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Loaded Mobility: A short Cut to Ease of Movement

Mobility work is experiencing a surge in popularity and with good reason, most people simply don't move well these days. Even most gym-goers with ripped abs, an impressive bench and arms that fill out shirt sleeves often can't even touch their toes.

Of course, for most people it's not a big deal, at least not until one or two major injuries, when it starts to hurt to reach overhead or perhaps you feel too stiff to bend down to tie your shoes. It's at this stage of life most people begin to realize just how important mobility training really is.

The Limitations of Stretching as a Mobility Technique

The most commonly utilized mobility technique is stretching. Stretching can be a great way to regain some lost flexibility and help the body move into more of it's natural range of motion. This is often best utilized at the end of a workout, when the muscles are to tired to put up much resistance to the stretch.

However, stretching does come with some rather severe limitations. While it's great at opening up new ranges of motion, it's not so great at making those new ranges of motion usable in the true sense of he word. Just because you can bend down and touch your toes doesn't mean you can bend down and pick something up off the floor without pain or injury.

This is because the new range of motion is still weak. You can access it but it's often not strong enough for anything other than un-weighted, slow movements. To make it applicable to real world scenarios the new range of motion needs to be strengthened.


Loaded Mobility Training

So, while stretching is still beneficial and I would recommend it to anyone, there are faster ways to not only get the same flexibility gains, but to also make those gains almost immediately usable.

Loaded mobility training is simply the process of using load such as added weight or gravity, to not just reach new ranges of motion, but to strengthen them at the same time. This tends to work much faster than simply stretching because it overrides the brains natural protective mechanisms.

Though it would seem that mobility is a body phenomenon, it's most often the brain which is limiting the range of motion. It does this for a few reasons, but the one most relevant to this topic is because the current end range of motion is weak. As far as the brain is concerned, if your current end range of movement is weak and not already well controlled by you, it has no reason to allow you to extend that range of motion and risk injury.

To stop you, the brain will literally contract and tighten the muscles you are trying to stretch so that they can't physically be moved into an unsafe range. The way around this is to simply give into the brains demands and strengthen your current end range of motion and bring it under your direct control. This sends the signal to the brain that it is safe to proceed further into new ranges of motion and the brain lets go of the contraction just enough to let you move forward little by little.

Over the course of weeks and months this technique progresses much faster than stretching and in my experience, much faster than unloaded mobility methods as well.

loaded mobility training

How to Perform Loaded Mobility Training

Staying Light

The number one mistake most people make when beginning this type of training is using too much weight too soon. The end range of movement for any joint is always the weakest range. This means you need to start with light loads and progress carefully.

For instance, if you were to seek spine and hip mobility through the use of the Jefferson curl, you would begin with simply bodyweight. At first that is all that's needed to become acquainted with the movement and to test your end range of motion. Once your familiar with the movement, how to perform it correctly and your current limitations, you can then move on to using light external loads.

And usually the loads stay light, though with some exceptions depending on how long you've been conditioning the movement pattern. For instance, in the above case of the Jefferson curl, most people will never use more than 25lbs. However, I have personally witnessed a competitive male gymnast do this exercise with over 200lbs. This was only possible because of decades of conditioning and intensive mobility training. It's impressive it honestly wouldn't even be beneficial for 99% of people.

Going Slow

Speed is another important variable when it comes to loaded mobility. Moving quickly through the end range of motion is seen by the brain as a danger signal and it will respond by limiting your mobility. The goal here is to move slow in order to coax the brain into letting go and allowing the end range movement. You have to convince the brain it's safe to be in that range.

A common rep time is anywhere between 3 and 6 seconds on both the concentric and eccentric portions of the rep. Dumbbell internal and external shoulder rotations for instance, would usually be performed with a 3-8lbs dumbbell and each rep would last perhaps 8 seconds (4 seconds on the way down and 4 on the way up).

Complete Control

And finally, you want these exercises to be well controlled throughout the entire movement. This will again, reassure the brain that it is indeed safe to proceed and cause it to let it's guard down.

This is another reason why I recommend beginning each new exercise without weight in order to practice and fully understand the proper form and the types of control needed. Learning a new exercise with added weight will often lead to mishaps in form that can cause pain and discomfort and make the brain put up it's guard again.

In fact, if you experience any pain or discomfort, it's best to stop going any further into that range of motion for that rep. If you do experience pain or discomfort, try to experiment with your form in some way and test the waters with the next repetition.

In the example of the internal and external dumbbell rotations, a common fault is lack of any movement in the shoulder blades. Learning to move the shoulder blade inward towards the spine with external rotation and out to the side with internal rotation can often take away pain and immediately increase range of motion.


Here's a quick snap shot of what a loaded mobility routine using the two previously mentioned exercises might look like.

*Start with a warm up by not only raising the temperature of the body but also by doing some unloaded mobilizations of the joints about to be used.

  1. General warm up in the form of light cardio. 5-10 minutes of jogging or light jump rope or 2 sets of 50 jumping jacks would all work well.

  2. Arm Circles for the shoulders. 30-60 circles in each direction to mobilize the shoulder joint.

  3. Side bends and spinal extensions and flexions. 10 bends in each direction to warm up the spine.

  4. Standing hip circles to mobilize the hips. 15 forward and 15 backwards on each side.

Jefferson Curls

*Continue to the Jefferson curls by setting up a platform to stand on if necessary.

  1. Start with a set of 10 with no external weight and moving slowly (4 seconds down and 4 seconds up). Go down as far as you can without pain or discomfort.

  2. Grab a small weight for the second rep (perhaps 10lbs for most beginners) and do a set of 8, again moving slowly.

  3. If there was no pain or discomfort, up the weight for a third and finally set. Perhaps 20lbs for a set of 5, maintaining 4 to 5 seconds for down and up on each rep.

  4. Perform some sort of spinal extension without weight to decompress the spine.

dumbbell internal shoulder rotations

dumbbell external shoulder rotations

*Continue to internal and external shoulder rotations, possibly using a bench or just sitting and lying on the ground.

  1. Start with external rotations as this is often needed more than internal rotation to balance the shoulder anyway and may save you some discomfort by pulling the humerus back in the shoulder socket. Grab a small dumbbell anywhere between 3 and 10lbs.

  2. Put the elbow on an inclined surface (you can sit on the ground with one knee bent and use the knee as a resting surface for the elbow if needed). With dumbbell in hand, pull the weight up by rotating the upper arm bone externally in the shoulder socket, before lowering the weight in a controlled fashion back down to the starting position. Again do this slow and controlled, 4-5 seconds up and 4-5 seconds down.

  3. Repeat this for 3 sets of 8

  4. Now lay on your side on a bench with the dumbbell in the bottom hand with arm bent at 90 degrees.

  5. Now slowly pull the weight up by internally rotating the arm, this will feel like the same motion as arm wrestling.

  6. Repeat the for 3 sets of 8.

After this you can move on to the rest of your normal workout with a suggested stretch session at the end. You progress these mobility drills by slowly increasing the range of motion as the body allows it and slowly increasing the weight as necessary. Do this 2-3 times a week and the mobility gains should be noticeable very quickly.

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