Mobility drills? Isolated movements? Lets talk range of motion
I was recently asked a question from a friend in regards to two different examples from social media about improving “mobility” and it sparked a great discussion that I wanted to share.
The two examples were about lower body movement – one being from Dr. Quinn Henoch where was doing an elevated split squat going through full ranges in preparation for lifting, while the other being an individual doing isolated hip internal rotation in a deep squat and specifying to do 3 sets of 10 for it.
---- Video of Michael Amato demoing the same movement from Quinn.
The question that arose was, is there merit to isolating a motion such as internal rotation and doing 3 sets of 10 for it? Would that actually have any long term translation to lifting or is it more of a short term change?
These are some great questions and a lot to dissect, so let’s get started.
The first thing to begin looking at with all of this information is what purpose does each serve. With the example of Quinn, he is doing this in preparation for bigger lifts with a high demand on hip and ankle range of motion (snatch/clean). By going through a full range of motion in a controlled manner, he is working on getting his nervous system comfortable to the ranges, warming up and “loosening up” prior to getting into the movements.
In the second case, this person is specifying that they want to work on an isolated part of a movement. This begs the question: why would you choose to isolate a certain aspect of movement - such as hip internal rotation during a squat. This likely has a few perspectives behind it, but the most common is if the person has a limitation with that range of motion and it is limiting the movement, so they are trying to improve it. With that same example, if the person is trying to perform the squat and as they get into the deeper ranges they struggle and find that they can’t get any lower. If that person does in fact have reduced hip internal rotation – then that might be perceived as the limiting factor (though there could be a lot more).
If we are assuming then that person’s limited internal rotation is stopping them from achieving the squat depth they want, it is reasonable that it needs to be worked on. If we are able to isolate a factor as what is stopping someone from achieving their goal, then there absolutely is merit in working on it. As that person improves their internal rotation, their squat should improve.
----- Side note: often times people just need to practice the movement diligently for a long period of time, but there are cases such as this where a specific limitation needs to be addressed.
With this framework laid out, we now need to consider if doing something like 3 sets of 10 of some mobility drill will translate over to the long term or is it just a short term change.
When we look at improving range of motion, there are a number of ways to go about it – some methods having shorter effects, and others having longer lasting effects. These “effects” also come in a variety of formats, such as increased tolerance to stretch, increased number of sarcomeres in series, decreased neural tension, reduced perception of threat, etc.
Regardless whether you use a drill that gets increased tolerance to stretch or one that has decreased neural tension, all of them will have some version of a enhanced short term effect that could give you the possibility of increased range of motion. However, if you do some drill and get these effects, then nothing else, you’ll likely not see any long term improvement in range of motion. This is the problem that many people run into when they are spending lots of time working on X,Y, or Z problem, doing lots of mobility drills and not seeing the benefit.
In contrast, if you use some sort of loading strategy following up these “mobility drills” then you are giving a stimulus to your nervous system that this range is safe, comfortable, and something to keep. That is why placing some form of these drills between sets of your main movements as your warm up is the best usage of them. In essence, you make the best of both worlds.
In deciding what kind of “drill” to use, I’ll most often recommend that you side towards some form a slow and controlled movement where you use load and explore the end range you struggle with. For example, using a drill like this for internal rotation –
Or if you are struggling with “tight” hamstrings limiting your deadlift back position, then doing some slow and controlled stiff legged deadlifts can be a great exercise to warm up. The added benefit over “normal” stretching/mobility drills is that we are now increasing the strength and neurological functioning of the body in these positions we struggle with.
Now that we’ve covered the majority of the topic, there is one more detail I want to address. Does it need to be 3 sets of 10? Well no, but maybe. Volume prescription (sets and reps) is heavily dependent upon the usage of the exercise and desired physiological change we are looking for. If you are doing an exercise between sets of squats to work on hip internal rotation, then doing something that is somewhat challenging but not overly exerting is ideal so you can focus on squatting. Doing 1 set of 10 between sets of squats might be great to keep exploring internal rotation before loading it. In contrast, if we are doing something towards the end of the training session where we are focusing on attacking some sort of an issue, then the level of effort needs to be raised. In that case, 3 sets of 10 might not be right and we in fact need go lower/higher.
Move well, lift heavy, stay healthy,