To keep from getting injured on any lift, you should be able to go through a full range of motion with no compensatory patterns that put your joints at risk. The problem arises, however, when people think they need to spend tons of time doing soft tissue work, stretching, or corrective exercises to improve their mobility.
This is (for the most part) a waste of training time and can actually have a negative physiological impact as well. Below are some reasons you should simmer down on the excessive prehab and deep stretching.
The Time Factor
Your typical lifter will have about one hour a day to dedicate to training. If he or she spends 15 minutes of that hour rolling around on a foam roller, another 15 minutes doing "corrective" exercises, and then plans to get a few warm-up sets in before hitting the working weight, this is a problem. Especially if he or she allocates another 10-15 minutes to stretching at the end of the session.
If you spend most of your hour NOT training, are you ever going to get strong? Probably not.
You know what actually increases mobility? Doing whole-body compound lifts like squats, lunges, deadlifts, push-ups, and pull-ups through a full range of motion.
Yep, actually LIFTING correctly will help you gain more mobility. Getting your core temperature raised with about two minutes of low-impact cardio, getting some muscle activation in, and hitting a few warm-up sets is sufficient. That's enough to prep your body to lift if you're time crunched.
Note: Sure, there are some exceptions like people dealing with a pre-existing injury, or lifters who need ample mobility for the complex lifts they're attempting (full cleans and snatches).
Physiological Impact of Overstretching
Want the TL;DR version? It leads to a lost stretch reflex. Science shows us why.
Within your muscles and tendons are proprioceptors known as muscle spindles and Golgi tendon organs (GTOs) which have an important responsibility in how your muscles contract. Muscle spindles are responsible for sensing a stretch in the muscle and causing that muscle to contract when it feels overstretched.
GTOs are responsible for shutting the muscle down to prevent injury. If you spend excessive time holding stretches before you need to be explosive, you activate your GTO, which will reduce your muscle spindle activity and, as a result, your ability to be explosive during lifts.
A good analogy is to think of your muscles like rubber bands. If the rubber band is too tight or cold, it'll snap when a stretch is put on it. This is why some sort of warm-up is necessary.
But if the rubber band is too loose or overstretched, you'll have no elastic energy stored up for your lift. This is the stretch reflex that you get out of the bottom of lifts like squats. If you need more flexibility in a specific muscle group, work on deeper stretches after your workout.
Physiological Impact of Too Much Soft Tissue Work
Too much soft tissue work increases your nervous system's parasympathetic activity. Your parasympathetic nervous system is your "rest and digest" system.
If you do deep massage work, your body will get into a relaxed or "sedated" state. This isn't exactly ideal since you need a heightened sense of physical and mental arousal if you're going to lift something heavy. If you have time after your workout, do as much soft tissue work as you'd like.
If you're excessively tight or can feel a knot that's causing a muscle to feel shortened, you may need some soft tissue work before your lift.
Your sympathetic nervous system is responsible for your "fight or flight" response. If you needed to run away from a lion, this part of your nervous system would see more activity.
If you feel soft tissue work is a must before a workout, then fast, firm, and/or percussive massage techniques may increase sympathetic activity and increase blood flow to muscles without putting you into an overly relaxed state.
Mobility Vs. Stability Needs
Here's a quick breakdown of what joints need to be mobilized and what joints need to be stabilized:
- Areas that need mobility: ankles, hips, thoracic spine
- Joints that need stability: knees, lower back
- Joints that need both: shoulder complex (stability through the shoulder, mobility through the shoulder blades)
A little mobility work will help get you into a position where you can lift safely. Below are three movements that'll mobilize your ankles, hips, and thoracic spine without putting you into an overly relaxed state or taking up too much of your training time.
Down Dog with Hip Opener
- Begin on all fours and peddle the feet back and forth to feel a stretch through your calves.
- Extend, abduct, and externally rotate one leg while flexing the knee so that it goes above and across the body. Feel the stretch through your lats, abdomen, hip flexors, and quads.
- Alternate between doing 5 foot pedals and 5 hip openers 2 or 3 times through.
Squat Hold with Reach Back
- Begin by doing 5 bodyweight squats.
- Hold a deep squat position and press your elbows against your knees to drive them outward, stretching your adductors.
- Keep both heels on the ground and reach back with one arm at a time attempting to bring your bicep to your ear. Think, "sniff your armpit."
- Do 5 reps per arm.
- Keep your arm neutral if you're experiencing pinching in the shoulder.
- Place small plates under your heels if you're unable to keep them flat on the floor.
- Alternate between 5 bodyweight squats and 5 squat holds with a reach back. Do it 2 or 3 times through.
Low Lunge with Twist/Rock Backs
- Begin this stretch in a deep lunge with one hip and knee flexed and the other hip and knee fully extended. Make sure your heel is planted firmly on the ground for the duration of this stretch.
- Brace your core and rotate your torso toward the leg that's bent.
- Think of externally rotating your shoulder so that your arm stays in a safe position.
- Do 5 low lunges with a twist before moving into the rock back portion.
- For the rock back, grab your foot with your hand and pull it up as you press your heel into the ground and gently extend your knee.
- Drive your knee outward and think of pushing your hip back so that the stretch runs through your entire hamstring. Doing this will effectively stretch your hamstrings through a full range of motion.
- Alternate between 5 low lunges with a twist and 5 rock backs. Do it 2 or 3 times through.
Related: Top 3 Mobility Exercises for Lifters
- Lee, Y., Park, B. and Kim, S. (2019). The Effects of Heat and Massage Application on Autonomic Nervous System.
- T, D. (2019). Moderate pressure massage elicits a parasympathetic nervous system response. - PubMed - NCBI. Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Available at: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19283590