Improving mobility for weightlifting

The sport of weightlifting requires speed, strength, coordination, and mobility all packed together with skill. Anyone can pick something off the floor, but picking something heavy up and lifting it above the head is much more difficult. Even the strongest individuals can only lift heavy weights so far off the floor. Therefore, in order to lift, you have to get under the bar. And do it quickly under time constraints. This is the essence of weightlifting and distinguishes it from the other ‘strength’ sports such as powerlifting and strongman.

When strong individuals start weightlifting, getting under the bar normally presents the biggest challenge. They might have strength and speed, but they often lack the requisite mobility in their ankles, hips, shoulders, wrists, and thoracic spine. In this article I shall outline some ways to get more mobile for weightlifting and how to structure your training accordingly.

Getting the terms straight

Before we look at training mobility, I want to spend a minute on some mobility terminology.

Mobility vs. flexibility

The terms mobility and flexibility are often used interchangeably, which can be confusing. To avoid confusion I shall use mobility to describe an active movement through range and flexibility to describe passive movement. Lifting your foot higher than your waist requires mobility in the hips and hamstrings. Bending forward and touching your toes requires flexibility in the hamstrings and lower back.

Flexibility can be developed in isolation from joint to joint but mobility requires strength to control the movement and support the limbs.

Stiffness refers to being immobile, rather than the active co-contractions required to produce force rapidly when sprinting for example (this is a rabbit-hole that I am not entering).

Acute vs. chronic mobility

Another distinction to recognize is the different between chronic and acute mobility. A few warm up exercises might make you more mobile in the short term, but you’ll soon return to baseline after training. In order to develop long-term mobility changes, repeated and regular bouts of acute mobility training. Over time, the repeated acute changes become chronic changes. Ten minutes a day adds up to 70 minutes a week and nearly 61 hours a year.

Of course, if you are spending seven hours a day hunched over your desk, then you might have to do more than 10 minutes a day mobility work. The best way to get mobile is not to get stiff in the first place: correct driving/working/studying ergonomics will help you become a better weightlifter. At our club, the older weight lifters and those that have driven for an hour to train, require a longer warm-up than those youngsters from the village that run half a mile (yes, they really do). Teenagers are a special breed and, apart from those that do gymnastics, have a tendency to be stiff in the hamstrings and t-spine either through growth spurts or excessive screen time.

Examples of mobility warm ups

The warm up is where we do the majority of our mobility work. They are structured in a way to promote blood flow into ankles, hips, and shoulders and also to get the thoracic spine moving. We move from general work to specific and unloaded to loaded exercises. We don’t put on weightlifting shoes until we start doing lift-specific exercises because the elevated heel and rigid sole limit foot and ankle range of movement. The best way to warm up the ankle and foot is by moving them.

Here is a sample weightlifting session warm-up:

ProtocolIntent
1. Skipping forwards/backwards/side shuffle 15 meters while reaching to the skyPromote blood flow and coordination
2. Lunge and reach variationsBack flexion, extension, rotation, side flexion, hips, groin mobility
3. Heel slides x5 x2Shoulder and ankle mobility
4. Hinge, press, and overhead squat with barbell, stick, or sloshpipe x5 x2Transition to weightlifting specific movement
5. Put on shoes and start standard lift derivatives.Train!

You will note that all the warm-up exercises use movement and range to get warm. I have seen people arrive at weightlifting competitions carrying a bag so laden with kit that I thought they must be mounting an expedition to the South Pole. Out come the foam rollers, elastic bands, and knobbly balls. They then spend 10 minutes balancing, rolling, and prancing before they do anything that resembles a calorie-burning (and therefore heat creating) exercise. 

I mean, who has the time or money to do all that?

For fans of those activities, I would suggest that doing them at home in the evening after training would be a better time and place. Of course, if you do them at home on your own, then no one can see you and if it’s not on Instagram then it doesn’t count! Gentle stretching and moving at the end of the day is a useful relaxation tool and will help with chronic flexibility development.

Training mobility through standard lifts

Once we put on our shoes and begin standard lift derivatives, our emphasis is on performing every exercise through a full range of motion. By doing this, the lifting also becomes mobility training. We also take this approach for supplemental lifts such as the press and squat. I would suggest that performing heavier loads through smaller ranges of movement leads to stiff athletes.

While we by and large simply do the lifts through the full range of motion, there are a few additional things that we add or pay attention to in a session:

  • The front squat is good for many things in weightlifting but it does tend to tighten the thoracic spine. We always follow it with behind-the head-pressing to help regain the correct posture.
  • The Sotts press is used in our warm up before snatch or as an assistance exercise at the end of the session. When performed in a low squat position, even light weights are challenging.
  • Occasional behind-the-head push press, or behind-the-head power jerks and split jerks are useful for shoulder mobility and awareness of where the bar is above your head. These are dependent on each lifter and aren’t a staple.
  • Back bridging and ‘cheat bridges’ are useful supplemental exercises, but I don’t do them in the sessions: the strain on wrists and shoulders is too much immediately after lifting heavy weights.

Summary

A lifelong approach to staying fit will help you be more mobile than the average person. But weightlifting requires you to be better than average in very specific areas. Therefore thoughtfully including mobility into the warm up and main training session can pay big dividends. Combined with looking after your body before and after your session, athletes will be on their way to developing the acute and chronic mobility needed to succeed in the sport.