When it comes to lifting more weight, you probably think of challenging yourself with additional reps or mixing things up with different exercises. But as it turns out, if you want to get stronger and lift more weight, the best thing you can do is work on your mobility.
We asked two physical therapists—Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., certified strength and conditioning Specialist and founder of Movement Vault, a company that will help you increase your mobility and flexibility, and Karena Wu, D.P.T., board-certified clinical specialist in orthopaedic physical therapy and owner of ActiveCare Physical Therapy—for their insights into why mobility is so crucial to weightlifting, how improving mobility can help you in the gym, and which exercises you need to incorporate to increase your mobility (and lift more weight in the process).
Why Mobility Is Crucial to Weight Lifting
Before we jump into how to improve your mobility and get stronger as a result, let’s talk about why mobility is essential to weight lifting.
Improved Mobility = Lower Risk of Injury
Trying to lift too much, too fast—especially when you have mobility issues—puts you at serious risk for injury. “If a person lacks mobility in one joint in their body, another area or joint in their body will have to compensate for the lack of mobility in the other joint,” Dr. Wickham says. “This compensation causes stress on these areas … and can lead to pain and injury.” And those injuries? They’re not going to put you on the fast track to lifting more weight.
“If you are dealing with pain and/or an injury, you will most likely not be able to work out as hard as you would if you were pain-free and moving well,” he continues. “This lack of training will impact your strength and/or fitness gains. These injuries can also sideline you altogether, which will mean no training at all.”
But when you improve your mobility and have a greater range of motion, you won’t be putting too much pressure on any single area of the body. This lowers your risk for injury and allows you to continue working toward higher weights. “The better your mobility is, the greater your freedom will be to move in different ranges of motion. … Having the ability to achieve and control these degrees of freedom will decrease your risk for future injury and increase your performance [in the gym],” says Wickham.
Improved Mobility = Faster Recovery
If you want to lift more weight, you need to be consistent with your training. But without mobility, your body can take a long time to recover. Plus, it can seriously mess with your progress as a result. “If you are not mobile, fluid circulation can be compromised, which leads to a reduction in the physiological processes of muscle recovery, thereby limiting muscle strength gains,” Dr. Wu says.
But working on your mobility with techniques such as foam rolling and dynamic stretching can relieve muscle tightness and increase circulation to the area. This will help you bounce back and get back to your workouts faster.
Improved Mobility = Better Form
Proper form is key when you’re trying to get stronger and lift more weight. Without optimal mobility, proper form just doesn’t exist. “If you can’t get into the position needed to execute a lift or movement properly, you won’t be able to execute the lift or movement,” Dr. Wickham says. “There is no amount of cues from your coach or personal trainer that can cue you out of mobility issues. … If your hips don’t want to move, you need to work on your hips.”
Because you’ll gain a wider range of motion, increasing your mobility will allow you to improve your form during weight-lifting exercises. If you practice with the proper form, you’ll get stronger and be able to lift a higher level of weights. “When you have optimal mobility, you are able to get into better positions. When you are able to get into better positions, you are able to generate greater strength and power. This strength and power will equal you getting stronger,” Dr. Wickham says.
How to Improve Your Mobility
Now that you know that improving your mobility is a must if you want to get stronger and lift more weight, let’s talk about how exactly to do it.
If you want to improve mobility, you need to stretch, stretch, and then stretch some more. “Static or dynamic stretching increases muscle flexibility, which increases range of motion,” Dr. Wu says.
Make stretching a non-negotiable part of your daily routine, whether you’re in the gym or at home. The more you stretch, the more you’ll increase your mobility and the better you’ll be able to perform when it comes time to lift.
Foam Roller/Mobility Ball
Muscle tightness can keep you from being your most mobile. If you want to improve your mobility, you need to loosen things up. “Generally speaking, the first thing to fix a mobility issue is to use a self-muscle/fascia release technique on the specific area that is tight,” Dr. Wickham says, and he recommends a foam roller or mobility ball.
For best results, use the foam roller or mobility ball before and after a workout to loosen up the fascia around the muscles and relieve any tightness. This will allow for increased mobility during your workouts and better results with your weightlifting.
In addition to stretching and using a foam roller or mobility ball, there are specific exercises you can do to make you more mobile. Dr. Wickham and Dr. Wu suggest the following moves to improve your mobility and help you get stronger in the process.
“This is one of the best back mobility and flexibility exercises you can do. The goal of this movement is to activate all the muscles that attach into each individual vertebra of your spine,” Dr. Wickham says. “Think about making a wave up and down your back. Focus on slow and controlled movement.”
Here’s how to do it:
Start on your hands and knees with your entire spine—from your neck down to your hips—flexed. Keep your core engaged. From this position, focus on reversing your spine’s curvature, extending one spinal vertebra at a time. Start at your hips, and move up through your back and neck until your entire spine is extended. Hold and squeeze all the muscles. Then, reverse the curvature by bringing your chin to your chest, flexing your upper back, middle back, lower back, and hips and keeping your abs and glutes engaged. Perform at least five reps per day.
“Push-ups and bench presses are some of the easiest strengthening exercises to do—however, the muscles [these work can be] some of the tightest muscles in the body,” Dr. Wu says. “Doorway stretches are exercises that increase mobility in the chest muscles and shoulder joints.”
Here’s how to do it:
Stand in a doorway with your forearms pressed against each side of the frame at shoulder height and elbows bent at a 90-degree angle. Get into a lunge position, and lean forward on the front leg to feel the stretch in the front of the chest and shoulders. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds, and then switch legs.
Around the World
Your spine is key to mobility. This is why you want to incorporate plenty of exercises like this one to increase your spinal range of motion. “The goal of this movement is to activate all the muscles around your spine and explore new ranges of motion,” Dr. Wickham says.
Here’s how to do it:
Start in a standing position with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Keeping a slight bend in your knees, punch your arms up toward the sky as high as you can. From this position, side-bend over to the left, squeezing all the muscles on the left side of your body. Then, start to rotate slowly toward the front of your body, making your way to a side-bend position on the right and then returning to starting position. Repeat on the other side for one full rep (each rep should take about 10 seconds total). Perform five reps.
Mobility is key for strength training and advancing to lifting more weight. Focus on improving your mobility and flexibility with stretching, foam rolling, and mobility-specific exercises to see improvements in your weightlifting.