You’re hitting your CrossFit® WODs almost every day but you’re not making the progress you want. You put in more and more effort, but you’re not hitting your goals. What’s going on?
If you’re anything like the thousands of recreational and high-level athletes I’ve treated in my 18 years as an orthopedic physical therapist, there’s a very good chance that mobility restrictions are the biggest factor keeping you from your goals. And fixing those restrictions will unblock your power and keep you from getting hurt.
Most people can’t use their joints’ full range of motion, and don’t have very good joint stability. That’s okay – it’s part of modern life.
But if you want to excel in a high-performance sport like CrossFit, you need to fix your mobility restrictions. As you do you’ll see serious improvements in your training, including better PRs, easier reps, and fuller recovery.
How Mobility Restrictions Are Holding You Back
As you know, many of the exercises taught in a CrossFit practice involve a high level of joint mobility and stability throughout the body. Take these Olympic lifts, as an example:
Her ankle mobility in the snatch is incredible. It allows her to counterbalance the bar by keeping her center of gravity forward. She can also sit her hips under the bar for maximal force production in rising from the bottom. Her hips and shoulders are moving well, so she can perform these movements with excellent technique.
Now, most people don’t have that kind of mobility, and you probably don’t either. That’s okay.
Still, it’s important to recognize where your mobility is holding you back, so that you can address your issues head on.
Limited mobility can have a negative impact on your CrossFit performance in several ways.
- You lose power by performing movements with less-than-optimal mechanics.
- When you expend more energy in your movements than you otherwise would, it slows down your WOD progress.
- When you can’t get your body into the optimal position for a particular movement, it makes the exercise much harder. For instance, in the shoulder press, if the weight is further forward than it should be because your upper back and shoulders are slumped and rounded, it’s harder to push up.
Let’s take a look at the most common trouble areas so you can see how exactly these restrictions are holding you back.
Tight Hips are Holding You Back in Squats and Lunges
Limited hip joint flexion is a common issue with squats, jumps, or lunges (of any kind). This is the ability to bring your knees to your chest with your back upright.
When you have restrictions in this movement, it can cause you to compensate by leaning your torso forward as you bend down, which also impinges your ability to generate power from the hips.
By improving your hip mobility, you’ll be able to sit up straighter in these movements. This will improve your leverage, particularly for front and overhead squats.
The areas you’ll most benefit from addressing are your external rotators, hip flexors, and abductors. The following resources will help with your hip mobility:
- Hip Mobility Routine – This is a quick routine you can practice daily, which will help you address overall hip mobility.
- Elements Course – This 7-week course is a good supplement to your CrossFit training, as the sessions are quick and can be used as a warm-up for your regular training. You’ll work on your squat through locomotive drills, and you’ll find your hips will really open up by the end of the program.
A Tight Upper Back is Holding You Back in the Front Squat
One issue many people run into is with the front rack position for front squats.
This is usually chalked up to issues with wrist or hand mobility, which can be the case, but more commonly, these issues stem from limited upper thoracic extension (backward bending) and tightness in the lats.
If you are slumped forward in the front rack position because of a tight upper back, there will be added strain at your wrists as they attempt to compensate. You’ll also be using more energy here trying to keep the bar in place.
Combine that with tight lats, which restrict your shoulder flexion, and you may tweak your wrists or elbows trying to force the bar into a position that your upper back simply isn’t mobile enough to handle.
Improving mobility in the upper thoracic and lats will help you get your elbows higher up in the rack with less strain, and you’ll notice a much easier grip. And when your positioning is smoother, your performance in the front squat, and combo movements like thrusters, will improve dramatically.
These resources will help you address these areas:
- Strengthen Your Spine – This article describes common issues with the spine, and with the back in general, and gives you exercises to address spinal mobility in various directions.
- Wrist Flexibility – If you do, in fact, have trouble with your wrists/hands, this article will help you address those issues head-on. And even if your primary issue is tightness in your upper back, these exercises will help you work through any wrist soreness you may be experiencing in the meantime.
- Focused Flexibility – This program includes a big emphasis on keeping the back healthy and mobile, since that’s such a common issue for people. And you’ll be able to choose the specific exercises that will address your particular needs, so you’re not wasting your efforts.
Tight Shoulders are Holding You Back in the Overhead Squat
The shoulders obviously play a huge role in many of the lifts practiced in CrossFit, specifically the overhead squat, snatch, clean and jerk, and others.
If your shoulders aren’t mobile enough to get into the positions you need them to for these lifts, you’ll be compensating and reducing your efficiency a lot. This both increases your chance of strains, and reduces your performance.
