Flexibility and Range of Motion
August 19, 2010 10:44 AM   Subscribe

I'm a (female, if it matters) beginning weightlifter trying to build lean muscle mass through exercise and a structured nutrition program. However, my progress has been stymied by my lack of flexibility and range of motion in my shoulders, hips, and legs, making proper form for squats and deadlifts very difficult. What are some exercises that I can do to correct this, and is there any hope that I'll ever be able to touch my toes?

This flexibility issue goes way back. When I was a little one taking President Reagan's physical fitness benchmark exams, I always failed the flexibility test. While all the girls were on one side of the gym doing the splits and touching their toes, I was usually even less flexible than the boys on the other side of the gym. I can barely touch my ankles.

Though I've always wondered if this inflexibility was an indicator of any other issues, it never bothered me much until I started working with a personal trainer to learn proper weightlifting technique. I performed arm, chest, and shoulder exercises with relative ease, but as soon as we moved on to squats and deadlifts, the trouble began. Getting into squat position was very difficult. My hips, legs, and hamstrings felt very tight and uncomfortable. Additionally, I was unable to get the bar in the proper position behind my head, as I couldn't grab the bar unless I extended my arms to their full length.

My trainer suggested something he called "squat stretches" to help with my hip and leg inflexibility, but I know there have to be more exercises out there. Particularly for my shoulder tightness.

Possibly relevant info: I'm in my late 20's, in good health but for asthma, normal BMI and body fat percentage. I work in an office sitting in front of a computer most of the day.
posted by Lieber Frau to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (20 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Just to clarify: I'm looking for both shoulder and leg/hip exercises. Thanks!
posted by Lieber Frau at 10:45 AM on August 19, 2010

Try yoga once a week.

More than anything else, I bet that'll help you the most.
posted by zizzle at 10:46 AM on August 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

I am also a weightlifter and I have very strong, but unfortunately tight muscles. I can do a lot of strength related things other women can't, but my flexibility seems to be right up there with 40 year old men.

My theory on my own problem is that I have lots of explosive fast twitch muscles that just aren't naturally that flexible. I also have been reading a book called 8 Steps to a Pain Free Back by Esther Gokhale, not because I have back pain, but because a friend suggested it when I complained about my inflexibility. One of her theories is that it can be caused and/or worsened by sitting badly all day. I've been doing the exercises in her book...they are hard for me, but I'm seeing some results.

A few months ago I also self-instituted a cross training program and I've been trying a variety of other more flexibility-enhancing "sports."

So far I've done: adult gymnastics, yoga, bellydancing, and pole dancing. So far I like "pole dancing" the most because it's a lot of fun and helps build upper body strength really well. Afterwards, my muscles feel really loose. Bikram yoga has the same effect, but I find it much more unpleasant. Most classes been tough for me because it seems like they attract women who are already flexible and I can't keep up sometimes. It might be helpful to schedule a private session with a yoga teacher.
posted by melissam at 10:52 AM on August 19, 2010

Mark's Daily Apple did a series of posts about improving mobility and flexibility that I found really invaluable. In particular this one about hip mobility should be great for you.

Get a foam roller (or a length of large diameter PVC tubing) and work with it daily (particularly before and after lifting), in addition to doing daily flexibility drills. Does your trainer have you stretch and get warmed up before you lift? The fact that he isn't all over your mobility issues is a pretty huge red flag to me.

also, big ups to a fellow female weightlifter!!!
posted by telegraph at 10:52 AM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Oh, I love this. I was hoping some other female weightlifters would respond.

My trainer did show me some stretches with the foam roller, but our time together was limited and I want to supplement the techniques he showed me.
posted by Lieber Frau at 10:57 AM on August 19, 2010

In my experience, consistent work on the barbell lifts with a small amount of additional mobility work is sufficient for most uninjured people to perform the lifts correctly, even the inflexible ones. A correctly performed squat that uses your maximum range of motion will act as a stretch in and of itself. Aside from that, I've always found forward leg swings, as described here, the most useful hamstring stretch for lifting. The side leg swings can be useful as well if you have tight adductors.

Shoulder flexibility issues are typical with the low-bar squat -- they can generally be improved with enough time and proper technique. The shoulder dislocation exercise described here is very useful. In the meantime, widen your grip enough to comfortable and securely carry the bar, but remember to pinch your shoulder blades together and tighten your back before you unrack the bar and remain tight throughout the set.

