Movement

Mobility Explained


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Mobility, what the hell does that even mean? It certainly is a popular word in the world of sports and strength training right now. Yet, when the average person walks into my gym for an initial screening, they look at me like they are lost when I use the term mobility.

Flexibility – characterized by a ready capability to adapt to new, different, or changing requirements.

Stability – the property of a body that causes it when disturbed from a condition of equilibrium or steady motion to develop forces or moments that restore the original condition.

To be mobile is to have the ability to move. Human locomotion is a coordinated effort of both mobile and stable segments.

What does that mean and why do I care???

Often, what we see is everyone focusing on either the stability, or the flexibility aspect and not respecting the relationship that these aspects have with each other. Rarely will problems occur in isolation in the body. If you are noticing a problem in one area, the odds are highly in favor of some other things needing to go wrong in order to allow that to happen in the first place.

Here is an example of what I am talking about, last week in the Team Juggernaut Facebook Q&A, we got a question about the upper back rounding in the squat.

Chad’s answer was about strengthening the upper back. I believe his suggestion was Dead SSB squats, or paused, I am not sure which one, it seems either would be a solid option. Do we agree with that? Of course. For one thing, Chad has squatted 900lbs raw. Obviously, he knows something about fixing the squat.

What I think we should be doing a better job of considering is why was your upper back weak in the first place? A perfect squat, on a perfectly symmetrical and perfectly even body, should build a perfect squat. You shouldn’t need extra ab work, or extra upper back work. All of your “assistance exercises” are actually “corrective exercises”, or at least they should be if you are being smart with your exercise selection.

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Perhaps his tight quads are tugging his hip down in the front, getting his abs out of position so that they don’t develop at the correct rate, so you need the extra work. That is probably causing his hamstrings to be long and stretched out from the anterior tilt of the hips (maybe he characterizes those as “weak” too). Then this forces his lumbar into extension and his thoracic to compensate. Now his tight quads have pulled his T-spine out of position and have caused his “weak upper back”. Which is partly an “out of position” upper back.

Upper back strength and mobility is critical to maintaining an upright posture during a heavy squat
Upper back strength and mobility is critical to maintaining an upright posture during a heavy squat

Obviously that was a shot in the dark. We could test that guy and find out that my diagnosis was completely incorrect, but I guarantee that we will find some other related problems that must be addressed or he will be battling that “weak upper back” for the entire duration of his training. In order to be able to ever correct a problem you must address all of the problems. How many people complain of tight hamstrings, stretch them all the time, and still have tight hamstrings? Billions. They are only addressing a symptom and not correcting the cause.

This isn’t to say that you should go around stretching everything. Remember that we established at the beginning that mobility is coordination of both flexibility and stability. Those places that you are adding in the extra assistance exercises are the places that you lack stability. They are typically stretched out of position and this has caused them to be weak. Stretching things that require more stability is likely going to make your problems worse. Just like when people diagnose their hamstrings as tight, start stretching the hell out of their hamstrings, and then start complaining of lower back pain. This is why you see all the internet articles that say “Stop Stretching!!!”. Sometimes you make a problem worse by stretching the wrong thing, but that doesn’t mean you should stop stretching, it just means that you need to be stretching with a purpose.

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Remember that there are two sides to the mobility puzzle. When you recognize a problem in one area assume that this problem is part of a, typically, predictable pattern of problems that all will need to be addressed simultaneously if you are ever going to be able to correct it. Analyze yourself constantly. Symmetry and balance are the keys to training injury free and consistent, and staying injury free and consistent are the keys to getting really strong.

If you have questions about this article, ask them below in the comments section.

Ryan Brown is the head physical preparation coach and owner of Derby City CrossFit / DarkSide Strength in Louisville,Ky. Ryan’s focus is on correcting and perfecting movement/motor patterns to get the most out of his athletes. He has competed in CrossFit, Powerlifting, strongman, and currently Olympic lifting. His clients include; elite level power lifters, national level Olympic lifters, pro MMA fighters, college football players, HS athletes, CrossFitters, old broke people, and pretty much anyone else who wants to do something better.
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