Why Powerlifters Need to Care About Mobility
Ah yes mobility, perhaps the most overused and least understood word in powerlifting. Some take it to mean the same thing as “flexibility,” which it doesn’t. Others don’t think about it at all, which they should.
Let’s start with the first point: mobility versus flexibility. If you learn nothing else from this article, remember that these are two different things.
The Difference Between Mobility and Flexibility
The thing to focus on here is that flexibility is passive, while mobility is active.
When we talk about flexibility, we’re talking about a person’s ability to achieve a certain range of motion without actively using the associated muscle group. Take static stretching, for example. When you touch your toes, you relax your hamstrings and stretch them in the process. That’s flexibility.
Mobility, on the other hand, is all about actively moving through a full range of motion. Have you ever seen runners swinging their legs back and forth before they set out? A lot of lifters do it too. This “dynamic stretching” is a mobility exercise used during warmups, and it’s different from static stretching in that you’re actively powering the movement.
Essentially, flexibility means that you can put yourself into that ROM without using that muscle group (think static stretching), while mobility means you can go through the full ROM with full control and proper technique.
Flexibility in Powerlifting
In powerlifting, flexibility is a somewhat arbitrary concept. This isn’t to say that stretching is useless, as increased flexibility may increase your mobility. However, your being flexible enough to passively move through a squat ROM does not necessarily mean that you have the mobility (control) to do so actively.
How to Improve Mobility
So how do you get the mobility required for powerlifting? Well, you probably don’t need to spend 3 hours torturing yourself with some horrible combination of a foam roller, lacrosse ball, and band. Although, that won’t stop some from trying.
In fact, it’s even possible to make yourself hyper-mobile, which may increase the risk for injury and reduce force output.
Static stretching the muscle groups that will be used that day before the workout is also not a good idea. Flexibility exercises where you hold each stretch in a single position will reduce the stretch reflex and therefore reduce your maximal force output.
Instead, it’s important to identify the requirements of that day’s movement(s) and then do mobility work for whatever joint may be limiting you that day. Let’s get into the requirements of each movement below:
Movements Involved in the Squat
- Ankle Flexion
- Knee Flexion
- Hip Internal and External Rotation
- Hip Flexion
Of these, ankle mobility is likely the most common issue. Stretching the calves and working through the required range of motion under load are usually sufficient ways to work on this. Knee flexion is rarely an issue for people, either.
It’s the hips that cause multiple problems. The hips require a certain amount of both internal and external rotation to keep the knees in line with the toes throughout the squat. The 90/90 hip stretch, banded hip distractions, and lateral lunge stretches are all great options to work on this.
Though hip flexion is required in the squat, most have the mobility required for this when proper technique is used. However, proper technique can be limited due to extreme tightness of the hip flexors resulting in anterior pelvic tilt and an arch in the lumbar spine. This often causes the stomach and thigh to collide much earlier while the hips are much higher, limiting squat depth.
- Arm Abduction/Adduction
- Scapular Retraction and Depression
- Hip Extension
- Thoracic Spine Extension
Most mobility issues with bench stem from a failure to properly retract and depress the scapula, resulting in shoulder pain when going down to the chest.
If the scapulae are in the proper position then going through a full ROM on the bench press is rarely an issue. Limited hip extension however, is a commonly overlooked issue on the bench press. As the hip flexors are not actively involved in the bench press, we can safely statically stretch them before benching to allow you to better tuck your feet back and get into a better position.
However, this position is made most optimal by achieving proper thoracic extension. This is generally one of the first things to come to mind when a powerlifter first hears the word “mobility” as we’d all kill for just a little bit bigger of an arch to take a few precious inches off of our bench press ROM. Thoracic extension can be increased via frequent foam rolling, cat-cow stretches, and proper leg drive.
- Hip Flexion/Extension
- Knee Flexion/Extension
- Scapular Retraction/Depression
- External Hip Rotation (Sumo)
Honestly the deadlift has the fewest mobility requirements of any of the main powerlifting movements. Tight hamstrings can often make the required knee and hip flexion incredibly difficult to perform with a relatively straight back, making foam rolling the hamstrings before deadlifting a great option.
The rest of the above requirements are rarely an issue in the conventional deadlift as a majority of rounding seen on the deadlift is simply due to subpar back strength rather than poor mobility. It’s the sumo deadlift that has much greater mobility requirements, requiring (sometimes extreme amounts of) external rotation.
Simply put, the wider the stance, the smaller the ROM.
Wider is not always better, though, as having the feet too far out form the knees can result in a massive drop in force output. However, many liters are strongest in a relatively wide position, requiring the knees to remain in line with the toes in order to retain proper technique.
Therefore, a ton of external rotation is required for the sumo deadlift. Banded hip distractions, lateral lunges, 90/90 hip stretches, and really any external rotation stretch or exercise can be a great addition to your pre-deadlift mobility routine.