Mobility first, then strength
If you're struggling to get stronger, the problem might not lie with your programming. You may be applying your best effort day in and day out, resting well, and packing in fresh, nutrient-dense foods. But if your mobility is subpar, your ability to properly and efficiently recruit the targeted muscle groups will be compromised, and you'll have a fair bit of difficulty getting stronger. Worse, you're likely to develop imbalances that will further erode your progress and make you more susceptible to injury.
It's easy to overlook the importance of mobility; after all, heavy squats are fun, but hip and ankle mobility exercises aren't. But a failure to prioritize mobility is a major detriment to your progress, so the sooner you address it, the faster you'll see results from your training.
How do you know if you're mobile enough? There are a few simple tests you can do on your own (ideally in front of a mirror) to know how much work you need:
- You should be able to extend your arm straight overhead without leaning back
- Raising your elbow out to the side (shoulder height) and bent 90°, you should be able to raise your forearm until it's at least perpendicular to the ground (external rotation)
- When standing, your shoulders should not be hunched forward and your neck should be neutral — not protruding forward
- You should be able to sit comfortable with your legs crossed, your hips in an anterior tilt (i.e., sticking your butt out) so that you're not sitting on your tailbone
- You should be able to squat slightly below parallel without bowing your knees, falling forward onto your toes, tucking your tailbone underneath your hips, or leaning your torso forward
- A good test for this is to set a PVC pipe on your shoulders and extend your arms straight out at shoulder height; you should be able to squat below parallel without the PVC pipe rolling forward
There are more of these kinds of tests, but these are a good start. If you fail at any of them, it's time to make mobility a priority in your workouts. Here are a few resources to get you started: