by Melissa Urban, creator of the famous Urban Approach To Squatting Heavier™
We are literally still on the plane, returning from our whirlwind fitness tour of northern California. We were able to cram a ton of good stuff into just two and a half days, hitting both Kelly Starrett’s Movement and Mobility seminar and Robb Wolf’s Paleolithic Solution seminar over the weekend. We’ll catch you up with all things Robb later this week, but as I sit here on the plane all crammed into an awkward typing position, I want to talk a little bit about mobility, the reminders I took from Kelly’s seminar and the things I’ve learned about my own health and fitness from Dallas.
I’ve been very lucky to have a physical therapist as my trainer. I’ve been aware of my own mobility, um, shortcomings for years now. My shoulders are all messed up from years of working at a desk, my hips don’t like to turn out because of who knows what, and my feet and ankles are starting to get cranky after a decade of 3-inch heels five days a week. We’ve been addressing these issues one at a time, as a supplement to my normal training routine. He does some PT magic on me, sure, but none of his “fixes” will take unless I take the initiative to maintain my newfound level of flexibility and range of motion. I know unless I foam roll after a tough session on the rings, my shoulders are going to be angry for a few days, and I’m acutely aware that my ankles are much happier when I wear Sambas instead of stilettos.
And yet, even with my very own PT looking over my shoulder before, during and after every workout… I still don’t do enough mobility work. I should be stretching and foam rolling at home. I don’t. I should be taking breaks at work and mobilizing my shoulders throughout the day. I get too busy. I should take that evil lacrosse ball with me everywhere and jam it in my hip rotators at every available opportunity. (It’s right here in my carry-on bag, in fact. I should be doing this RIGHT NOW.) But I don’t, mostly because that one hurts too much.
Maybe if I did it more often, it wouldn’t hurt so much. As our good friend Donna Dyson would say… Aduh.
We train SO hard… and yet I’d venture to say that all of us have some sort of mobility e-brake permanently stuck in the “up” position. I observed that at Kelly’s seminar, when only 3 out of 60 people in the room passed a simple hamstring flexibility test. As I told Kelly later that day, “One thing I took from your seminar… I’m all messed up, but so is everyone else.” For me, my top priority e-brake is hip mobility. I have tons of internal rotation, but very little natural external rotation. If you’ve been to Kelly’s seminar, you’ll know that muscles generate the most power in the middle of their range… and practically no power at their end ranges, either maximally shortened or maximally stretched. So for me, the necessity of turning my toes out to accommodate my giraffe legs during the squat shortens my external rotators to that “end range” position. As a result, I can generate far less power coming up out of the hole.
From Dallas: “The posterior chain muscles all work together when you squat. Hip rotators may not be primary movers, but they do function as hip stabilizers. Tight, weak stabilizing muscles in an exercise like the squat invariably leads to sub-optimal mechanics, which means you can’t generate maximum force, which means your squat numbers aren’t as good as they could be.”
And yet instead of working on tedious hip mobilization drills, I just think really hard about keeping my knees out when I squat. Want to know how well that’s been working? SO well that my squat has been stuck at the same 1RM for, like, 6 months now. Much like you can’t train your way out of a crappy diet, you also cannot willpower your way out of mobility restrictions. Of course, it’s not like my lack of external rotation is the ONLY thing keeping my squat numbers stagnant. Nutrition, training, sleep and other factors all play a role. But even if those factors were all perfect, hip mobility is my e-brake. And until I fix that, my squat will never reach full potential.
I’d bet my Lululemon collection that each and every one of our readers has something funky going on with one movement or another – a limitation, a quirk in your mechanics, or straight-up pain when performing certain exercises. And I bet the vast majority of you aren’t doing a damn thing about it, other than the Urban Approach To Squatting Heavier™ (i.e., spending an awful lot of time in the gym doing 5x5s with the e-brake on, wishing really, really hard that you could squat heavier). So here is your call to action, people… and I’m primarily talking to myself here. Start taking your mobility issues seriously. Find a good PT, spend some time with a qualified coach, watch some videos and try some of your own movement and mobility tests. Figure out what’s messed up, learn how those mobility issues are negatively affecting your performance numbers, and then commit to spending quality time every single day working on them. Sub out a training day for a movement/mobility/skill day, even. Stretch, roll and mobilize your way back towards full range of motion, and let me know what that does for your squat, your press, your deadlift. Best case – it fixes your mechanics, your lifts improve and you’re a stronger, happier person. Worst case – you’re merely more flexible, with less pain and stiffness during full range of motion. Win/win, people.
I’m hoping my daily hip opening drills will slowly but surely release the e-brake and bring my squat numbers up. If a quick test is any indication, my ballet-inspired turnout improved by a solid 15 degrees after just a few minutes of stretching… a sure sign my hip capsule is open to change. I’ll keep you posted here and test my 1RM again in a month or two to see if my mobility experiment made a measurable difference in my stats.
Got your own e-brake to deal with? Doing anything about it? Confess your mobility sins here.
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