If you ask even the most elite CrossFit athletes and lifters around the world what the limiting factor is in their performance, almost all of them will say that it is mobility. Unfortunately, by the time many of us start to invest in building strength, for health reasons or for athletic reasons, we are at an age where we have maladapted to poor, dysfunctional movement patterns, bad posture, and poor range of motion in our joints. Quality range of motion, posture, and movement patterns are the foundation for quality strength, and when you try to build strength on top of a sub-optimal foundation in these things, you are often doing more harm than good. This is perhaps the biggest pitfall found in CrossFit gyms and other weight lifting facilities across the country.
Even in high school, football players who cannot bend down and touch their toes are being put onto weightlifting programs where they bench, squat and deadlift well beyond their own body weight. As many who have made this mistake can tell you, this practice leads to an increased risk of injury, unnecessary chronic pain and plateaus in performance. Even people who approach weightlifting cautiously generally tend to merely lift less weight more often, which actually accelerates these problems more than lifting more weight less often. So how do we avoid this pitfall?
Building Quality Joint Movement
Before even considering lifting with anything more than bodyweight, joint mobility must be assessed and then appropriately addressed. Can you do simple things like properly squat (heels on the ground, back straight), touch your toes (knees unbent), and turn your head to look behind you without pain or discomfort? If not, then this is where you start. However, even if you can do these things, there are still some other crucial areas to check before moving on to additional weight usage.
Over 120 ligaments, 34 muscles, and an astonishing 25% of our brain’s motor cortex is devoted to the hand. It is commonly understood that performing movements with a low range of motion (typing, for instance) for an extended period of time can be detrimental to the health of our hands, and that oftentimes, when performing certain lifts, the hands are not only a factor, but the first line of defense against overstressing the shoulder, so why don’t we focus on them when assessing mobility? Quality joint movement and strength of the hands can be assessed in the same way they are addressed. Exercises such as squeezing objects, hanging from a bar, fingertip planks, crawling, bottom up holds with a kettlebell, and isometric contractions (stretching and spreading the hands as much as possible) will not only give you an idea of how well your hands function, but will improve the function of the hands.
All movements, athletic or regular, begin in the core and express themselves in the hips. The power and energy in all movements is generated from the glutes, quads, hamstrings, pelvis and core, and without proper core stability during hip movements, the larger muscles have to compensate for this lack of core stability. For this reason, it is often stated that the hip complex is the window into proper core stability.
Our hip complex works through the deep socket called the acetabulum, and when we do not have quality joint movement in the hips, we lose stability in our lower back, and mobility in our upper back and shoulders. Exercises to improve this joint focus on loosening up this hip sockets that load the hips, and therefore improving mobility, range of motion, flexibility, and include:
Long lunge with ankle rolling
Squat and reach
Hip rotational exercises
Rolling of the femur and hips
The shoulder joint (glenohumoral joint) is the most dynamic joint in the body and has the highest range of motion of any joint in the body, but over time, we abuse this joint. Whether it is from lack of mobility and strength in the hands, hips, or feet, we tend to rely on our shoulders too much in a way similar to how we rely on our backs too much when lifting and performing movements. Taking the shoulder joint through its full range of motion at varying speeds is something that can be done regularly to build quality joint movement, and is essential for building strength in the shoulder socket.
A shoulder that cannot go through a full range of motion should not even touch a barbell. Perhaps the most common site of injury and setback occurs when people try to build strength on a shoulder with poor joint quality. By doing this, we are increasing our risk of injury and training poor movement patterns that not only affect our shoulders, but our brains as well. Often times when we build strength on a bad joint, our brains will “freeze” the area, causing soreness, chronic pain and a decreased range of motion. This is often attributed to “overtraining” when in reality it is the brain telling us, “STOP” harming ourselves in this way.
Exercises that will address both shoulder mobility and joint strength include:
Taking the joint through its full range of motion (straight elbow, should circles)
Handstands/HS push ups
Practicing proper pressing technique
The most undertrained and ignored area of the body; the feet are essential for every movement in the body. Whether we are walking, running, squatting, lifting or jumping, our bodies move through our feet. When we have immobile, weak feet, our spine compensates for our poor foot mechanics the best it can, and many people experience symptoms ranging anywhere from poor knee strength and stability, to chronic neck or low back pain all starting with poor foot mechanics.
Some exercises that will help improve foot mechanics and joint movement include ankle mobility drills (writing your first and last name with your foot), foot rolling and crawling. One of the biggest reasons for our poor foot mechanics comes from our chronic use of shoes. We have written at length about the importance and benefits of going barefoot before, but just keep in mind that doing these exercises is good, but doing them barefoot is great.
Quality Joint Strength
You can surely build strength on top of poor joint function, but it is impossible to build quality strength with this foundation. When there is quality joint movement, quality strength can be added. Learning this and practicing this can save us much frustration and trouble in our training and everyday life, and prevent us from training improperly and functioning improperly throughout the day. Think about all of the time many of us spend daily performing functional movements improperly, and consider the impact this has over the span of many months, years or even decades. For this reason, all of us need to look to improve and maintain good quality joint movement, as it can have a profound impact on our lives, and can be the difference between a healthy “you” and an unhealthy “you”.