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8 minutes reading time (1546 words)

Do You Really Need More Mobility?

Mobility is sexy and it sells.

Get your foam rollers. Get your PVC pipe. Get your stretch bands. Let’s get mobile!

Between mobility screens, mobility workouts, mobility tools, and mobility DVDs, there are plenty of opinions and products available for purchase.  The experts are convincing you of how crucial mobility is for health and performance, while doing their best to convince you to purchase their product.

Enough with it.

While some elements of mobility have merit, many of the approaches to mobility (warm-ups, DVDs, seminars, evaluation systems) are very general and cookie-cutter. A lot of it is unoriginal thought simply repackage and over-priced. Many of these products are not impressive. They are systematic programs that are easy to apply. It’s the classic, “If you see X, then perform Y” approach, providing correctives for movement errors and superficially removing a degree of critical thinking. No wonder the products are so appealing. Someone else has done the thinking for you, so just follow the instructions in the manual and you too can be an expert.

Mobility and movement so easy that seemingly anyone can be an expert?
What troubles me is the trend towards ‘simplifying’ movement, when movement is quite the opposite. Movement is complex. It should be recognized that once you add variables such as load or speed or vector/direction, movement changes. Most screens do not account for these variables and I wish more ‘experts’ understood this clearly.

One individual who has a unique, and truly expert, understanding of the complexity of movement is Stuart McGill. McGill is a spine biomechanics professor from the University of Waterloo. He has authored over 300 scientific publications that address the issues of lumbar spine function, low back injury mechanisms, investigation of the mechanisms involved in rehabilitation programs, injury avoidance strategies, and high-performance training of the back. He serves as a consultant to many medical management groups, elite sports teams and athletes, governments, corporations and legal firms. On top of all those responsibilities, he is often referred the most challenging back pain cases from around the world.

Professor McGill sees two patients per week, spending 3 hours with each patient. His evaluation is of paramount importance in relation to the success he has in treating his clients and athletes. The time he spends on evaluation is often significantly more than many providers spend with a patient on their first visit. As a chiropractor, I know doctors that see 15-40 patients a day and don’t have the time to spend on lengthy assessments. Quick and easy ‘systems’ or ‘assessments’ are exactly what many professionals in the fields of rehabilitation and fitness need.

But does ‘quick and easy’ ensure a thorough exam? Does it ensure all variables have been accounted for? Unfortunately, this is what many have to deal with, so 'quick and easy' is certainly better than no assessment at all. But keep it mind there is a huge limitation to operating in that fashion. This is exactly why my brother and I tailored the operation of GP to allow for the necessary amount of time for our assessments.

At GP, we do not perform general assessments. Every single assessment is personalized to the individual, modified to meet their objectives. What we perform during an assessment “depends” on the presentation in front of us. We understand that movement and the action of musculature is not always obvious. Muscle action will change depending on the movement task, having an effect throughout the entire body. Regarding the ability to recognize the muscular demands of movement, Professor McGill has said, “This is the transition point between a trainer and master trainer.” I’m sure he would say that this also separates a therapist and master therapist.

You will not find our approach in convenient DVD and PDF format, leading you step-by-step through our evaluation and corrective process. Why? The approach we take at GP is very difficult to teach and has taken years to develop through mentorship, experience and self-learning. Whereas, most movement screening systems have the advantage of being easy to teach.

Being ‘easy to teach’ is good for business. But is it the best service for our clients and athletes? Certification courses are designed to churn out new coaches or new trainers at a mind-numbing pace. You would be foolish to assume everyone walking away with a certification functions with ‘expert’ understanding. But that’s what they want you to believe since most attempt to position themselves as experts.

Moving beyond the initial assessment, continual re-assessment is a staple of the process at GP. Our approach focuses on continually assessing and fine-tuning the program as necessary. This is why mobility, like any ‘movement fix’, must be applied appropriately with a solid understanding as to why it's being applied.

