When you grow up resembling a human greyhound, you’re often bypassed when it comes to lifting advice – never mind your hard-earned knowledge of human movement. Long limbs and an ectomorphic frame present a perfect genetic predisposition for running, less so for power-lifting. And so it was written for this gangly student of exercise science: I ran and ran, while lifting apologetically in the shady corners of gyms, beyond the reach of the florescent lighting.
Musculature (or lack thereof) aside, life was sweet. I was young – and getting away with a multitude of training sins and a haphazard approach to recovery, while enjoying modest success in my endurance-based athletic endeavours. That was until a fateful (and painful) knee injury rendered me lame, forever changing the course of my fitness journey.
My injury forced my hand (well, leg) into ditching the pavement and committing to alternate modes of training. Over a period of months, rehab and prehab became the name of the game, as I explored the less impactful modalities of engine building.
My physiotherapist recommended I try CrossFit – a sport that would suit my temperament as someone thrilled by the possibility of exploring every nook and cranny of the fitness industry. A jack of all trades, in other words – and master of none. Given the requirements of CrossFit – strength, endurance, gymnastic ability – my new style of training certainly offered variety. And you could attain a high level of general competency without excelling in any one area.
Missing load-bearing capabilities in one leg, I was presented with a rare opportunity to focus on my main weakness: flexibility. Years of running and lifting without proper mobility, preparation or recovery had left my mobility verging on non-existent. Assessed by a top S & C coach and exercise physiologist, I was diagnosed with tight AF hips and ankles – as well as weak knees (both!). I was swiftly prescribed a course of mobility exercises, which sunk my heart and curled my lip. Mobility is not training was my first thought, and the very idea of dedicating precious gym hours to stretching and myofascial release sent me into a spin. But as the pain in my knee persisted, I acquiesced, giving in to a daily ROMWOD (Range of Motion Workout of the Day).
As my CrossFit journey continued and my knee healed, the practice – much like meditation and plant-based eating – leeched its way into my daily routine. Why? Well, I was finding huge strength gains in exercises that I’d been doing for years without improvement.
Suddenly the human greyhound was deadlifting just shy of three times his bodyweight and squatting double his bodyweight. And while not yet of rottweiler status, golden retriever surely wasn’t far off.
It was no coincidence that my strength gains correlated with newfound flexibility. I have no doubt those gains were a direct result of my focus on mobility and joint function. How? Well it turns out the answer is all in the science…
Kneesy does it
Ever wondered about the physiological differences between you and elite athletes, particularly when it comes to weightlifting? In 2021, Chinese researchers from Ningbo University identified one critical difference: knee mobility.
According to the team of researchers, range of motion in this critical joint plays a significant role in determining the amount of weight you can lift in exercises that engage the lower body. It’s a finding that conforms with many experiences during my own fitness journey – the high points as well as the frustrations and setbacks.
To reach their conclusion, the researchers analysed execution of the Olympic snatch, a complex move that involves ripping a barbell off the floor, bringing it overhead while sinking into the squat position, before rising into a fully upright stance while keeping the barbell raised – in triumph, if you like.
“Coaches of sub-elite lifters should focus on exercises suitable to the strength characteristics of the first and third phases of the snatch lift,” said the study’s author, Yaodong Gu, referring to the initial lift and extension phase of the snatch.
The study found an increased angular velocity within the knee joint in elite athletes compared with sub-elite athletes, demonstrating the importance of the knee joint in the lift. It seems to be a capacity to strengthen the knee-flexor muscles that goes some way towards separating champions from contenders.
Additional findings suggested that sub-elite lifters should work on strengthening the flexor muscles of their knee joints, thus making it possible for us to generate and employ more elastic energy in the course of a lift. It’s been reported that the researchers’ findings have already filtered their way into Chinese coaching programs – and with good reason.
Whether you harbour elite athletic aspirations or more modest desires to function efficiently in your day-to-day life, the results of this study highlight the importance of mobility training. When you take a close look at modern life, you’ll see it’s been designed to keep us comfortable and, for the most part, stationary. Instead of walking or sprinting across the savannah or through dense bushland as our distant ancestors did, we apply a little pressure to the accelerator in our cars. Likewise, we no longer toil in fields to make ends meet, but rather sit at desks and shop in supermarkets, pushing trolleys instead of hauling carcasses back to our caves. We even invented moving walkways because steps – which were themselves invented to make going uphill easier – were deemed just too darn hard. The effect of all this sitting and minimal movement has been to render us chronically tight.
Regardless of your training history, no one is immune to the ravages of sitting for prolonged periods. Everyone gets tight – and everyone should mobilise to minimise the potential for injury. When your body is inflexible, it fights back against actions or movements that test your range of motion. The resultant injuries allow physiotherapists and other therapists to do a roaring trade.
To understand how to train for increased mobility, you first need to grasp what comprises your mobility. It’s what helps you lunge deep, squat low and heavy, and lift a box onto the top shelf in the garage. Upping your mobility fortifies your body for, well, movement. Training, walking, getting out of bed – it’s all exponentially harder (read: more uncomfortable) without mobility.
Though they’re connected, mobility and flexibility are different beasts. Mobility refers to a combination of flexibility and strength. A flexible person may be able to tie their legs together behind their back, but without a strong core or the strength to get back up off the floor, they’re not particularly mobile. Conversely, the beefiest bodybuilder may have biceps like rockmelons, yet without flexibility they will struggle to curl a spoonful of steamed chicken up to their mouth.
So, how do you train for mobility? Yoga, Pilates, stretching or massage? All of these and more are great options, and so is incorporating mobility moves into your existing training routine.
However you embrace mobility, the everyday benefits will stretch a long way.
There’s a tendency among men to underrate the concept of mobility. Flexibility and joint-strengthening moves tend to be cast aside in favour of hypertrophy training for the large muscle groups. But the former complement the latter.
Test where you’re at, then work these 3 moves into your training routine to reap the everyday-and-athletic benefits of a more mobile frame while maintaining good knee health into your dotage.
1/ The test
Balance on one foot. Keeping it flat. lower yourself into a pistol squat (a single-leg squat). If your knee moves inside your big toe, you have tight groin muscles and weak glutes and need to introduce some mobility training. Preferably today.
2/ Stretch your adductors
Lower into a side lunge (or Cossack squat) until you feel a stretch in your groin. Hold for 20 seconds. Repeat 3 times on each side. Don’t be discouraged if your early attempts look nothing like the illustration below. With quiet persistence, you’ll gradually get closer to the floor.
3/ Work your gluteus medius
Grab a medium-strength resistance band and wrap it around both legs, somewhere on the shins. Take 10 side steps to the right, then to the left (called a monster walk). Do six sets each side, breaking for only 15 seconds between efforts.
4/ Get mobile
Perform a set of 12 bodyweight walking lunges (6 each leg) with an emphasis on slow and controlled movement. Keep your kneecap in line with your big toe the entire time. Repeat for 3 rounds.