Stretching is fine to do — it often feels good — but it is not the answer to improving mobility. If you have trouble reaching overhead or across your body and you want to improve your shoulder range of motion, take note of what the greatest athletes in the world are doing.
Every four years we are dazzled by the physical capabilities of gymnasts at the Summer Olympics. Simone Biles continues to cement her status as the greatest of all time, landing vaults and completing routines no other gymnast dares practice in their mind. Two physical capabilities stand out when watching gymnasts perform: unnatural strength and extreme flexibility.
How do they obtain greater shoulder, hip, and spine mobility? They are not only flexible but strong throughout the range of motion. The answer is not stretching. Instead, it is consistently moving in full and demanding ranges of motion.
Our bodies adapt to the stresses it experiences throughout life. If you lift weights regularly, your body responds by building more muscle. If you run often, your cardiovascular system becomes more efficient and your endurance improves. If work at the ends of your available range of motion, you will gradually become more flexible.
Research shows that strength training is as effective as stretching for improving flexibility. Now, it depends on the motions you strength train through. Some research shows bodybuilders have worse mobility than untrained people. This is because bodybuilders don’t need a lot of mobility. They work through smaller ranges of motion to maximize muscle development as you cannot generate as much force at extreme ranges of motion.
If you want to improve your mobility, you need to move with your full available range of motion often. What follows are five exercises you can implement in a regular exercise routine that will help improve your shoulder range of motion:
#1 Sumo deadlift
The sumo deadlift is more demanding on the inner thighs and hip rotators compared to a conventional deadlift. To increase the mobility demand of a sumo or conventional deadlift, try standing on a box — know as a deficit deadlift. Try to keep your spine straight to maximize force development, but don’t worry if it rounds a little. Research shows a rounded back is inevitable and will not increase your risk for injury.
#2 Lateral lunge
Try keeping your heels on the ground and increasing the length of your lunge. Make it more challenging by holding a weight in front of you. Keep it close to your chest or let the weight hand down.
#3 Deep squat
This can be done by holding a weight or placing a barbell on your back. The deeper you squat, the less weight you will be able to lift. Deep squats are safe but unnecessary to get strong. If you are a competitive powerlifter, you have to squat past parallel. If you want to perform Olympic Lifts (Snatch or Clean), you need to be comfortable handling heavy weight with a deep squat. If you simply want to get strong and build muscle, parallel squats are plenty. See the graphic above to better understand muscle activation.
#4 Stiff leg deadlift
The stiff leg deadlift is a great exercise for improving hamstring flexibility. The goal is to keep the spine straight will reach down as far as you can. If the weights hit the floor, stand on a box to allow for more motion.
#5 Jefferson curl
The Jefferson curl is similar to the stiff leg deadlift with one major difference: you want to round your back as much as you can. Seriously.
Lifting with a rounded back is safe and effective. Perform the Jefferson curl with less weight than a conventional or sumo deadlift, but don’t be afraid to perform it. It is a great tool to improve hamstring and low back flexibility while building back, gluteal, and hamstring strength.
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