Now, I’ve written before about how I think mobility is highly overrated for powerlifters. It’s important: if you’re immobile, then you’re at best going to underperform and at worst, going to get injuries. But in truth, the standards of mobility required to be successful in powerlifting are far, far lower than in other sports (and, of course, the standard for other aspects of athletic development, like strength, are far higher). Nevertheless, you’ll see self-proclaimed powerlifters spend hours and hours rolling around on foam pipes and lacrosse balls — and, oftentimes, those are the same guys and girls who barely devote any time to the more demanding task of actually getting stronger.
I think the reason for this is simple: mobility is easy to develop, you see results quickly, and it yet it still feels productive. That’s about the extent of its upsides, though. If you’re already mobile enough to squat, bench press, and deadlift safely and efficiently, then performing extra mobility work is at best a waste of time and energy. You could better spend that time lifting, eating, or resting. And at worst, overdoing mobility work can lengthen recovery times, contribute to inefficiencies in technique, and even (rarely) cause injury rather than prevent it.
All that said: if you’re a powerlifter, you should definitely have some mobility tools in your kit. What follows is a list of my personal favorites, and some suggestions on how to incorporate them into your own training. But use this information the smart way: only when necessary!
My Number-One Training Tool: The Trigger Point Cane
Now, I’m sure you’ve seen a tool like this before:
I use a model called the Back Buddy, but I’ve seen a million other variations of the same thing. These tools are designed to help relieve trigger points: tight spots in the muscles that can cause impaired mobility or pain. I prefer the Back Buddy because its sharper notches allow for deeper muscle penetration, and the rigid plastic allows me to rest all of my bodyweight on the hook without it bending.
I know you’re probably looking for concrete advice on how to use this one, but I don’t have a straightforward answer for ya there. I just use the cane to find tight spots — my problem areas are usually around my scapula, but yours might be in any muscle. And note that it’s not just the muscle that’s giving you problems. The culprit may be very well somewhere else; for example, tightness in the glutes can cause lower back pain. Once you find the spot, simply apply gentle pressure using one of the knobs for 20-30 seconds, or until you feel the spot “release.”
If you’re having trouble, I highly recommend The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook by Clair Davis — it’s a very helpful guide to finding and releasing these spots.
My Go-To Travel Tool: Mobility Ball
The big drawback to the trigger point cane is how unwieldy it is — not great for bringing on long trips, especially not those involving air travel. In those cases, I use the next-best thing: a regular old lacrosse ball.
Now, actually, I’ve sprung for one of the mobility-specific versions,the MobilityWOD SuperNova. This has some small grooves and is made of a less flexible material than a standard lacrosse ball, although those improvements are by no means necessary. You can get lots of different sizes and firmness in various similar products, and there’s no one “best” option — it all comes down to personal preference.
You’ll use the ball in the exact same way you use the cane, to find tight spots and apply pressure to them until they release or soften. The cane tends to work better to get hard-to reach areas, but the ball can work just as well if you’re willing to be a little patient in finding the right positions with it.
My Stretching Solution: Resistance Bands
Now, I am not a fan of static stretching. It’s good for flexibility, but I think pure flexibility is very much not helpful for powerlifting (flexibility refers to your range of motion; mobility refers to your ability to demonstrate strength over a range of motion). Furthermore, I think it’s too easy to increase the risk of injury through static stretching.
Dynamic stretching, on the other hand, can be a great way to improve mobility and to help warm up. Dynamic stretches don’t necessary require equipment: you can easily perform leg swings, arm circles, and the like with nothing but your body and some space. But you can also use resistance bands to help safely “overload’ your range of motion, like this:
Again, there’s no one prescription for how to use these tools, but if you need a reference, Kelly Starrett’s Becoming a Supple Leopard is my go-to. In general, you’re going to look for a way to anchor the band to provide a gentle stretch on your target muscle, and then use that muscle to resist against the tension the band creates. Then slowly return to the starting position.
What’s Not on the List: Foam Rollers
These are one of the most ubiquitous mobility tools, and one that I almost never use. While they can definitely help to relieve superficial soreness, so can any sort of movement. And, some research shows that foam rolling can inhibit muscles from performing to their absolute potential. On the other hand, foam rolling has very few unique benefits. In short, it might feel good, but it’s not doing much for you. Feel free to go ahead and do some foam rolling simply because it feels good, of course — just don’t make that the cornerstone of your mobility or warmup routine.
Have your own mobility practices you’d like to share? Do so in the comments below!