Mobility seems to be the new cure all for any of your fitness problems. You miss your snatches? Must not be mobile enough. Knee pain? There must be a mobility restriction either up or downstream of the problem area. Can’t squat 400 yet? Well obviously you must not have the requisite hip mobility to perform the movement most efficiently.
In some instances, in fact many instances, mobility truly is the limiting factor. Most people know how to train hard, have a good idea of how to eat for their goals, and have a basic understanding of how to recover between training sessions. However, many people don’t put nearly enough time as they should into improving their movement quality. I think there are a variety of reasons for this.
First and foremost doing mobility sucks. It’s not fun, it’s not sexy, it’s uncomfortable, and it won’t get you many likes on instagram. It’s like the planks at the end of your training session. The chances that you will enjoy them are slim to none, but in the back of your head you know that it will be of benefit.
The second reason I think people don’t put enough time into mobility is that they lack the knowledge to efficiently do so. Notice how I said efficiently. Anyone can go online and find a variety of mobility drills to do and simply perform as many as possible in a hope to make some changes. It takes knowledge and experience to diagnose a mobility restriction, identify the structures responsible for this limitation, and choose a mobility drill that will effectively solve the problem. This is something I have been working on myself quite a bit lately, and I’ll be the first to admit it is quite overwhelming. However, like everything else in life, if you put in enough time and effort, eventually things will start to make sense.
Lastly, I think that people don’t do enough mobility simply because they don’t have time. They work, train, have school, have to take care of family, and have a variety of other responsibilities besides getting a lacrosses ball on their TFL. This is where the efficiency aspect comes into play again. Learn to focus on the things you need to in order to make the biggest changes to your movement quality. Find the limiting factor in performing a movement that is required by your training program, and attack that until you make a change. The good news is that your performance will improve, but the bad news is that something else will become the new limiting factor. If you don’t have enough time to learn this on your own, check out the large amounts of mobility wod videos that have been posted which will help you address certain areas of the body.
What people often overlook is that stability and mobility have a strong relationship when determining movement quality. One without the other is, in fact, quite useless. If the overall goal of performing mobility is to improve movement quality, then neglecting stability is like taking the steering wheel out of your car. The potential for movement is there, but without being able to control that movement you’re at a loss.
Think about it. What is the point in creating greater range of motion around a joint if you are incapable of simultaneously exhibiting stability throughout this range of motion? Not only is this not ideal, but it also could potentially set the stage for an injury as well. I think that butt wink in the squat is a good example of this. The initial problem that causes butt wink is almost always a mobility related issue. The hips are too tight, the hamstrings may be tight, the gluteal complex is lacking in mobility, and sometimes it may even be an issue of hip socket depth, which is an anatomical difference that simply cannot be changed.
However, after that requisite mobility is acquired, sometimes the butt wink persists. This may simply be that this person lacks the stability in this new found range of motion to prevent their pelvis from tilting in the bottom of the squat. The fix for this issue then becomes teaching this person how to maintain trunk stability and a neutral spine. This is usually mostly a lack of awareness in maintaining this position, rather than a lack of strength. Drills that simultaneously strengthen a neutral spine position while teaching the limbs of the body to move independently of the trunk such as dead bugs are critical here.
The joint by joint approach, as popularized by Mike Boyle, is a perfect example of the relationship between mobility and stability in the body. This approach states that each joint from the ground up alternates in its need for mobility and stability. For example, the ankles need mobility, the knees need stability, the hips need mobility, the lumbar spine needs stability, the thoracic spine needs mobility, the scapulo-thoracic joint needs stability, and the shoulders need mobility.
This relationship between joints is also why the source of your pain may not exactly be the issue. Lower back pain typically results from a lack of mobility of the hips, which may be causing the butt wink issue we talked about earlier, which is causing the lumbar spine to move from extension to flexion during the squat. Hence your lower back pain. A mobility restriction in the thoracic spine may be also be causing pain in the shoulder joint, and so on.
It is also important to recognize that there are two different types of stability. Static stability is the ability to resist movement while other areas of the body are in motion. An example of this is maintaining a neutral spine during the squat. Dynamic stability on the other hand is the ability for a joint to move throughout a range of motion while maintaining proper alignment relative to the surrounding structures. An example of this would be the hips in the squat. Although the hips require mobility while squatting, they also require the stability to control that range of motion.
