On Coaching the Mobility Impaired Client
Kristin Gemme, USAW L1 Sports Performance Coach at Crossfit Relentless in West Hartford, CT Certified Physician Assistant in trauma/surgical critical care and urgent care in Hartford, CT
This piece is targeted for the weightlifting coach; but is also an important read for the athletes as well. It can be useful as an athlete with mobility restrictions to understand why certain modifications are made to their training program, and can help alleviate some frustration.
We expect a lot out of our bodies. We treat them like machines throughout our lives, asking them to perform incredible feats of strength, impact, and repetition. All of this can ultimately lead to acute and chronic injuries, scar tissue formation, contractures, poor movement and limitations in mobility. So how do you train? How do you lift, move, and progress? The answer is multifactorial. Focusing on mobility in the downtown between training sessio¬ns is obviously important and must be done in order to stretch out and re-gain lost mobility. As a weightlifting coach, you want your athletes to move a barbell and train through all the different lifts effectively. That is the goal. But not every client is going to step onto your platform with that ability. Instead of watching them painfully struggle, trying to move the barbell into position, potentially harming them more, it is your job to modify. Understanding the wide variety of movements that can be performed that have the same, or similar training stimulus is crucial to your client’s safety and ability to progress.
Before you ask a new client to snatch and clean and jerk, they should have a movement and mobility assessment. This assessment includes having them perform a set of strict press, front squat, and overhead squat. The following is what you should be assessing for during each movement.
Strict press: Can they hold the barbell in a front rack position? Can they move the barbell in a straight-line overhead and finish with shoulders and elbows locked out and head through? Can they hold the barbell at the proper grip distance?
Front Squat: Can they hold the barbell in a front rack position and drop into a full squat? How is their bottom position? – hips, ankles, knees, and spine. Can the client maintain the front rack position throughout the entire movement? Is their spine rounding, or can they maintain a strong back?
Overhead Squat: Can they hold a barbell in a snatch grip over the head? Are shoulders stable? Are the elbows locked out? Is the spine protected? Can they maintain this position throughout the entire movement from top to bottom?
If your client can perform all of these movements safely and without pain, then they are good to jump into learning the progressions of the Olympic and accessory lifts. If they have limitations, this is where you need to adjust. You should never say to yourself or to a client that because of this mobility impairment that they just wont do x,y, or z…
I can’t repeat this enough- Understand the training stimulus of the lifts or movements that they are currently unable to safely perform, and find an alternative that will provide that same neuromuscular training stimulus until they are able to improve their mobility. In some cases, the mobility needed to perform classic lifts, will never be reached- but it doesn’t mean that they cannot train.
To share a few examples: Clients that are unable to correctly hold a barbell due to shoulder or elbow issues, may need weight broken into two independent sides. This is where kettlebells and dumbbells can be utilized. Are your client’s limited with their hips and dropping into a squat is ineffective? Try having them learn the split snatch. There is a long list of alternative options for athletes as they progress.
Finding the correct modifications for your clients will keep them moving, getting stronger, and progressing into more traditional positions and lifts as their mobility improves. Don’t set them free to figure out how to mobilize on their own, either. Prescribe them certain mobilizations to perform before and after a training session and a list of them to do at home. The key to change is consistency. Lifting weights one day a month will not make you stronger, and this is the same concept as mobility. Body work and mobilization needs to be programmed and performed daily in order to see quantifiable change.
Not being able to do the movements that “everyone else” is doing can be a frustrating and demoralizing thing for clients. They may feel inadequate or like a bad athlete. It is up to you as a coach to help them understand your plan and that they are getting a similar training stimulus as other athletes that are performing traditional clean and jerks, snatches, and squats. Helping them understand the process and giving them mobility homework will keep them mentally on the road to success and will give them satisfaction with their training program.
It is important to remember that while you are coaching traditional Olympic and accessory lifts; you need a solid base of knowledge of how the body moves and what is happening to the body during the different lifts. The old saying “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” is appropriate in the world of weightlifting and coaching.