Having said all that, no one can really diagnose the problem accurately and make recommendations without seeing your squat and deadlift. If you want more useful advice, I'd recommend taking video of your lifts and posting them somewhere like this, where you'll get less people telling you to do yoga.
posted by JohnMarston at 10:58 AM on August 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

Are you me? Haha.

Major issues with hip flexibility here too. What I suggest is every hour or so at your job when no one's looking and if you're wearing work clothes that let you do this, get up, do a lunging hip stretch. Raise your arms above your head and just get some mobility into them. Walk around for a little. I found it much more helpful to get some regular movement in my day-to-day life rather than just stretch before a workout - you've got years of stiffness, so it's going to take constant monitoring and stretching to make a start in flexibility.

If your shoulders are real stiff, I'd also suggest exercises here - don't know the website, but the exercises are ones I do myself to strengthen the rotator cuff muscles, which are easily hurt if they're weak and hold really, really terrible grudges, the bastards. Once you get into the heavier weights or the overhead squat, you're going to have to be careful not to piss off those wee muscles.

Really really warm up before a workout - show up early if needed, skip some rope, etc. I like the shoulder dislocations posted above as a shoulder warm-up.
posted by zennish at 11:13 AM on August 19, 2010

Try Box Squats. I had flexibility problems also and adding a box/bench allows me to 'find' the proper range of motion without worrying about depth or failure.

Keep it light while you're getting used to it.
posted by unixrat at 12:01 PM on August 19, 2010

Weightlifter, one word?

In that case box squats are not going to help you as much as you'd like. Olympic lifting (weightlifting) requires greater hip and shoulder flexibility than powerlifting. That said, there are a few things already mentioned that will help. Shoulder dislocations are great. The key for you is going to be active mobility work. Sitting in an office all day is going to cause two major problems: tight hip flexors and a protracted shoulder girdle.

If you can manage it, try to work standing up part of the day. This will really help with your hip flexors. I also find it easier to maintain proper shoulder position while standing. Statically stretch your hip flexors and chest throughout the day. Over time, this will help improve your posture and thus your squat depth. Just remember, you don't get to add weight to the bar until you hit depth with good form. JohnMarston is right, a little weight on the bar will be a stretch unto itself.

Mobility Work:
Essential 8 Mobility Drills Good overall mobility work.
How to Get Hip Mobility
How to Maintain Shoulder Mobility and Scapular Stability Double plus good!
7 Dynamic Stretches to Improve Your Hip Mobility
The Agile 8 for Hip Mobility Great resource!
posted by Loto at 12:44 PM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

A manta ray might help you hold the bar in proper position without having to keep your arms fully outstretched. I use one just to prevent the bar from digging into my neck and shoulders when lifting heavy.

Do you have trouble squatting deeply when there is no weight on the bar (or when you squat without a bar)?
posted by Thoughtcrime at 12:47 PM on August 19, 2010

There are two things that can REALLY help your squat flexibility and one of them might help you instantly.

1. Try raised heels. Up until just a few months ago this was the only way I could get into a nice, well below parallel squat. It had to do some with my anatomy proportions and a little bit with flexibility.
You can do this with Olympic weightlifting shoes, a small board, or some 5lb weight plates that you step back onto. Anything hard and stable to raise your heels.

2. Get down into a body squat as low as you can go. Push your elbows against your knees. Breath in and fill up your chest, then breath out and allow your stomach to push out (think full chest IN, Buddha belly OUT) Every time you do this you'll get lower and lower. I've done this with people that couldn't even get parallel and they were almost ass to grass after a minute. This is a great stretch and will help you a lot.

The above advice on foam rolling is good. Try using a lacrosse ball too. That will really work deep.

Also, you're not lifting in running shoes are you? Squatting in those is looked at universally as pretty terrible. Try barefoot\in socks\or in some Converse Chucks.
posted by zephyr_words at 12:52 PM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm also a competitive weightlifter (Olympic and strongman). There are some great resources here, especially posted by Loto.

I would also suggest looking into self-myofascial release--get a foam roller (or a PVC pipe, but that will hurt a lot more initially) and go to town. Some instructions are here and here.