During a squat the hips go through flexion, extension, and external rotation. Many athletes are constantly working on their mobility so that they can properly externally rotate their hips at the bottom of the squat. This is important for a multitude of reasons, including maximizing the musculature used around the hip, increasing tension around the joint which results in increased stability, and preventing the impingement of the femur against the acetabulum. However, an athlete who lacks stability in this externally rotated position will not be able to maintain this throughout the entire movement. As a result, the hips will internally rotate, causing the knees to drive inwards. This is evident in some trainees as they drive out of the hole with heavier weights.
When you start looking at the movement patterns of yourself or your athletes, remember that there is a strong relationship between mobility and stability. Progress in one without a requisite amount of the other may actually be counter productive. However, that’s not an excuse to skimp on your mobility work. Implement some of the previous tactics such as mobility wod or improving the efficiency of your mobility sessions to make improving the quality of your movement more bearable. But do your due diligence and take the time to learn some drills which increase stability.
So you understand now that not only do you need mobility, but stability as well. As previously mentioned, stability needs are on a joint by joint basis. However, before I outline some exercises that are good for targeting stability around a certain joint, I would like to make this statement. Properly performed compound movements build stability in the areas you need it, as well as improve mobility in the areas that you need as well. I’m not here to tell you that your squat will not improve your ability to stabilize your body. That is nonsense. A properly performed squat is a good example of your body exhibiting stability throughout the entire range of motion of one of the most basic human movements. Notice how I said properly performed. Some people lack the ability to perform the movement properly, and as a result issues arise, such as butt wink or knee valgus, which can lead to injuries down the road. This is when the movement should be analyzed to see just where the stability limitations are, and these limitations can be eliminated by either drawing awareness to these areas, or performing drills or exercises to increase stability. Below are examples of some exercises to increase stability around the lumbar spine and shoulder, two of the areas that most athletes need to increase stability in the most.
Lower Back: Maintaining stability in the lumbar spine while other segments of the body are moving is key. However, there are a variety of movements that this area of the body needs to be able to resist. Therefore, exercise groups can be broken down into anti-flexion and anti-extension, anti-lateral flexion, anti rotational, and those involving maintaining a neutral spine during hip flexion, which is essentially what happens during a proper squat. Some examples of each are listed below:
Anti Extension: Ab Wheel Roll Outs, Dead Bugs, Farmers Walk
Anti Flexion:Back Extension, Deadlift, Good Morning
Anti Lateral Flexion: Single Arm Farmers Walk, Suitcase Deadlifts
Anti-Rotational: Pallof Press, Half Kneeling Cable Lift
Hip Flexion: Hanging Leg Raise, Stability Ball Pike
Obviously there are plenty more examples. These are just a few to get you started.
Shoulder: Maintaining stability in the shoulder is mainly about teaching proper scapular movement, as well as strengthening all of the positions you will end up in. It starts with awareness. After all, how can you consistently hit a position that you don’t even know the feeling of? Learn how to retract your scapula and “pinch” your shoulder blades together. Then learn how to push and pull from this position. Think of a properly performed bench press where you retract your scapula and “build a shelf” with your upper back to press out of. You also want to be able to do this without too much scapular elevation.
Most athletes are quite trap dominant, meaning that most of the movement around the shoulder comes from the upper fibers of the trapezius muscle. This is true for the lats as well. Train the scapular retractors as well those muscles that depress the scapula such as the rhomboids, middle and lower trapezius fibers, and the external rotators which includes the infraspinatus, teres minor, and posteror deltoid. This will help you set your shoulders in a healthier, stronger position and maintain this position throughout the required range of motion. Thus, shoulder stability. Here are a few exercises to help you achieve this:
Band Pull Aparts
Prone Dumbbell Press
Banded Shoulder External Rotation
Activation of the serratus is also key when it comes to improving shoulder stability. Here is a good drill that helps with this courtesy of Eric Cressey.
There you have it, a good primer on the importance of stability, as well as some ways to increase stability around the shoulder and lumbar spine. Hopefully this information helps you get stronger, move better, avoid injury, and hit some new PR’s.