What You Actually Need To Do To Improve Your Flexibility

You’ve been lifting for a while now but find yourself struggling to get into good positions during a certain lift, whether that be squatting, cleans, snatches, overhead press, deadlifts, or any other exercise. You’re not seeing any progress in your flexibility/mobility, so you decide that you need to look online to figure out what to do to solve this problem.

You go to YouTube or your favorite health/wellness related social media page, and find a TON of different drills that you can use. You get excited about all of these drills at your disposal, and think “I’ll finally be able to improve my movement in the gym!”

But, you don’t have an actual plan in place, so you just pick and choose some of the drills to do before you workout for the day….and after several weeks you still don’t see any progress.

If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. This is a very common situation that we see in the clinic and online every day!

And luckily, this blog post is going to show you what you actually need to do to see improvements in your flexibility/mobility!

However, before we do that, we need to cover a few important topics so that we’re on the same page. The first topic is the differences between flexibility and mobility. These two terms are often used interchangeably by healthcare professionals and influencers on social media, and while they are related, they’re technically two different things.

Flexibility is the ability of a joint to move through a range of motion. There are actually several different types of flexibility:

  • Passive static flexibility – This is when the joint is not moving through a range of motion, and the muscles aren’t being used to hold the joint in place. If we’re thinking of stretching the hamstrings, this would be if we were doing a hamstring stretch with a strap, where we’re lying on our back with a strap around our lower leg/foot, and use our arms to pull our leg up and hold it there when we feel a stretch
  • Passive dynamic flexibility – This is when the joint is moving through a range of motion, but the muscles of the joint aren’t being used to produce the motion. For the hamstring example again, this would be if we were doing the same stretch as before, but instead of pulling the leg to the top of the stretch and holding it there, we’re pulling the leg up and lowering it back down with our arms
  • Active static flexibility – This is when the joint is not moving through a range of motion, but the muscles of the joint are being used to hold it in that position. For the hamstring example, we would by lying on our backs with our hip flexed and arms holding our thigh in place, and then we use our quadriceps to kick our knee out straight and hold it at the top when we feel a stretch in our hamstrings
  • Active dynamic flexibility – Thai is when the joint is moving through a range of motion, and the muscles of the joint are working to produce the motion. This example would be the same as the one directly above, but instead of just kicking and holding it at the top, we would be kicking up and down over time

Mobility is something that has many definitions in the literature, but typically refers to the act of moving our body through space. Being able to get up from a chair, walk up/down stairs, and walk in general are examples of mobility. When we’re talking about the gym and lifting, mobility would basically be our ability to move our body through certain positions, such as getting into the bottom of a squat, clean, or snatch, setting up efficiently for a deadlift, and other similar movements. Mobility is often confused with active flexibility on social media, but this actually isn’t the correct use of the term ‘mobility.’

Now that we’ve gotten those terms out of the way, we need to discuss how to actually improve your flexibility/mobility. And the first thing to realize is that improving your ability to move joints/your body through certain ranges/positions is very similar to improving your ability to lift weights, run fast, or jump high….and that means that it takes time and consistent effort.

You can’t effectively improve your flexibility or mobility by performing random drills with no rhyme or reason a few times per week. Improving these qualities takes weeks (at the bare minimum) of training the same thing to actually see results.

When we work with our clients and believe that improving their flexibility and/or mobility would be helpful for them, we typically focus on mobility drills using the exercises/lifts they want to improve first, and then doing direct flexibility drills second. And we do this for a very specific reason!

Our initial strategy to improve mobility in the gym is to take the movements that our clients are having trouble with (whether that’s squats, snatches, overhead squats, or anything else), and have our clients perform variations of those lifts that emphasize the positions they’re trying to achieve.

For example, if a patient of ours is struggling to get into a good, deep squat position, one of our go-to mobility drills for this person would be a 5 second eccentric/3 second pause squat. This client would set up with the (ideally loaded) bar overhead, lower down for 5 whole seconds, and pause in the bottom of the lift for 3 seconds, before standing back up.

There are many ways to perform the lifts like this, whether it’s slow eccentrics, pauses in the position you’re trying to improve, or both (as in the example above)! We use these as our go-to drills because not only are they effective at improving flexibility/mobility, they also give you the benefit on developing your technique/movement patterns, and can be useful for actually building strength and stability when loaded up with proper weight!

Our next strategy to improve flexibility/mobility would be to do direct joint- or muscle-specific flexibility drills to target different parts of the overall movement that we’re trying to improve. This may sound confusing, but we’ll use the squat example from above to explain this better.

Let’s say the same person from the above example has difficulty getting into a good squat position, and our assessment shows excellent hip and knee flexibility, but significantly limited ankle flexibility. After determining this, we would try adding in some direct ankle flexibility work to their program to attack the “weak link” in their squat mobility (if we believe it’s truly affecting their mobility). 

To do this, we would choose 1-2 drills, such as a half kneeling ankle stretch, and have our client perform them every day (or at least 4-5 times per week) over the course of several weeks. Doing this would ensure that our client is consistently working on their ankle flexibility, and gives them structure to their flexibility work similar to a structured lifting program in the gym.

The key with these isolated flexibility drills is that we do them for a long enough time, both in a single session and over time in general, to see the results that we’re looking for. For static drills, we usually recommend stretches of at least 30 seconds, but you can go up to 2 minutes or more if you want. For dynamic drills, we usually recommend 3-4 sets of 8-15 reps. 

Check out the video below for more examples of how to use this information to improve your squat depth!

If you’re struggling with limited mobility or pain in the gym, click the button below to request a free phone consult with somebody from our team to see if we can help you solve these issues!

AUTHOR

Ryan VanNieuwenhuyze

Barbell Physical Therapy & Performance

"We Help Active Adults, Lifters, And Athletes Solve Their Pain And Get Back To The Workouts And Sports They Enjoy Without Medication, Surgery, Or Stopping The Activities They Love."
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