Powerful Programming Principles: How to Effectively Combine Mobility Work with Strength Training

Dec 01, 2021
mobility programming

Is it possible to be strong, big, and mobile? I certainly think so.

Of course, the degree of which is possible is specific to your own individual genetics, skeletal structure, injury history, and current movement/range of motion quality.

In this article, I will discuss:

  • How I structure mobility & movement-specific work and resistance training exercises in a single session
  • How to pick the best mobility drills for a given type of training session
  • Examples of training sessions using the aforementioned principles

If you would rather watch me discuss this than read, see below:

Programming Structure

Let me preface this by saying these principles are going to be relatively broad in nature because it would be impossible to address every individual difference that exists. Different people need different types of programming, but that doesn't mean we can't have principles that guide our ability to effectively program.

If you want more specific examples and real-life case studies, check out my Biomechanics Program.

I will be assuming the workout will take somewhere between 75-90 minutes (1 hour 15 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes). Most training sessions for recreational lifters, powerlifters, bodybuilders, and many athletes tend to have a general structure that includes:

Warm-Up Block: 5-10 minutes

This should include individual-specific movement prep drills that open up range of motion, mobility, and help prep the central nervous system for what is to come.

Speed & Power Block (usually specific to athletic populations): 10-15 minutes

This won't apply to the average gym go-er, but I wanted to include it as it is sometimes incorporated into some general population programs. This is where sprints, med balls, jumps, etc are taking place as they are often the most taxing for the central nervous system.

Primary Block: 20-25 minutes

The primary block is where your main lift is for the day. This would be a barbell squat, deadlift, or bench press in many cases. The goal is usually to improve strength or in some cases, accumulate volume for hypertrophy.

Secondary Block: 15-20 minutes

The secondary block is usually going to be 1-2 lifts that complement the primary lift, but are higher in reps as it won't be as taxing on the body. Examples of this could be split squats, single leg deadlifts, or incline dumbbell bench press.

Tertiary Block: 10-15 minutes

Finally we have the third block which is often times "accessory work" which targets muscles or joints in more isolation-specific exercises. This is the least taxing block of resistance training that usually has more hypertrophy-specific goals in mind. Examples of these types of exercises are biceps curls, triceps extensions, hamstring curls, and ab work.

Cooldown: 2-5 minutes

Most people just walk out of the gym at this point, but I think there is a high amount of value that can be extracted from a single drill designed to be a "cooldown", which can help restore variability, relax the nervous system, and help them leave the gym feeling great. It doesn't take long, but a little goes a long, long way for helping people reduce stiffness built up throughout the workout.

How I program for efficient mobility and fitness gains

I will break this down block-by-block, giving my input on which exercises tend to fit best depending on where we are in the session.

Warm Up:

I discuss this more down below, but my goal here is to do one of two things (or both depending on the individual):

  • Have them go through their individual-specific mobility drills that we have pre-determined they need daily: This is for those who need more broad improvements in their entire body before getting specific or isolating certain parts of the body. These are often people with lots of issues present or significant limitations. In this case, they will be doing the same drills each day before training, and we progress them once they achieve pre-determined movement & range of motion-specific goals.
  • Pick movement-specific prep drills that allow them to access the range of motion they will need for a given day: Much more on that in the next section. I will provide you several ideas for each type of lift.

My general strategy behind these drills in this block is usually to create space for the joints to move (restore joint movement variability), and then follow that up with drills that incorporate more muscular strategies to help them "own" the range of motion they now have easier access to as the joints can more easily move into those positions. More on that coming later in this article.

Primary Block: Get After It

I don't see any point in having this be anything other than full-out effort (assuming there is no pain associated with the movement). This block is great for driving a high stimulus specific to the individual's fitness goals. I believe as trainers and coaches, we would be doing our clients a disservice by making an entire program "corrective" in nature if they can lift without pain or significant red flags in their movement.

This doesn't mean I won't still strategically select their primary movement or what they do for rest. Let's say I have selected a Front Squat as their primary lift as it helps them stay more "stacked" to lift a good amount of weight without back pain.

