Why mobility and activation drills equal better training performance

Warming up sounds good in theory. But when it comes to tacking extra minutes onto an already lengthy gym session, many of us find the justification to skip the pre-lifting drills and head straight for the barbell. But what if working on your mobility and activating the muscles you are about to work could help you to lift heavier and run harder, for longer?

That’s the key message from Owner and Founder of Enterprise Fitness and Master Strength Coach, Mark Ottobre.

‘To achieve optimal output, you need to stabilise your joints! First comes stability, then mobility, and then strength and performance,’ he says. 

What exactly is mobility?

Most people will be familiar with the concept of flexibility or having a full and pain-free range of motion through your joints. Flexibility is what lets you touch your toes from a standing position or lift your leg higher while standing.
Mobility, on the other hand, is all about building strength throughout that range of motion. When assessing your mobility, most trainers will look at how well you can get into certain lifting positions, such as a below parallel squat while keeping your chest in line with your pelvis. 

‘Mobility drills are designed to develop stability and control through a desired range of motion,’ explains Ottobre.

What are activation drills, then? 

Mobility drills should not be confused with the activation drills beloved by Instagram influencers. 

‘Activation drills are used to engage weak or lagging muscle prior to a workout, to correct poor movement patterns, and to engage stabiliser muscles so you can lift even heavier,’ explains Ottobre. 

Think pulling on an anchored resistance band to engage the lats before a lat pulldown. The high resistance and high reps sends blood to the area you are about to work, and important lubricating fluids to the surrounding joints. It also engages your mind-muscle connection so you can more easily feel and target the desired muscles during your first working set.

Why do mobility drills matter?

Mobility and activation drills can play a key part in ploughing through lifting plateaus and preventing injury. Having the strength through your muscles and your joints is key to lifting heavier – safely – by priming your nervous system, muscles and joints to perform. 

‘An example is if you fail to prime the glute and hip complex before a heavy deadlift session,’ says Jane Kilkenny, Fitness Director and Performance Coach at Fitness Energy.

‘If you are starting your lifts in a compromised position and not executing the hinge pattern correctly, you are reducing the effectiveness of the exercise and also putting your lower back under undue force and risk of injury.’

In Ottobre’s experience, it’s the smaller muscles that give out first during the heavier lifts – often from years spent sitting at a desk or moving with poor form. ‘You are only as strong as your weakest, so it pays to fix them,’ he adds. 

‘Anyone serious about their lifting and wanting a long, pain- and injury-free training life should be incorporating activation and mobility drills into their training.’ 

How frequently should you be participating in mobility drills?

Ottobre suggests performing personalised mobility and activation drills each and every workout. If you’re lifting heavy or have a particular weakness or injury, shoot for 10 to 20 minutes. For hypertrophy work at higher rep ranges, five to 10 minutes of dynamic stretching or equipment-based mobility drills should suffice.

Try these mobility and activation drills for key muscle groups

There are a range of mobility and drills that can be performed using your own bodyweight through dynamic (moving) stretches, as well as with equipment such as foam rollers and resistance bands. Here’s just a few examples: 

  1. Glute band drills

Activating your notoriously lazy glutes is key to lifting heavy, safely. Tight glutes and weak hip flexors limit your range of motion, particularly through compound movements such as the squat, and can result in other muscle groups, such as your lower back, taking over the brunt of the work. 

Regular foam rolling and trigger ball work can help with loosening this muscle group. A glute band is also a great way to prime the muscles before heavy lifting. Watch the video below for three ways you can use a glute band to activate your glutes:

2. Loosening your back with a foam roller

Overtraining, sitting at a desk for extended periods and injury can all lead to a tight, sensitive back. Using a foam roller to release the thoracic region (upper back) will help to loosen surrounding muscles and protect your spine during heavy lifts, while also helping to ensure each rep feels comfortable, smooth and controlled.

Watch the video below to learn how to use a foam roller to loosen and activate the muscles of your back:

Trigger balls are also a fantastic option, allowing you to pinpoint tight or painful areas in your lower back by pushing into the impacted muscles. Watch the video below and try its short trigger ball exercises for releasing the traps and glutes, and other common pain points:

3. Strengthen your wrist flexors with finger trainers

Any CrossFit enthusiast or avid olympic lifter will know the pains associated with weak wrist flexors. Wrists that easily fatigue will give out far earlier during a volume power clean session than the rest of your body – meaning poorer performance and limited results. 

Often considered an awkward joint to strengthen, building mobility through your wrists is actually easier than you may think. Enhance your grip strength with these simple finger trainer exercises detailed in the video below: 

4. Upper back and shoulders work with a resistance band

Weak upper backs and stiff shoulders are extremely common. What’s more, muscle groups such as the lats can be extremely hard to activate, with surrounding muscles – such as the traps – often taking over. 

Activation drills using resistance bands can help drive blood to the muscles in question and also enhance your mind-muscle connection, or your brain’s ability to ‘turn on’ and target the muscles you need to work. 

The below video walks you through how to use a resistance band to activate the shoulders and upper back:

Looking for further mobility and activation tips, drills and equipment? Visit the Powerlifters Prevention and Preparation website

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About Katelyn Swallow 36 Articles
Katelyn Swallow is a journalist, editor and communications professional based in Perth. She is the Editor-in-Chief of STRONG Fitness Magazine Australia, the previous editor of Women's Health and Fitness magazine, and a regular contributor to STRONG in the US.