Best stretching exercises: Why lifting is about more than strength
Here's how weight lifters can improve through mobility work and stretching.
One familiar archetype in lifting is the very strong person who can’t bend down and tie their shoes.
We see it in plenty of gym locker rooms, and that ugly truth — strength getting in the way of actual movement — can dissuade people from working out seriously. Why get strong if you literally can’t move?
And while plenty of strong, malleable people exist — those super-human, otherworldly Olympic lifters, for example — their impressions are less familiar. For workaday or new lifters, stiffness is common and immediate. And while it can’t be fully blamed on lifting — it’s usually associated with a lack of food and recovery — it’s still something that most lifters experience.
But there is a way out. If we’re more mobile, we’ll be less stiff, can move better on our lifts, and ultimately get that much stronger. If we integrate mobility work into both our lives and our training, our muscles can get properly warmed up for a workout in the short term, and have more range of movement over time.
Stretching our muscles — before and after lifting — is one way, as is focusing on a full range of movement during a workout.
Getting strong the right way: mobility work
Like weightlifting and strength training, flexibility and mobility are two related terms that, on closer inspection, are markedly different.
While both refer to a muscle being able to move, flexibility is passive and denotes a muscle’s capacity to stretch for a moment — think bending your thumb back to the wrist — while mobility means a muscle’s capacity to complete its intended range of motion — a shoulder moving side to side, up and down, and around.
And while flexibility can factor into how mobile a joint is — along with bone shape and strength — it doesn’t necessarily guarantee mobility. (Being able to touch elbows together doesn’t mean a lifter is mobile enough to get a good front rack position for the squat.)
Ultimately, if we want to get strong the right way, then we need to be pretty mobile, so we can get better positions on lifts and complete them pain-free all the way through — and tie our shoes when we want.
Mobility is only one part of the equation when lifting, though. Like Olympic lifters, we should be mobile enough to nail the necessary angles on our lifts — maybe not a barbell overhead, but a proper, smooth hip hinge on a kettlebell swing — while being strong enough to get the weight off the ground, and stable enough to not be pushed in the wrong direction when the weight moves.
Strength and stability are not the same thing, but stability — the ability to resist the force a weight has on a body — requires mobility.
Joint stability is complicated, as is the interplay between stability and mobility. For our purposes, a lifter must be stable enough to not be moved out of position by the weight they’re lifting while being mobile enough to complete a lift’s full range of motion. While some Olympic lifters look Gumby-like in photos, they’re not so much pliable as mobile and stable enough to stay strong through large ranges of movement. Their ability to move freely and stay pretty solid is what we want when we pick up a barbell.
To get there, mobility needs to increase in tandem with strength. Integrating mobility work — like hip-opening exercises and “circle” stretches — into our lives and our training will not only warm our muscles up before workouts, and get them more mobile over time — it’ll allow them to really get pushed.
Stretches for before and after you lift
Lifters can improve their mobility by flanking their workouts with stretches. Dynamic pre-workout stretches are done with a full range of movement, and warm muscles up in a controlled way, and get them a little more loose, and ready to lift.
Toe touches are a good example: a lifter focuses on bending down, under control, quickly touching their toes for a moment, and standing back up. Done right, the movement wakes up the hamstrings, flows blood to the posterior chain, and connects it to the rest of the body.
How many pre-workout stretches depends on the lifter: there’s no magic number. Some might only need the “world’s greatest stretch” — a lunge, an arm up to the ceiling, weight on the hamstrings, repeat — to warm up. Some will need a longer mobility routine, like the one Ukraine’s Aleksei Torokthiy swears by. (There are more on this list that can be cherry-picked according to body part.) Some might need less.
Post-workout stretching is different and hotly debated. Some trainers recommended static stretches, where the full range of the movement is held, for up to a minute. (A static toe touch differs from a dynamic one since the focus is on staying there for several very long breaths.)
Static stretching has been controversial: while it’s been found to increase mobility over time, it also reportedly saps muscles of their immediate strength capability. But studies suggest the strength that’s lost seems to be negligible or outweighed by the mobility benefits the stretches provide.
The wealth of good static stretches work best when lifters mind their breath while they do them. But they don’t poison the well. Sitting in the splits for one minute after a deadlift won’t cancel out a 500-lb. squat the next day. Stretches aren’t magic — but they’re not mysteriously dangerous, either.
Combining stretching with mobility exercise
Because a limited range of motion in one part of the body might be caused by something funky somewhere down the movement chain, mobility work can act as a bellwether. As a lifter stretches more, they can expose their imbalances and weaknesses.
A failed toe touch, for example, can have several symptoms. A lifter who can’t reach them or stay there might have overworked hamstrings or a taxed lower back, or weak glutes — or something else altogether.
Mobility work is popular now precisely because it often doubles as functional movement testing — hacks and tricks that determine if a lifter’s patterns and posture are incompatible with how their body should work on a lift. Indeed, many mobility programs — which are really just a series of stretches — focus on waking up posterior chain muscles that become dormant from office jobs so they can get put back to work at the gym.
But lifters can also improve their mobility by focusing on muscle movement during a workout, in addition to their bookending stretches.
Sonny Webster, an Olympic lifter, has said in interviews that he achieved his otherworldly mobility under load — through the lifts themselves, and not warm-up exercises or stretches. According to Webster, his shoulders became mobile enough to jerk 400 lbs. over his head because of heavy overhead squats, and his ankles and feet got there from his exaggerated footing on that lift and others.
This advice is a bit theoretical — since the interview, Webster has begun selling mobility manuals — and specialized, since most of us don’t have a decade of training experience, and serious genetic ability, like Webster.
But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. It’s not just the stretches that make us more mobile. Most lifters already push their mobility during a workout, when they go through the full range of motion on a lift, and sink under the weight. Lifters don’t squat right away to max weight, but build up to it in increments — just the movement, then an empty bar, then weight on each side, until the working set starts. And those extra warmup reps, while not always counted in a workout, can double as a Webster-like program.
As those reps grease the groove, the weight rises, forcing deeper, more correct, more mobile positions. And because submaximal weight is not overly heavy, it lets lifters focus on movement and form, and be confident enough to pause and sink at the bottom of a rep. It’s half mobility work, half strength training — and pretty close to what Webster’s referring to. Pushing our actual lifts through their most complete range of motion might be what makes us most mobile.
Which is nice. Why should improving our mobility be different from building up strength? As we get stronger we should move better. Ultimately, the prescription is simple, if not always easy. To get stronger, our muscles should move as they should. Then we won’t have to stretch as long, or as often, before and after a workout.
But we’ll still have to do so, especially if we’re feeling stiff — which will happen — or when we put serious weight on the bar. No one wants to be the lifter in the locker room who can’t touch their toes.
LEG DAY OBSERVER is an exploratory look at fitness, the companion to GQ.com’s Snake America vintage column, and a home for all things Leg Day. Due to the complicated nature of the human body, these columns are meant to be taken as introductory prompts for further research and not as directives. Read past editions of Leg Day Observer for more thoughtful approaches to lifting and eating.