How important is mobility?
There's a certain camp of strength training enthusiasts out there (who shall remain nameless) who have been strong advocates against mobility work. According to these individuals, stretching, foam rolling, and active mobility drills are a waste of time. Just practice the movement your sport demands, and don't waste time doing something that doesn't make you stronger.
This is partly a reaction to the opposite camp—mobility enthusiasts who spend a considerable amount of time at the gym doing various mobility routines. (There's even a popular app with 15-20 minute daily mobility routines.) These routines aren't necessarily designed to address any specific deficiency; it's just arising from a general idea that more mobility is good.
As a coach I feel there is a healthy middle ground to be found here. Stretching just to stretch is very likely counterproductive. There's some clinical evidence that stretching prior to a workout may reduce strength, and flexibility without stabilization is practically asking for injury. We don't just want an arbitrarily long passive range of motion around a given joint—we want full strength, stability and control.
But targeted mobility work is nonetheless extremely valuable. It should not be surprising that people who have been sedentary for years and/or sit hunched in front of a desk all day often have tight soleus muscles, hip flexors, hamstrings, adductors, pectorals, and lats. These limitations are readily apparent when clients cannot perform simple movements like squatting to parallel under load, deadlifting a loaded barbell with a neutral spine, or press a weight straight overhead. Instead we see posterior pelvic tilt, protracted shoulders, and valgus knee movement.
While there's some truth to the idea that simply practicing a movement will over time result in improvement in the required positions, target mobility work can radically accelerate the learning process and therefore should be a primary focus for novice athletes who display any of the above movement patterns. A simple way of diagnosing the issue is to modify the exercise in such a way as to reduce the mobility requirements and reassess the athlete.
For example, some common cues in the squat are "proud chest," "hips back," and "drive the knees out." These cues are designed to facilitate proper bar path and a neutral spine over the full range of motion. But if a client consistently loses posture toward the bottom range of the squat, we can try elevating the heels (to reduce the amount of ankel dorsiflexion required) or switching to a one-leg squat variation (to remove the transverse articulation of the hip joint). If the athlete is immediately able to perform the correct movement, it's a good indication that simply badgering them with the same cues will be counterproductive.
Similarly, it's common for novice athletes to struggle with a full-range conventional deadlift. We often see difficulty with the setup and the first 6-8 inches of the pull, where posterior pelvic tilt and/or protracted shoulders create a convex spine that reduces power and increases the risk of injury. A simple fix is to elevate the bar on pulling blocks—say 15cm to start. If the athlete can immediately perform the movement correctly, it's again an indication that they understand the cues but struggle with a physically limited range of motion. Barking the same cues to encourage a proper setup will not help the athlete—they need targeted mobility work to correct their deficiencies first.
A good coach will not waste an athlete's time with general-purpose stretching, nor will they tell the athlete to ignore mobility work and simply practice the same movements incorrectly; instead, a good coach will diagnose the deficiency and work with the athlete to make specific, strategic mobility corrections to improve overall performance of the movement. The sooner such deficiencies are identified and weeded out, the sooner the athlete can start getting stronger.
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