I was working with an athlete doing lunges last week and we found a wayward screw in the parking lot. He said that saved him $500. It turns out his car has tires that can’t be repaired, well they can, but they won’t because the car can go fast enough that they can’t guarantee the tire won’t fail at speed. For the car to be safe at high speeds, all of the part of the car has to do it’s job at every speed. Think of your body in the same way, your body, like a car, is a system of systems. Doing a hard or heavy workout with limited mobility is like putting a patched tire on a car that will do 150 MPH, it’ll probably be OK, but do you really want to see what happens if it doesn’t? You might argue, “Saul, I like your optimism, but I am not a 150 MPH car.” To that I will say two things, “not now you aren’t, but you can be,” and/or “OK, but let’s do everything we can do to keep your 80 MPH car as reliable and safe as possible.”
Let’s take one step back here and introduce one exercise science principle which is arguably the only principle you have to remember, specific adaptation to imposed demands (SAID). The SAID principle says that you should expect a specific set adaptations from set of demands (i.e. exercises). Most new coaches take that to mean that if you want to run a 10K you need to train by running. However after you coach for a while, you come to find out that what it really means is that each exercise has an adaptation and many times those adaptations overlap (e.g. dead lifting can help a new runner train for their first 10 K). The sub-text of the SAID principle is that all exercise gains come from the adaptation from the exercise not really from the exercise itself. This statement is based on Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome. Your body “adapts” to the stress (exercise) applied to it if, and only if, you do the exercise correctly and, probably more importantly, let your body recover. We will address recovery in a different post but let’s stay with doing the exercise correctly.
Mobility is critical to maximizing your strength in a myriad of ways but the most important way is that it lets the right muscles do the right thing. Here’s what I mean by that, at the risk of over simplifying, of the skeletal muscles you’ll use in a workout, you have two kinds, local (deep) and global (superficial). The job of the local muscles, is to stabilize and and support. For instance, the multifidi, the small muscles that connect your vertebrae together are local muscles that “work to stabilize the joints at each segmental level,” your local muscles aren’t supposed to move a joint, like your biceps does, conversely, their whole job is to not move, to prevent joints from moving in ways they weren’t designed to move. This is why we work so hard in bootcamp to teach our athletes how to hip hinge, why we want you to use the platforms or start from the top on the dead lifts (or any pulling movement) and why we want you to mobilize between sets. Getting into a position that allows you to keep a neutral spine or knees that follow over or outside your feet or any other start position is critical to building strength.
The global or superficial muscles are what many people call the prime movers. They do the heavy lifting as the saying goes. When you lift with these, often very large muscles, think hamstrings, quadriceps, latissimus dorsi, gluteus maximus, etc., you are using muscles that are meant to actually move something by acting against a stable joint. When you are mobile enough to set up correctly for your dead lift, you are allowing those multifidi to work in the way they were intended to work which, in turn, allows the global muscles to actually move something instead of fighting for stability. Mobility allows for stability which allows for proper technique, which, finally, allows strength to happen. As you can see from the previous progression, proper technique i.e. doing the exercise correctly, is really nothing more than being able to move from a mechanically correct starting position to a mechanically correct finishing position using the local and global muscles appropriately. Most of the time, people aren’t weak, they are inadvertently using weak stabilizing muscles to move weight rather than creating a stable platform first, then letting the prime movers actually do the, well, moving.
We’ve all seen the big guy or gal, who is not very flexible and yet still strong. Yep, that happens, and most of those athletes have issues with their back and/or their knees. Don’t be that guy/gal, take your time to work your mobility so that getting into your starting position is effortless. Reduce the weight, so you can use that new found mobility throughout the movement. It’s an investment for sure, but the way I see it is you can invest in your health today or provide the investment funds for your orthopedic surgeon’s 401K. It’s your choice.