Just because someone has a tight hip, doesn’t mean you should blindly advocate foam rolling and performing goblet squats.

Can’t maintain your arms overhead during an overhead squat?

Oh, that is totally caused by tight lats. You need some foam rolling on the lats and then band stretch the daylight out of those bad boys.

Heels come off the ground during the squat? Tight calves and limited dorsiflexion, right?

Let’s foam roll those calves and mobilize those ankles.

This thinking is widespread and too simplistic. In my opinion, it’s no different in application than simply telling someone to stretch because they are tight. Do you think it's superior or different because you applied a foam roller? Sure it may get results a percentage of the time, but often there are deeper underlying issues being missed. Let’s consider the following quotes:
“Soft tissue injuries result from excessive tension, so excessive tension in the rehabilitation setting is counterproductive…stretching of…chronically tight tissue is counterproductive. It may give an initial sensation of relief because the muscle spindles have been deadened, but this practice…weakens the tissue further because of the weakened proprioceptive response.” – Boo Schexnayder
“Stop trying to stretch and mobilize, let tissues settle and regain their proprioceptive abilities so they tell the truth.” – Stuart McGill
Movement Presupposes Stability
Rather than jumping to mobility, we frequently start the therapeutic or rehabilitative process with the emphasis on grooving motor patterns while building whole body and joint stability. Specifically, addressing proximal (core) stability. The musculature of the core is not simply your abs, but all the musculature that interconnects your spine, shoulders, and hips. There is tremendous linkage and interdependence between these key joints of the body. The inability to properly stabilize these regions of the body during movement will ultimately impact distal mobility. Distal refers to the extremities, aka the arms and legs and their respective joints (elbow, wrist, knee ankle, etc.).

As the saying goes, “Proximal stability for distal mobility.”
Through their studies, the Prague school of Rehabilitation has discovered/demonstrated that stabilization and movement are global (systemic) events involving the entire body.

One cannot move without first stabilizing, thus making the support function of the feet, hips, and core of primary importance before movement or mobility is considered.

To improve one's ability to stabilize during movement (AKA ‘dynamic stability’) one must not only train the muscles of the trunk, but also the support function of these muscles.

Dynamic Stability
Training dynamic stability is less about maximizing the loads that the athlete can tolerate and more about training (restoring) the ideal stabilization/movement patterns. Ideal movement patterns are more efficient, leading to increased performance and decreased risk of injury. This is the benefit of quality and efficient movement due to ideal support function.

So what are the consequences of inefficiency?

If you cannot stabilize with proper patterns, compensatory movement patterns dominate leading to hyperactivity of larger muscles groups. Hyperactivity of muscles will make them feel tight. You are going to feel tight. You are going to have restricted joints that are taking an unnecessary beating from the increased forces they are trying to handle. You are going to want to reach for that foam roller and mobilize all day long, but odds are you are going to do so without much success.

In other words, the majority of tightness and mobility issues are a secondary reaction to faulty stabilization patterns and poor support function of the musculature in the feet, hips, trunk, and/or shoulders.

Concluding Thoughts
While others say, "Smash those tissues" or "Mobilize that joint", we say learn to support and stabilize first. Truth is, if you are in constant need of using foam-rollers, tennis balls, and mobility drills, chances are your training is 99% to blame. You need to bring more balance (aka stability) to your body and get strong. It's amazing what can be accomplished when neuromuscular strength qualities, stabilization patterns, and synchronization of movement takes precedent over mobility drills.

This article was intended to challenge the current trend of thinking "mobility first" when it comes to movement-related problems. As mentioned previously, movement is very complex and to approach movement from a simplistic mindset arguably is not an ideal starting point. A thorough assessment, tailored to the individual, will ultimately provide the information needed to implement the most appropriate course of treatment and exercise.

For more reading on this subject, check out these related articles:

Why Stretching Won't Solve Your Tight Muscles
Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization: Advancing Therapy & Performance
Rethinking Tendinitis
3 Reasons You Should Train for Maximal Strength
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