Basic Mobility For Men (Can You Do These Movements?)

Basic mobility for men…

You want to be strong and jacked. You don’t want to be beat up and injured, right?

We can talk all day about the ‘best workout plans for the 33 year old guy with 7 years training experience and a sedentary job’ or whatever your specific situation might be. It’s all for jack if you get injured.

Here I want to tell you about the importance of basic mobility; what it is, how to do it, and why you need to.

This goes alongside your normal training routine. To maximise your strength and hypertrophy gains while avoiding injury, poor posture and waddling around with your arms out at 90 degrees because – you might be jacked – but you’re stiff as a board.

Honestly, mobility is not the sexiest fitness subject we could cover, but it really is one of the most essential.

Let me tell you why:

  • Good mobility minimises the risk of injury and keeps you training for longer.
  • Good mobility helps the body function properly during movement. Good mobility allows muscles to activate in the sequence they are supposed to. Instantly increasing strength and helping you use the right muscles.(An example: when you have piss poor hamstring flexibility and you deadlift all from the lower back; stunting hamstring growth and risking hemorrhaging your spine out of your throat when your back can’t take it any more)
  • Good mobility allows you to use a full range of motion, strengthening joints and increasing muscle growth.

What this is not:

This is not some 2 hours per day yogi oestro-hipster routine.

We are keeping the end goal in mind. You are in the gym to get strong and jacked. This routine is to help you do that.

What is Mobility?

Mobility is best described as flexibility through movement. It differs from static flexibility in that it also has a motor control component. You have to control the body as it moves through the range of motion. We think about mobility from a joint perspective, rather than individual muscles’ perspective.

I don’t want to science this post up too much, so think of mobility as; ‘controlling the body through the greatest possible range of motion’.

For example; comfortably doing an ass to grass squat, or a behind the neck press.

Why You Need Basic Mobility

You need mobility to:

Not get injured: Injuries suck and nothing will ruin your hard earned physique quicker than not being able to train due to injury.

Most gym injuries come from a lack of mobility and are totally avoidable. Structures are too tight and eventually tear, or one joint is lacking sufficient movement, so force is focused on another structure or joint, instead of being distributed among the different joints evenly. Putting undue stress on the joint(s) taking the brunt of the workload.

Better muscle activation: Anyone who has ever read an article about squat depth knows that full range of motion leads to better muscle activation, a stronger contraction and therefore a greater adaptive response and more muscular growth.

A balanced physique: Better muscle activation leads to a more balanced physique, as the muscles are challenged throughout their entire range of motion.

For example; compare a weightlifters quads to a quarter squat bro. You can see significantly more growth on the inner head for the guy who uses full range of motion every time.

Doing complex exercises effortlessly: If you like to play around or show off in the gym, good mobility makes things like muscle ups a walk in the park, while most guys struggle to get anywhere near a deep bottom position.

Common Basic Mobility Problems

I’m a fitness guy and I still spend the larger part of my day sat at a desk behind the laptop, so I can only imagine what it is like for people with the dreaded j-o-b. Our modern lives are a constant assault on our posture, we spend too much time sitting, too much time typing and too much time staring at our iPhone.

It is little wonder we wind up with tight muscles, under-active glutes and rhomboids, and poor movement patterns. The flip side of this epidemic is that, similar to obesity, it’s so bad that it’s extremely easy to stand out.

Be the guy in shape, the guy who has great posture and can actually move his body, you instantly stand out from 98% of ‘men’ in the west today.

So we are starting from a bad place, of sitting in poor postures for the majority of our day to day lives, and then we go to the gym – that’s making it better, right?

Not necessarily. I’m not going to insult you and assume you are every day bench and biceps kinda guys. You’re more intelligent than that, but what you might not realise, is that the lack of mobility and poor muscle function is restricting you from properly working the postural muscles such as the glutes and mid back – even when you are doing the right thing and trying to work them.

Quick diagnostic question: Have you ever struggled to feel or develop a mind muscle connection with the muscles at the back of the body?

If so, all the rows and deadlifts in the world will not get your body functioning properly, until it is moving in the right patterns, through the full range of motion.

Here are the most common mobility problems I have seen over and over in guys:

  • No ankle dorsi flexion (knee forward over toes) and collapsed feet that don’t work
  • No mental connection with the glutes and an inability to use them; leading to instability at the hips
  • Tight hips to compensate for the lack of stability (you can’t squat because you can’t stabilise and your feet don’t work – not because you need to stretch your hips)
  • No thoracic spine extension, causing slumped posture and poor functioning mid back muscles (rhomboids and mid/lower traps)
  • Internally rotated (rounded) shoulders and tight chest & lats
  • Forward head posture and tightness throughout the neck

This is what happens:

  • You can’t squat full depth with a straight back
  • You can’t behind the neck press, chest to bar pull up or properly front squat
  • Your glutes, hamstrings, mid back, rear delts and lats are underdeveloped compared to other muscles
  • Even if you’re aware and fight it; bad posture seems to be your default

Most guys fall short in one, or usually multiple, of these areas. It is hurting your strength, your physique and your posture.

