A fundamental objective all people should aim to improve is movement efficiency. Efficient movement:
Makes it easier to perform the daily activities of living.
Allows you to build strength on a solid platform.
Reduces pain and the risk of injury.
Make you better at your sport.
Makes you feel better overall.
Movement is the result of muscle force that affects another body segment along the kinetic chain. There are other forces on the body, such as gravity pulling down on the body and reactive forces pushing upward through the body like when you run.
Efficient movement requires having appropriate levels of stability and mobility. They are a check and balance system that work together to generate motor control. Too much of either one is a problem, and too little of either is also a problem.
An example of too much mobility is a hypermobile elbow joint. If someone with a hypermobile elbow lifts weight overhead, the elbow joint might not lock in, thus, there is no stable platform and it comes crashing down. Other times additional muscles, tendons and ligaments are forced into supporting the load placing extra burden on them. This isn’t ideal because it can lead to over use injury since they are not doing activities they they are designed to do.
A lack of mobility is much more common, especially in the ankles. Athletes that lack ankle mobility typically have problems getting to full depth in a squat. Fortunately, through proper attention to mobility and stability, we can greatly improve our movement efficiency.
What is Mobility?
Mobility is the ability to move in an uninhibited range of movement around a joint or body segment.
Mobility is the ability to put one’s body into the correct position for various movements such as a squat, deadlift, overhead press etc.
Having mobility means having the ability to move the way our bodies were designed, that is the correctly and safely.
Mobility allows for greater performance through higher force and therefore power production.
What is Stability?
Stability is the ability to maintain control of a joint movement and resist an undesired movement.
Without stability, the joint is more prone to injury, and will not allow efficient power production.
Stability and Mobility
The American Council on Exercise identifies that individuals who exhibit optimal levels of stability and mobility anticipate movement and stabilization needs well. Efficient mobility and stability elicit the necessary motor responses to perform proper joint mechanics.
Gray Cook of Functional Movement Screen (FMS) goes further in depth with his “joint by joint approach” where different joints have specific functions and needs and are prone to predictable levels of dysfunction. We must also take into consideration the joint above and below as these joints will also impact the mobility and stability of each joint.
Mobility and Stability are not mutually exclusive,
you cannot train one alone, they work in conjunction.
All joints have varying levels of stability and mobility, but they tend to favor one over the other depending on their function in the body. Using the joint by joint approach, we see how joints stack on top of each other, alternating from stability to mobility. Starting at the bottom:
Foot = Stability to create force production when pushing off the ground.
Ankle = Mobility to allow pronation and eversion of the foot.
Knee = Stability for walking, some mobility with flexion and extension.
Hip = Mobility in the ball and socket joints to allow legs to swing.
Lumbar Spine = Stability to support the upright body.
Thoracic Spine = Mobility to allow bending over.
Scapulothoracic = Stability between the arm and the shoulder.
Glenohumeral = Mobility allowing arms to swing and move 360 degrees.
Neck = Stability to hold the head upright.
The Kinetic Chain
The kinetic chain is defined as the relationship between joints or segments, and the effect they have on each other during movement. When one is in motion, it creates a chain of events that affects the movement of neighboring joints and segments. Movement efficiency involves a synergistic approach between stability and mobility throughout the kinetic chain.
It is important to understand that proximal stability promotes distal stability. This means having a stable core while performing an overhead squat will allow the athlete to lift heavier weights. In a previous article Engage Your Core! we identified the importance of bracing the core to allow for optimal production, transfer and control of force and motion. Without a strong core, your power to your arms and legs will be greatly reduced.
When we look at people with good posture, they generally exhibit an improved relationship between stability and mobility throughout their kinetic chain. People with poor posture have a compromise somewhere along the kinetic chain. The longer the imbalance exits, the more it compromises the adjacent joints until movement becomes dysfunctional and painful.
Do the overwhelming number of back exercises that claim to build strength, flexibility and improve posture confuse you? Some of those highly touted exercises can actually cause more tension on the spine, adding to discomfort and negatively impact your movement.
This article and video will outline four easy to perform back exercises, all of which are scalable to various levels of conditioning, and can be completed in under four minutes a day. Dr. Stuart McGill, considered the back expert in the field of back rehabilitation, highly recommends these four exercises.
In the Engage You Core article, we learned the core and back are intertwined as they work in conjunction to provide stability. Stability is the ability to maintain control of a joint movement and resist an undesired movement. By having a strong back and core, we have a solid foundation for all other movements to build upon. This is called proximal stability, a term we will discuss more in the future. To build back stability, practice these back exercises daily.
Cat-Camel Exercise (aka Cat Cow in yoga).
Cat – Camel is spine flexion-extension cycles that reduce internal resistance in the spine. It is a motion exercise, not a static hold. Do 5-8 cycles per day.
It begins with the Cat portion or upward extension of the thoracic spine:
Starting on hands and knees, fingers spread evenly.
Wrists in line with shoulders & elbows.
Arch the back upward as you exhale.
The chin comes toward the chest.
The tailbone tucks under.
Briefly hold for 1-2 seconds.
Then you move into the Camel portion:
Lower the belly.
Neck comes up looking out in front (not upward).
Briefly hold for 1-2 seconds then go back into the cat position.
The Bird Dog is a leg and opposite arm extension exercise. These are isometric holds that should last no longer than 8 seconds.
Build endurance by holding for 8 seconds then increasing repetitions.
Higher difficulty is achieved by drawing the elbow to the knee (Bird Dog Crunch).
Side Plank (aka side bridge)
Side planks target the lateral muscles of the torso and are important for optimal stability. These are isometric holds, so hold the position until your form starts to break down then rest. Work on getting to one minute per side, then advance to a more difficult progression.
Begin by bridging the torso between the elbow and knees and raising the torso so a straight line occurs from the shoulder down to the legs.
Place elbow directly under shoulder, forearm on ground to help balance.
Always maintain a neutral neck and spine position.
Feet should not be stacked one on top, move the top foot out in front of the bottom foot.
If you are bending in the middle, work on an easier progression.
Level 1 – Knee on ground.
Level 2 – Ankle to shoulder bridging.
Level 3 – Star pattern – raise the top leg and or top arm.
Modified Curl Up.
The modified curl up is a modified sit up where the key point is to maintain a neutral lumbar spine while slowly raising the back using the upper abdominals. Do not flatten your lower back.
Use your hands underneath your lower back to provide support or a small rolled up towel. Flattening the back flexes the lumbar spine and adds stress.
One knee is bent while the other is straight to lock the pelvis.
Alternate the bent leg halfway through the repetitions.
Engage your core muscles, while raising your shoulders several inches off the ground.
Keep lower end of scapula on the ground. You are only doing a small motion.
Use hands to support the neck if needed.
Wok to increase repetitions, up to 3 sets of 10-12.
Low back exercises have the most beneficial effect when performed daily. You should not experience pain during any of these exercises, if you do, stop immediately and consult a professional. Add these four minutes of back exercises to your morning routine to prep your body for the day ahead and build stability for better movement.