Make sure you warm-up a lot, and spend some time going through the movements with just a bar or bodyweight to stretch yourself into position.
posted by schroedinger at 2:27 PM on August 19, 2010

Not a weightlifter, but I could never touch my toes as a child either - the first time I did I was 26! I found that dance improved my flexibility more than any other exercise (including yoga). The thing that finally got me to touch my toes was capoiera, which is also great fun.

Also, a word of warning, that flexibility is a 'use it or lose it' thing - I had to give up capoiera because of pre-existing joint problems, and now I can't touch my toes again. I'm slowly getting back there with some belly dance work, but it's hard work to regain lost ground.
posted by Coobeastie at 2:30 PM on August 19, 2010

Weightlifter, one word?

I was going to say something about that but I forgot. Lieber Frau can clarify, but I'd assume based on the context of the question that isn't actually what she meant. Weightlifter technically refers to someone who participates in the sport of weightlifting, which means they compete in the clean and jerk and the snatch. A person who lifts weights but doesn't perform the Olympic lifts is a weight lifter, two words.

Using a box or a bench as a cue for squat depth can be helpful if you're having trouble feeling the appropriate depth, but that's not the same as performing a box squat. A box squat is something of a different exercise used to train explosiveness out of the bottom using sub-maximal weights, and it's not generally necessary for beginners.

Weightlifting shoes are a good suggestion.
posted by JohnMarston at 2:45 PM on August 19, 2010

Depending on your situation, financial and otherwise, consider massage and Alexander Technique. Went to a masseuse for the first time today, hurt like hell but helped to straighten out my shoulders, which are normally kind of hunched forward. Alexander Technique helps too. Might not be for you, but it helps for me, and I thought I'd mention it because no one else has.

And in general, just keep stretching it, going a little farther each time, is what seems to work. Regarding squats, I remember I didn't have nearly an easy time getting the bar low at first, but keep pushing the elbows back and bar lower and I'm at where I need to be now. Granted, you seem to be a lot less flexible than I was, but provided you keep working at it, it'll eventually get better. The links above will probably help.
posted by Busoni at 3:20 PM on August 19, 2010

Pilates. And add some fish oil to your diet.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:31 PM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

30-second stretches have been shown to increase range of motion (ROM) by an average of 18 degrees, pretty much instantly. Static stretching is still better than anything else (dynamic, ballistic). It's not a permanent increase, however, so keep in mind that any stretch training method you choose (yoga, pole dancing, partner-assisted stretching) will be temporarily, and you will lose all gains in range of motion in approximately two to four weeks after discontinuing training. There is no known way to permanently increase ROM.

Also, you should know that stretching has been shown to reduce strength, so it may not be that great for competitive weightlifters.

If you're really serious about weightlifting, it would help if you really understood what is going on in your muscles. I can't recommend Enoka's Neuromechanics of Human Movement enough. It's a fantastic textbook (dense though, so a bioscience background, while not necessary, will help) that talks in depth about everything you need to know about your muscles. Great chapter on flexibility and ROM, too.

Do a PubMed search for "stretching" + "flexibility" or "strength" or "endurance" to see what current research has to say about this topic (lots of papers on women in particular, too).
posted by halogen at 11:32 PM on August 19, 2010

Response by poster: Awesome suggestions. So many good ones that's hard to pick the best. I'll look over all this information with my trainer.

And, as for the distinction between "weightlifter" and "weight lifter", I suppose for now I'm more of the latter, as I'm more interested in going for a look than going for the Olympics. But I'm very interested in weightlifting proper, and I know it's important to get the basics down first.
posted by Lieber Frau at 10:38 AM on August 20, 2010

Olympic weightlifting, or just weightlifting, is the name of the sport. It doesn't mean you compete in the Olympic games -- it means you perform the snatch and the clean and jerk (and before 1972, the clean and press). There are plenty of Olympic weightlifters who participate in the sport at the amateur, local, regional, etc. levels.
posted by JohnMarston at 11:17 AM on August 20, 2010

Not sure if anyone is still keeping up with this but there is a new site out by a CrossFit trainer that addresses mobility work: Mobility WOD

Even if you have issues with CrossFit this is a very solid site full of incredibly useful information.
posted by Loto at 11:24 AM on September 3, 2010

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