Testing Basic Mobility

There are 5 exercises that I like to use, to diagnose mobility problems. I will break them down below and you will see where you fall short and what you need to work on.

These exercises are tests. I am not necessarily advocating you putting them in your program regularly and do not care how many you can do/how long for. The only thing I care about is if you can execute it perfectly, with control and full range of motion, for at least one rep.

How To Do These Tests

Approach these tests the way you would a workout. Complete a warm up first and build up to doing the movements. It goes without saying, be careful and do not hurt yourself trying to achieve something that your body is not capable of doing right now. We are looking for feedback on where you need to put in some work – this is not a competition.

I actually shot the photos below without doing a warm up first. This is not advised. I have a large degree of mobility because I am an Olympic Weightlifter and it is a requirement of the sport. I shot the photos in a cold state to indicate how they will likely look for you. If you can achieve the positions I display in the photos you have plenty of mobility for everyday training, injury prevention and maximising hypertrophy.

Pistol Squat

The pistol squat will assess:

  • Foot and ankle joint mobility
  • Hip mobility
  • Hip stability

How to do it:

Stand with your feet hip width apart and lift one leg. Keeping that leg straight, break from the hips and sit back and down on the standing leg, in a squat motion, while simultaneously extending the other leg out in front of you, to keep it off the floor. Sit all the way in to a deep squat and then stand back up. Your back will probably round a little at the bottom, don’t worry too much about that as this is an unweighted movement. Ideally it won’t round, but very few are mobile enough to achieve that.

Typical failures include; not being able to achieve full range (hamstring covers calf), not being able to keep the other leg out of the way, knee tracking excessively inwards, falling over.

Phil Hawksworth Basic Mobility Pistol Squat

Bridge

The bridge will assess:

  • Thoracic spine extension
  • Shoulder extension and external rotation
  • Hip extension and glute function
  • Wrist extension

How to do it:

Lay flat on your back, bend the knees and place the feet flat on the floor. Ensure the feet are pointing forwards. Place the hands flat on the floor by your ears, with fingers pointing down. Lift the hips to full extension and push the arms straight to arch your whole body in to the air. Push the head through and ensure the elbows are locked out straight, with feet and hands still flat on the floor and not turned out.

Typical failures include; Bent elbows, palms lift, a ‘kink’ in the lower back, feet turn out, falling over.

Phil Hawksworth Basic Mobility Bridge

Skin the cat

Skin the cat will assess:

  • Shoulder stability
  • Thoracic spine mobility
  • Shoulder extension

How to do it:

Grab a neutral grip chin up bar or gymnastics rings and start from a full hang. You want to roll yourself over backwards, past upside down and as far over towards a full 360 degree roll as possible. The measurement for this isn’t whether you can do a full 360, but rather, whether you can comfortably roll over and relax in to a hang. If you do not have the mobility your body will not be comfortable and you will stay tense. You also need to be able to roll back over to the right way up, to test your end range strength.

Typical failures include; not being able to go all the way over, discomfort or pain in the shoulders, not being able to reverse the movement (lack of end range strength).

Phil Hawksworth Basic Mobility Skin The Cat

Behind the neck press

Behind the neck press will assess:

  • Thoracic extension
  • Shoulder extension & external rotation

How to do it:

Place a barbell on your back like you would for a squat and take a slightly wider than shoulder width grip. ‘Pack’ the shoulders down by retracting and depressing the shoulder blades. Press the bar overhead. Lock it out with straight elbows and the bar behind your head. Ensure your midline stays solid and you do not over-extend the lower back.

Typical failures include; not being able to start the movement without cheating, pain in the shoulder joint, not keeping a strong and stable midline.

Phil Hawksworth Basic Mobility Behind The Neck Press

Overhead Squat

Overhead squat will assess:

  • Foot and ankle mobility
  • Hip mobility and stability
  • Core stability
  • Thoracic extension
  • Shoulder extension & external rotation

How to do it:

Take the bar on your back like a normal back squat and grip it with a wide grip (experiment to find a comfortable width). Press the bar overhead with straight arms and then sit down in to a full squat, keeping the chest up, elbows straight and bar behind your head.