For instance, in the overhead squat, if you don’t have sufficient shoulder mobility, there will be added strain and stress on the shoulder joints. And you’ll be working that much harder in the movement, wasting precious energy that could be better used for more reps and faster times.
By addressing your shoulder mobility, you’ll not only be safer, but you’ll also be able to go further with the exercise.
Here are some resources to help you with your shoulder mobility:
- Causes and Solutions for Shoulder Pain – This articles’s got everything you need to know about why you’ve got issues in your shoulders, and how to fix those issues (including exercises for strength, flexibility, and motor control)
- Performance Shoulder Mobility Course – This free mini-course will take you through a shoulder mobility routine to address the most common shoulder impingements. These exercises can easily be practiced before your WOD.
It’s Not Only About the Reps – Another Way to Make Progress With Your CrossFit Training
There’s no question that seeing your total reps increasing is one of the simplest ways to know that you’re making progress. But it’s not necessarily the best way.
And that “progress” is often deceptive.
As we’ve touched on already, even if your mobility restrictions are holding you back, you can compensate with most movements so that you can hit the reps you want to.
But what good does that do?
You’re risking injury every time you do that, so “hitting” those reps doesn’t really mean much. You want to be able to keep making progress for the long run, not just for one workout at a time.
So how else can you measure your progress and make sure you’re continually moving forward?
The Quality and Ease Rating System
Before starting on a mobility program, it’s important to get a baseline rating so that you can re-test yourself every couple weeks and make sure you’re on the right track.
Choose two of the exercises you have the most difficulty with due to limited mobility. For this example we’ll use the overhead squat and front squat. Then use the following scale to measure your quality and ease with both exercises.
Let’s say your baseline measurements are:
- Overhead Squat – Broken (Quality) and Challenging (Ease)
- Front Squat – Rough (Quality) and Max Effort (Ease)
Ideally, you want your Quality measurement to stay within the “Smooth” or “Snappy” levels, and your Ease measurements to stay somewhere in the “Challenging” or “Solid” levels. So both these movements could use some work.
Applying the Rating System to Your Mobility Progress
Once you’ve got your baseline ratings, you can address your needs head-on.
Let’s say the quality of your overhead squat is being affected by limited shoulder mobility. We’ve already covered some resources you can use to improve your shoulder mobility, so for example, if you go through our free Shoulder Mobility for CrossFit course, you’ll start with two weeks of the exercises included in there.
After two weeks, you’ll go through the assessment again, and rate your Quality and Ease measurements. This time your ratings are Rough (Quality) and Challenging (Ease).
The change isn’t dramatic – you wouldn’t expect it to be in just two weeks – but as long as your Quality rating is moving in the right direction and your Ease rating is staying in the right range, you know the routine you’re following is working.
Over time, if you’re consistent with what’s working, you’ll be able to get your Quality rating to Smooth or Snappy, with your Ease rating staying in the Challenging or Solid range.
Address Your Needs Head-On (and Stop Spinning Your Wheels)
The way most people approach mobility is by doing some random stretches or following a cookie-cutter routine that doesn’t actually address what’s really going on in their bodies.
Rather than spending a lot of time – time you probably don’t have – on doing superfluous stretching or mobility work, you’ll get much farther by targeting your stretching to your specific restrictions.
This will cascade to improved positioning in your exercises, which will help your whole body move and perform better.
Look how Sara uses the Prone Scaption Rotation stretch from our Focused Flexibility program to directly address the flexibility she needs in her shoulders for her snatch performance:
And here you can see how Verity uses the Upper Thoracic Extension stretch to help her with her thrusters:
Many mobility programs also recommend long hold times for stretches, which is fine for particular goals, but it should always include active muscle contractions of the stretched muscle in the specific positions you’re looking to improve.
This translates into greater retention and usability of your flexibility gains in your actual movement patterns.
To show you how this works, we put together a special free course that specifically addresses the shoulder mobility concerns that are so common among CrossFit athletes. If your shoulder restrictions have held you back in your WODs, this course will get you started on the right path, and help you perform the way you want to.
Make Your Shoulders Move
Use this FREE Shoulder Mobility mini course to improve your range of motion and joint stability, so you can perform with more power and fewer injuries.
As we’ve tried to make obvious in this article, GMB is not officially affiliated with CrossFit, nor do we sell CrossFit coaching or products. This article is offered as a free resource to our clients and followers who follow CrossFit and related training systems.