need for mobility.
This is where the title of this article is most appropriate: the squat is the most obvious demand for mobility in the hips (and rightly so), but there are various applications elsewhere in the sport. The most fundamental demand that weightlifting places on an individual’s hip mobility is that it be loose enough to establish and maintain a tight back throughout the lifts. This is often the first thing that new athletes will have to work on, and disproportionately affects those who do not have a history in other sports. Maintaining this tight back position is essential for basic force transfer throughout the pull, as well as maintaining a healthy back in the long-term. If there is excessive tightness through the hamstrings, hip capsule and the muscles that attach the hips to the spine, this position will be impossible to hold comfortably.
Additionally, as we transition the new athlete from general movement quality to performing the lifts, it will be necessary to have them establish strong setup positions for both the lifts. In the snatch, this is particularly demanding on the mobility of those individuals who are inflexible or inhibited in the way described in the last paragraph. A strong setup for the snatch requires the hips to be sat low with a tight back, which will ultimately influence the entire lift. This might seem like an innocuous change to those who have a lot of experience in the sport, but to the new athlete it can be almost impossible to achieve the proper position without compromising hip or spinal integrity, and this is not only a problem of kind but degree, also: there is a large difference between the positions that an amateur athlete can make and the position we see below from Artem Okulov. As we loosen the tight muscles, strengthen the weak ones and develop proper strength and technique, the position improves drastically
Fundamental flexibility is also necessary for those in powerlifting and other strength sports – particularly in relation to the setup position. Deadlifting has its own mobility demands, which often present a far more considerable health concern than those seen in the lighter Olympic lifts. Attempting to deadlift considerable weights without sufficient mobility is almost certain to result in injury or degradation over time (just because you can’t feel the disc compression, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening, bro). I’m sure ever individual has a horror story about round-backed deadlifts, and with good reason: the deadlift is an incredibly effective movement and is one of the most widely mal-practiced exercises, which is problematic when we consider that it is the movement through which any well-balanced human can move the most weight.
The mobility demands for deadlifting are, naturally, dependent on the style of deadlifting that an athlete employs: the sumo deadlift requires a much greater deal of adductor flexibility, whereas the conventional deadlift requires a greater deal of hamstring flexibility to achieve an optimal position. While most people find the demands of sumo more difficult, this is not an intrinsic aspect of the movements themselves: people just tend to have really bad mobility through the adductors, even relative to their hamstring mobility. Obviously, the same applies here as in the snatch: those who have an extensive history in mobility demanding sports or high level sports will have much better starting mobility.
The Conventional deadlift (hands wider than feet, but narrower than in a snatch or clean deadlift, performed with a focus on hip hinging) is one of the most common and effective strengthening techniques for Weightlifters, Powerlifters and S&C athletes (As well as general gym-goers). The mobility demands are primarily as stated: tight hamstrings and adductors will pull the hip girdle out of position during the setup, inhibit proper glute functioning and likely result in a compromised spinal position during the lift. This poses a number of challenges for the successful completion of the movement: a round back and inactive glutes will result in poor lockout and a sub-optimal force transfer.
Conversely, the sumo deadlift requires hip mobility through the adductors, used to splay the legs, keep the balance of the athlete and ensure that proper technical positions can be maintained throughout. Inhibition through the adductors will have the same results discussed above: compromised hip/spine positions, failure to generate and transfer force and, crucially, an inability to get the knees out of the way of the lift. This is something that powerlifting and weightlifting are both familiar with: travelling around the knees is always a bad thing. Mobility in the sumo deadlift is one of the key inhibitors to proper technique (not the only one, of course) and is one of the most neglected aspects of training for most amateur powerlifters.
It’s fairly easy to overlook the importance of ankle mobility – for those who aren’t noticeably tight through the ankles, it might never occur to them that improved ankle mobility would have the result of improved technical performance. The most obvious benefit of this, as with the hips, is establishing a good position at depth, whether in the squat or Olympic lifts. However, there are some important lesser-known applications.
The start position of the snatch isn’t the most intuitive position to showcase ankle mobility, but for those with excessive tightness it will soon become a real issue. Whilst it’s not incredibly demanding to set up for the lift properly, it does require being comfortable in a low position with a tight back and proper balance. The latter is where ankle mobility is necessary: maintaining good balance and transferring force through the floor will require some fundamental mobility – for those who are new to the sport and don’t have a baseline of flexibility, it is common to see athletes “falling off” of their heels in the start of the lift simply because they lack the mobility to keep their weight back with the knees bent as the start position demands.