Common failures include; not being able to sit all the way down, rounding the lower back, not keeping the bar behind the head, knees collapsing inwards, bending elbows.

Phil Hawksworth Basic Mobility Overhead Squat

Bonus Test: Sott’s Press

The Sott’s press doesn’t assess anything that the behind the neck press and overhead squat don’t already have covered, but the ability to do them shows a superior amount of mobility and control. If you can do a Sott’s press, you have nothing to worry about.

In my opinion the Sott’s press is the ultimate test of mobility for the average gym goer (not professional gymnast, etc.).

How to do it:

Take the same grip you would for an overhead squat, but keep the bar on your back and sit down in to a full squat. From the bottom squat position, press the bar overhead and lock it out with straight elbows. Lower the bar back to your shoulders and stand up. Move your grip inwards to increase difficulty, until you can do it with the same grip as the behind the neck press, or even pressing from the front rack like a standard military press (much more challenging).

Phil Hawksworth Basic Mobility Sotts Press

 

Try these exercises out and see where you fail.

Now you know where you need to put in some work, I best tell you how to fix these issues.

Cures for Common Mobility Problems

You’ve done a quick assessment and know where you’re lacking, we best look at the cures.

Training to improve mobility is a two part process;

  1. Release and stretch tight joints and muscles
  2. ‘Bed in’ the new range of motion, build control, stability and correct movement patterns

It’s probably not a great revelation for me to tell you to stretch that tight chest, but the second part is where most people fail to make significant changes.

It is the second part that makes it permanent and leads to an increase in performance. A bit of ad-hoc stretching isn’t really the point. The point is to quickly and permanently increase the quality of movement, range of motion and control throughout all points of the exercise.

Problems

Feet & Ankles lack dorsi flexion

Cannot sit all the way down in the overhead squat and pistol squat (hamstring covering calf), whilst keeping the lower back straight and the knees aligned with the feet.

To improve foot and ankle mobility:

 

Hip Extension

Cannot fully extend the hips on the bridge, possibly have a sharp kink in the lower back.

To improve hip extension:

*Actively: with glute engagement, pushing the hips forwards

 

Knees cave

Cannot perform the pistol or overhead squat without the knees caving in.

To improve knee control and alignment:

 

Lower back rounds

Lower back rounds during the pistol or overhead squats

To improve control and stability at the lower back:

  • Learn correct breathing patterns for lifting
  • Increase ankle dorsi flexion (see above) and thoracic extension (see below)

 

Foot & hip stability

Shaky or fall over during the pistol squat

 

Lack thoracic spine mobility: especially extension

Cannot do a full arch through the entire spine during the bridge. Probably has a kink in the lower back.

Cannot behind the neck press or roll right over in to skin the cat without pain.

Cannot keep the arms behind the head and lower back straight in the overhead squat.

To improve thoracic mobility:

 

Lack shoulder extension and external rotation

Cannot behind the neck press, lock out the arms during the bridge or keep the arms behind the head during the overhead squat.

To improve shoulder extension and external rotation:

 

Notes

  • The beauty of all of the test exercises, is that you can do them regularly and they will actually improve your mobility.
  • Perform releases, stretches and activations first, then use the test exercises to embed motor learning and build strength in the new range of motion.
  • Many things are complimentary; foot and hip stability, or thoracic extension and shoulder extension/external rotation, go hand in hand and improving one will improve the other.
  • Frequency is king for progression with mobility. Do it as regularly as possible and you will see quick improvements. Maintenance takes much less work than progression requires.
  • Stretching or releasing alone will not lead to long term improvements. Without building control, stability and strength, your body will not be comfortable in the increased range of motion and quickly tighten back up, to protect itself.
  • Use these mobility drills as warm ups for your regular workout. It warms your body, improves the muscle firing sequences and mind-muscle connection. You can kill two birds with one stone.
  • Invest in a couple of lacrosse balls and a light jump stretch band. They are cheap and easily portable, but 90+% of what you will ever need to look after your mobility.

Conclusion

Mobility can be frustrating for guys. It’s generally pretty tedious; we would rather be lifting something or going home to eat some steak.

Couple this with the lack of good information out there for guys, who want to stay healthy and maximise their training potential, but do not want to spend 2 hours flouncing around, like many of the mobility guru’s or movement guru’s espouse.

What we are left with, is shoulder impingements, bad backs and unnecessary time out of the gym. This can all be avoided with, at most, 10 additional minutes per day.

Indeed if you take my advice and use your mobility drills as your warm up, you will barely spend any additional time in the gym.

You will, however, get injured less, be able to train through a greater range of motion – and thus achieving stronger muscle contractions, have a better mind-muscle connection and be able to perform complex exercises more easily.

 

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