A front squat requires them to obviously keep those elbows up, and tight lats often will limit this mobility. So during their rest, instead of having them scroll through memes on Instagram, I could have them do a Lat release to help them improve their shoulder mobility:

Not only will this help them with mobility, but it will also help them recover quicker, as the deep, controlled breathing will help them move into a parasympathetic state (rest and digest) of their nervous system, which we know helps improve recovery between sets.

Secondary Block: A Little of Both

In the secondary block, my goal is primarily still fitness-oriented, but we can get a bit more creative with what exercises we select.

At this point, they're probably a little tired and have spent a lot of energy creating lots of stiffness and extension tone in their body. Again, not a bad thing, but should be taken into consideration.

Let's stick with the front squat example as the main lift. I will likely select a single leg movement such as a split squat (read more on which kind I might pick and why here). This is because unilateral, split stance activities are ideal for restoring mobility (relative motion), while also targeting other stabilizers and smaller mucles that work in the frontal plane. An example could be this:

In my programming, I will likely pair this with an exercise for the upper body that isn't going to compromise the recovery of the lower body. The opposite of a lower body push is an upper body pull (row), and now the upper body is also relatively fresh and non-fatigued compared to the lower body.

I would likely select something that is going to allow them to drive strength/hypertrophy of the back, such as this one-arm row variation:

Tertiary Block:

Now we are at a point where the fatigue is real and they won't be able to lift significant loads without compensation. My goal for this is more isolation-specific exercises, but here's my secret: I will sneak in positions that bias their movement goals while also helping them get that "pump" so many people love to get. It's a little of what they need, a lot of what they want.

Here are a few examples:

Arm Farm

Respiratory Preacher Curl: This will help open up the back and expand it, as much of the previous work has created stiffness of the back.

I often superset that with an Inverted Triceps Extension which allows for us to drive hip extension (more on that here) and inversion of the spine to allow for decompression:


Ab Burner

You've probably notice a theme here with how much I value alternating movements. These are great for loosening up the upper body and hips. Here are a few ab drills that "hurt so good", but also will help decompress the spine and improve ribcage expansion:

Which mobility drills are best for you?

Depending on what the goal of the training session is, different mobility and movement-specific prep drills are going to have more or less value for you feeling great and pushing the weights that day.

I will break down the general biomechanics of each type of main primary lift and a few example drills that will help you prepare for the workout.

Squat & Lower Body Pushing

A squat is a fundamental movement pattern that requires more external rotation of the hips. The reason being is that we move from a position of external rotation to internal rotation, back to external rotation at the end-range of the squat if you get deep enough.

See below for a general overview of the varying ranges of joint actions needed at a given point of a squat (flexion is referring to the amount of bend in your hips relative to the trunk. 90 degrees of hip flexion would be the equivalent of thighs parallel to floor):

 

You can learn more about the above diagram as well as squat biomechanics here.

I find many of my clients feel their best when squatting when they have adequate access to external rotation. Here are a few drills that help promote that:

Deadlift & Lower Body Pulling

Because a deadlift pattern is a hinge, we won't be going into quite as much hip flexion in most circumstances compared to a squat. Therefore, we will be primarily working in the 60-100 degrees of hip flexion zone which is moving from external rotation to internal rotation of the lower body. We will also also be using hip extension positions to help drive internal rotation.

Here are a few example drills that help improve your internal rotation. I like the following combination as the rolling will help open up space in the joints for internal rotation, and the next drill will help recruit more muscles responsible for internal rotation so we can then "own" it.

Bench & Upper Body Pushing

Just like the lower body, the upper body has a movement arc that generally describes the joint actions needed at the lower body (flexion is referring to the amount of elevation of the arm relative to the trunk. 90 degrees of shoulder flexion would be the equivalent of arm raised parallel to floor):

 

In many horizontal pressing variations like barbell or dumbbell bench press, the shoulders are at 90-ish degrees of shoulder flexion, which means that the upper body is primarily biased towards internal rotation and those associated joint actions.

