Range of Motion
ROM is a critical component in developing fitness; the distance component of the power equation highlights this (Figure 1). A limited ROM reduces work capacity and is indicative of a missing component of fitness. Scaling ROM requires the ability to identify points of performance and an understanding of general movement principles, such as the need to maintain a neutral spine during loaded movement.
Use functional movements (squats, presses, deadlifts) as assessment tools to identify ROM limitations. At our affiliate, we call the overhead squat the “yellow highlighter of mobility”; on any given day, we can assess our athletes’ shoulder, hip, knee and ankle ROM with just a few reps.
The range in which an athlete can maintain points of performance for a specific movement is called the safe ROM. An athlete’s safe ROM can vary on a day-to-day basis. Exceeding safe ROM increases injury risk and decreases efficiency. While seemingly innocuous in a single rep, something as simple as a small tuck of the hips in an air squat or an internal roll of the shoulder in an overhead squat can have severe structural impact when we add speed, volume or load. As responsible coaches, we can’t instruct proper form during warm-ups only to watch passively as an athlete does 100 wall-ball shots with loss of neutral spine every squat.
Scaling for ROM is part of a bigger plan for long-term athlete development. Once a ROM limitation is identified, use coaching cues (tactile, visual and verbal) to identify whether the root cause of the limitation is poor motor control, mobility restriction or both. After identifying the root cause, scale ROM during workouts to develop intensity within the existing safe ROM, while applying mobility and motor control outside workouts to increase safe ROM. This long-term ROMdevelopment plan is illustrated in Figure 2.
Scaling for ROM limitations is simple: Keep athletes within a ROM that allows consistent execution of the movement’s points of performance. Apply load, speed and volume within the athlete’s current (but expanding) safe ROM in line with CrossFit’s methodology of technique versus intensity. This approach increases work capacity within the athlete’s current safe ROM as the athlete independently works to improve safe ROM. The two actions converge with the athlete’s moving at full ROM with improved work capacity. There are many ways to scale ROM in the starting positions (e.g., elevating deadlift set-up) and ending positions (e.g., top of kettlebell swing).
Here’s an example: Travis is a 34-year-old male who just completed your affiliate’s three-week intro course. He struggles to maintain a neutral spine during squats and deadlifts; his lower back predictably rounds despite multiple cues. Your goal is to help Travis achieve full ROM in these movements while increasing work capacity within his current safe ROM.
You’ve assigned a mobility protocol and movement drills for warm-ups, cool-downs and outside the gym (the left arrow in Figure 2). This includes mobility exercises and movements such as banded good mornings to improve motor control and positional awareness. Now we need to effectively scale Travis during workouts.
Today’s workout involves wall-ball shots. This is a combined movement pattern; of note for Travis, it involves a squatting element. After coaching Travis through squats during warm-up, you have a good idea of how he’s moving today and roughly where he’s losing his lumbar curve. It’s important to assess safe ROM during controlled repetitions, not during the workout under the duress of time, speed, volume, complexity or load.
Next, you watch Travis perform a front squat with a light medicine ball. You have him squat to a “target”—a medicine ball stacked on a 45-lb. plate or an appropriately sized box. The target is a tactile cue for Travis to remain within today’s safe ROM. Remember, the height of the target will likely change day to day, and it will lower as he improves mobility and motor control. As Travis progresses, there will likely be a time when his safe ROM is still above parallel but he has the motor control to maintain a neutral spine without the target.
You then assess Travis’ ability to maintain front-squat points of performance within his scaled ROM with load. If he cannot maintain points of performance with the medicine ball despite coaching cues, decrease the medicine-ball weight (including changing the movement to a PVC thruster) or elevate his squat target. Both scaling approaches can reap training benefits while protecting Travis; don’t rely on the same scaling method every time.
Travis’ example demonstrates controlling ROM based on points of performance at the eccentric end range of a movement, but we also find ROM limitations in the concentric end range of movements. Let’s look at another common but oft-neglected ROM-scaling opportunity: the overhead position.
The target ROM is full shoulder flexion (arms straight overhead), hands at shoulder width or narrower, elbows straight and midline neutral (not overextending the lumbar or thoracic spine). Two example movements are the kettlebell swing and kipping pull-up.
With tight shoulders, it’s challenging to swing a kettlebell directly overhead without bending and flaring the elbows (internally rotating the shoulders) or overextending the thoracic or lumbar spine. If you see an athlete’s bent elbows flare to the side as the kettlebell approaches the top and coaching cues do not correct the fault, it’s likely the athlete is missing full shoulder ROM. Pressing movements (press, push press and push jerk) generally highlight shoulder-mobility restrictions early in training, but some limitations are accentuated in specific movements. For example, with barbell movements, moving the hands wider can mask shoulder-flexion limitations (or accommodate them depending on how you look at it). But because the grip width is narrow with kettlebell swings, shoulder-flexion limits are highlighted.
If coaching cues don’t correct the fault, then scale the kettlebell-swing ROM by reducing swing height based on where the athlete’s elbows start bending or where the athlete starts losing the midline. It’s difficult for some athletes to recognize when these faults occur, so provide a definitive limit such as, “Stop with the kettlebell at eye level.” Athletes with poor body awareness need definitive ROM limits established prior to the start of the workout.
For the kipping pull-up, an athlete missing full shoulder flexion often has the same bent, flared elbows (internally rotated shoulder) or “broken” midline (overextended thoracic or lumbar spine) at the front of the kip. If coaching cues don’t fix the movement fault, we can scale to strict pull-ups or other steps in a pull-up progression while addressing shoulder mobility separately. Do not watch athletes do repeated reps beyond their safe ROM; it is a coach’s responsibility to intervene.
During warm-up, identify the athlete’s daily ROM for the movement—the point where the athlete consistently loses points of performance despite verbal, tactile and visual coaching cues.
- Scale ROM to keep the athlete within safe ROM for the workout.
- Modify movement ROM at the starting position (e.g., raising deadlift bar off the floor) and/or the finishing position (e.g., stopping kettlebell swing at eye level).
- Scaling may include objects to act as tactile cues in some cases (e.g., a ball as a depth target for a squat).
About the Author
Jeremy Gordon, CCFC, was the head coach and CEO of CrossFit Hampton Roads from 2008 to 2015. He began CrossFit in 2005. Jeremy coaches at CrossFit Hampton Roads and provides online coaching for competitive-level CrossFit athletes. He is the proud husband of Nicole Gordon (CrossFit Seminar Staff) and parent of two phenomenal kids. He is a 17-year veteran fighter pilot flying with the Virginia Air National Guard.