Mobility has become a popular buzzword around the gym these days. Yet, at much as many of us like to talk about mobility, we don’t always give it its full due during our workouts.
“It gets treated as though it’s something inferior to, or not as important as, everything else,” says John Russolillo, CSCS, a corrective exercise specialist and the fitness manager at New York Sports Club Prudential Center Boston. He says he sees members who think, “Oh, I can get it done in two or three minutes and I’m good to go.”
In a way, that impulse is totally understandable. Because mobility exercises can be kind of boring, TBH. Focusing on moving a joint through its full range of motion with controlled articular rotations (known as CARs) can be a super slow process, bordering on tedious. And it doesn’t offer the blood-pumping, endorphin-boosting, muscle-burning sensations that many of us crave from a workout.
But here’s the thing: Thinking of mobility as its own separate section of your workout may not always be the best way to go, anyway. While there’s a place for bodyweight-only CARs or foam rolling to loosen up your fascia, there’s also a major benefit in combining your mobility work with your strength-training moves, according to Russolillo. That’s because the point of mobility is to help our joints move freely through their full ranges of motion, and loading that motion with weight can sometimes help us access a larger range.
“A squat, for instance, is a perfect example of a weighted stretch,” says Russolillo. While we may be focused on the muscle-building effects on our quads and glutes, going deep into a squat can open up the range of motion in our ankles, knees, and hip joints. “From what I’ve seen from most clients, their squat with a little bit of weight is a lot better than their squat [without it]. And the reason is because the weight is actually allowing them to go deeper.” Read: You’re getting stronger, and you’re also getting a deeper stretch—two birds, one stone.
Russolillo says the same is true with something like a deadlift, where you’re lengthening the hamstrings. “You’re loading that stretch with weight,” he says. “That’s where strength training and mobility find kind of a fusion because if you’re training through a large range of motion, you’re actually getting stronger in that range of motion.” He points to gymnasts as prime examples of athletes who build impressive strength throughout large ranges of motion, becoming incredibly mobile.
Getting started on combo mobility and strength-training exercises can be far simpler than trying to tackle the uneven bars, though. Russolillo says a great place to begin is by focusing on moving into and out of a deep squat. “It doesn’t even need to have any sort of weight at all,” he says. “It could even be an assisted squat, holding on to something for balance. Starting with something like that—even if your heels are lifting up off the ground—I have found can do wonders [to] expedite a process that may have [otherwise] taken weeks, months of stretching.“
The point is to get comfortable getting low to the ground in this position, which is a primal movement for the human body that many of us never use anymore. “Our previous sitting or resting position was a squat,” Russolillo points out. (And it still is in certain cultures around the world.) “Our bodies are probably craving that, and eventually they let us know: Back pain, hip pain, knee pain—a lot of it stems from not having that foundation, not having the proper hip flexion, knee flexion that the deep squat provides,” Russolillo says.
Another foundational mobility/strength move he recommends is passively hanging from a bar. “Even if you don’t have the grip strength right away, if you need your toes kind of on the ground for a little bit of support, just getting that nice range of motion with being able to fully extend the arms overhead can be a great starting point to see what your upper body is craving,” he says.
We gotta say, that sounds like a lot more fun to us than slow-mo arm circles.