Depending how heavy your presses are, you will need a certain degree of scapular (shoulder blade) movement and/or stability. Presses have a tendency to create a lot of compression of the back ribcage via the “shoulders back and down” idea (which is not always not ideal – see why here).

Therefore, in prep I have found success providing some opening, or expansion, of the chest which will help also improve shoulder internal rotation:

Rows & Upper Body Pulling

For your back muscles to be optimally recruited, they need to scapula to be able to move on their ribcage, meaning we don’t want scaps that are “stuck” on the ribcage. We want to promote an optimal relationship between the scapula, arm, and ribcage moving together as needed.

We can do that by opening up the back and creating more room for muscles to shorten and elongate as necessary, which will also allow the scapula to move freely as well:

Putting it all together – Examples

With all of the principles established and biomechanical needs for each type of main lift, here are a few example training sessions:

Example 1 – Lower Body Push/Upper Body Pull

Warm Up:

Supine Wall Stride: 2x5 breaths per side

Deep Squat Hip Shifting: 1x10 rotations per side

Respiratory Goblet Squat with Heels Elevated: 1x10

Block

Exercise

Sets x Reps

1A: Main Lift

Front Squat

3x5

1B: Rest

Rack/Doorframe Lat Stretch

3x5 breaths per side after each squat set

2A: Secondary Lift: Lower Body Push

Front Foot Elevated Split Squat with Contralateral Load

 3x10 each

2B: Secondary Lift: Upper Body Pull

1-Arm Supported Row

 3x8 each

 3B: Accessory

Respiratory Preacher Curl

 3x12 each

 3b: Accessory

90/90 Side Plank with Reach

3x10 breaths each

 Cooldown:

Rockback Breathing

 2 miuntes with slow, diaphragmatic breaths

 

Example 2: Lower Body Pull/Upper Body Push

Warm Up:

Rolling Arm Bar with Hip Extension: 2x10 rolls per side

90/90 Alternating Crossover - 1x5 breaths per side

Wall-Referenced Roller Hinge: 1x10 reps per side

Block

Exercise

Sets x Reps

1A: Main Lift

Trap Bar Deadlift

3x5

1B: Rest

Standing Supported Posterior Hip Capsule Stretch

3x5 breaths each side after each deadlift set

2A: Secondary Lift: Upper Body Push

Dumbbell Bench Press

3x10

2B: Secondary Lift: Lower Body Pull

Staggered Stance Deadlift with Contralateral Load

3x10 each

 3B: Accessory

Supine Inverted Alternating Triceps Extension

3x10 each

 3b: Accessory

Slider Hamstring Curl

3x15

 Cooldown:

Inverted Hanging Breathing

2 miuntes with slow, diaphragmatic breaths

Progression and Deloads

Every good program is taking into account strategically timed progression with volume, intensity, and exercise selection.

Usually a given training cycle will last somewhere between 4-8 weeks. Following that is usually a one-week period (deload) where volume is reduced.

In my opinion, I think a deload is a fantastic time to progress the actual exercises themselves. This is because it provides a week to incorporate and become familiar with a new exercise. When we first learn a movement, we are inherently inefficient at it and unable to maximially stabilize, recruit muscles, and drive a high stimulus for adaptaion compared to something we've been doing for months.

During a deload, I will change whatever exercises I need to and use this temporary decrease in volume to teach my clients the movement. They won't be efficient at it anyway the first week, so it's a perfect time to progress.

Summary

You don’t have to sacrifice strength for quality movement, or vice-versa. It is possible to intelligently program exercise that drive the fitness qualities you want while leaving the gym feeling great.

Most people run into issues with movement and injuries when they are doing most, if not all, of their lifts as bilateral, symmetrical stance activities that limit rotation and maximize stiffness in the body. Using single leg variations and rotational exercises will allow you to push weight while also helping your movement improve over time without needing to do a lot of “corrective exercise” interventions.

Looking for more? In the Biomechanics Program we go step-by-step through each of these concepts with specific real-life individual case study examples and programs to help maximize your conceptual and practical understanding.

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