Quick fixes in training – ones that actually work – are few and far between. So when you find a strategy to improve your movement, you’d better hang on to it. That may be your magic bullet to training without injury. Here are four quick fixes that’ll improve your ankle mobility, fix your squat, loosen your hip flexors, and alleviate shoulder aches.
1 – Improve Ankle Mobility
It seems like nearly everyone has limitations moving into dorsiflexion, which is required for squatting, deadlifting, and lunging. But if foam rolling and stretching didn’t help you the first 99 times you used it to improve your mobility, it’s not going to give you results the hundredth time. Here’s what to do instead.
Hit the calves first during lower body training days before your big compound strength lifts. Before you step into the squat rack, get a nasty pump using agonist/antagonist training of the lower legs.
By using calf raises (for direct gastroc work) in conjunction with lying banded dorsiflexions (for direct tibialis anterior work), you’ll get a metabolic-stress effect in the lower legs. This combo will unlock the neurological tension that makes your ankles as flexible as concrete bricks.
The key: Train both of these movements out of an extended range of motion into the stretched position.
- For calf raises, control your ankles deep into dorsiflexion, get a stretch at the bottom of each rep for a full second, then drive up explosively.
- For the lying banded dorsiflexions, hold each peak of contraction for a full second at the top and control the movement back down with deliberate tension.
Do multiple sets between 15-20 reps for calf raises, and between 30-50 reps for dorsiflexions with minimal rest between the exercises. Give yourself around 30-45 seconds between each superset.
2 – Squat Pretty
Even after perfecting your setup in terms of foot placement, core bracing, and bar positioning, you may still have an ugly compensated squat that’s painful for you and anyone watching.
To enhance the squat pattern you’ll need to use the core, glutes, and lateral hamstring groups to create pre-tension and gain torque and stability before descending into the squat. Pre-tension means what it sounds like: creating tension before some other event takes place – in this case, the lift.
Placing a light mini-band around the knees can improve your squat instantaneously and become a teaching tool that’ll get you into optimized positions and back to band-free squatting.
The band will help you recruit secondary actions of the gluteal and hamstring groups for enhanced stability. The whole gluteal group extends the hips and externally rotates and abducts the hips. It also slightly posteriorly tilts the pelvis. This is the optimal position to create stability.
Place the band just above the knees to get it in more direct contact with the femur (upper leg bone), which we’re trying to gain the spiraling position from. Use this as your reminder to get your knees to drive the band apart and also to externally rotate the hips against the band.
First tense the core, glutes, and hamstrings against the feedback that the band provides, then smoothly drive your hips down and back into the squat. This quick fix never gets old, no matter how many times you have to use it.
3 – Loosen Your Angry Hips
If you sit all day you most likely have hip flexor tightness, but if you’ve foam rolled and stretched with little to no relief, it’s time to focus on a technique called “antagonist inhibition.”
The soft tissues in the front side of the hip are the hip flexors, which, like their name infers, move the hips into flexion when these muscles are contracted. On the opposite side of the body are the glutes, which act as hip extensors.
As the hips extend, muscular force is produced from the glutes in order to achieve the extended hip position, but this contraction needs to also be coordinated with a relaxation of the hip flexors on the opposite side of the joint.
In this example, the glutes are the agonist muscular action, and the hip flexors are the antagonists. The interplay between both the antagonist and agonist are often faulty, thus limiting the functional range of motion and “mobility” that a joint or movement has. This is antagonist inhibition.
Knowing that the neurological phenomenon of antagonist inhibition needs to be optimized, you can help train these patterns to improve position and unlock mobility quickly. The drill you can use to address the hip flexors is the single-leg glute bridge.
- Lying on the floor, grab one knee and pull it into your chest.
- Bring the opposite leg up so the foot remains flat on the floor while the knee is in a 90-degree bend.
- Brace the core hard, squeeze the knee in and drive your hips up into extension explosively, holding for a split second at the top.
- Control the movement down and complete 5-8 reps.
Focus on movement and contraction quality, not reps. Remember, you’re using this drill to unlock restricted neurological tone, not to get strong or jacked. A few rounds of this should leave your hips mobile and get you out of that nasty anteriorly tilted pelvic position that sitting on your ass all day left you in.
4 – Bring Back the Bench, Minus The Shoulder Pain
Front-side shoulder pain is common. And since many lifters naturally gravitate towards mirror movements like presses and curls, a cumulative stress cycle through the shoulders usually results in overuse, pain, and injuries. But the last thing many die-hard lifters are going to skip is their bench press. So instead of continuing to press through pain, avoid the chronic stress by fixing your position.
You’ve probably heard that you must drive your shoulder blades down into the bench to “stabilize” them in order to press without pain. While this is true to some extent, what eventually ends up happening is an exaggeration causing poor positioning at the shoulder blades, leaving you in more pain than before.
I’ve stopped using the cue “scaps against the bench” with my athletes, and instead have seen a huge amount of success teaching them “co-contraction” between their lats and pecs in order to add real stability through the shoulder girdle. This limits unwanted and unstable range of motion while also enhancing the mind-muscle connection.
Trying to drive your scaps into the bench misses the mark because it encourages you to use a passive position to achieve a setup instead of working actively to get your shoulders and upper quadrant into position and having the ability to keep it there.
You want both the pecs and lats to create “pre-tension” at the top of a pressing movement, whether you’re using a barbell or dumbbells. Contracting the two most powerful movers of the upper body will produce the optimal shoulder joint positioning. This will ultimately improve the feel and stability of the bench press, and help you maintain control of these positions throughout it.
If you don’t have a coach or training partner telling you this cue, simply think to yourself, “squeeze your lats and pecs together.” If you have trouble with this, squeeze the bar as hard as you can, THEN go into the co-contraction.
Using this reminder and setup has the added benefit of increasing your mind-muscle connection. Because the pre-tensioning of the pecs – in addition to the lats – is active, we’re grading the eccentric portion of the lift through the pecs, which is great to enhance the feel and improve contraction quality.
This may be the most powerful shoulder fix that you could be using, so make sure to give it a try.