RETHINK YOUR MOBILITY
Flexibility alone is an arbitrary goal. To lift your game in the gym, you need to add metal
Our expert argues that you should approach your stretching protocol from a new direction
Mobility is a trend, not a science. The hashtag may have been used on Instagram 1.7 million times, alongside images of people in pigeon poses and loaded Jefferson curls, but the term “mobility” conventionally has a far simpler definition: ambulation, or moving. Its use in reference to muscle flexibility is a new thing – and just because it’s trending, it doesn’t make it right.
When you’re training to become a better athlete, the laws of specificity reign supreme. What I mean is that doing any activity most directly benefits your ability to do that particular activity, but this has diminishing returns when applied to anything else. If your goal is to master a successful snatch, you need a certain openness in your upper body to achieve that position. But being flexible enough to lick your own elbow won’t translate to an increased capacity to catch a weight overhead 1 .
Rolling around on padded gym floors in search of elusive stretchiness is never the best way to improve mobility. If you want an increased range of motion (ROM) in the long term, you need to add resistance. Loading an exercise is not just about building muscle: it means stressing the tissues until they’re forced to adapt, be that by increasing bulk or elasticity. So, a weighted split squat is a more direct way to increase hip flexibility than any variety of hip flexor stretches.
Stretching pre-workout will increase your ROM, but it’s short-lived. According to research in Clinical Biomechanics, a static stretching programme has no lasting effect on muscle structure 2 . Stretch under a load, however (warming up for back squats with paused goblet squats, for example), and you’ll increase your range for good. Eventually, you’ll be able to do any exercise to the correct ROM with no warm-up stretching at all.
Too much flexibility can even be a hindrance. If you’re comfortable in a range of motion without weights (when you’re in a deep squat, say) and try to replicate that position with a barbell on your back, you will cause exactly the kind of stress that can result in an injury 3 . You may have been trying to bulletproof yourself against strains, but hypermobility can make you more susceptible instead.
I’ve seen athletes who could do the splits but couldn’t squat below parallel with an unloaded barbell on their back. That’s not because they lacked the mobility – it’s because they lacked the strength. Let’s not make a false dichotomy. Performance is a combination. The most effective way to boost both is to use an empty bar. Many erroneously assume that this is a sign of weakness. Those using bands to open up their joints may look cooler, but don’t be fooled. Check your ego at the door and do reps using just the bar. Those 20kg are far better at creating the stretch you need to develop a ROM that works for you.
If you’re at the gym just for double taps, stick to the stretching. But if you want to progress and save yourself hours of pointlessly trying to touch your nose to your knee, reassess your strategies. My advice: head straight for the weights.
“Being able to lick your own elbow won’t help you catch a weight overhead”
LOAD UP FOR REAL PROGRESS. IT’S WORTH THE WEIGHTS