Assessing Mobility versus Stability

In this special edition of “Funny sh*t  people say,” I bring you the irrational yet hilarious comments clients say.

Client: “I need to get more flexible before I go to a yoga class.” Me: Um, isn’t the point of yoga to achieve more flexibility?

Client: “I have no mobility in my body whatsoever.” Me: Are you a corpse?

Client: “I don’t like doing something I’m bad at.” Me: Well, how do you expect to get any good? 

As silly as comments like these are, they’re not uncommon at all. And as far as understanding what we  need as far as training and programming is concerned, we need a basic understanding of what terms like flexibility, mobility and stability actually means. Oftentimes, trainees confuse the three and end up wasting time with zealous over-stretching, corrective exercises and circus tricks on the Swiss ball.

Let’s clear this up right here, right now then.

Flexibility: Refers to the length of a muscle

Mobility: Refers to how a joint moves in relation to everything around it (tendons, ligaments, muscles, etc.)

Stability: Refers to control of a muscle and/or joint

With this in mind, it’s entirely possible to have flexibility yet lack mobility. Passive, static stretching sure does feel good, but at times we end up stretching what is otherwise a mobility issue, thereby creating more problems rather than resolving them. A perfect example is the hip flexor stretch with excessive forward lean. We assume our hip flexors or posas are tight so we s-t-r-e-t-c-h the bejeezus out of it only to feel tight again an hour later.

A simplified view of mobility vs. stability starts from the ground up. Literally.

Joint = Mobility or stability?

Foot = Stability

Ankle = Mobility

Knee = Stability

Hip/Pelvis = Mobility

Lumbar spine = Stability

Thoracic spine = Mobility

Scapulae = Stability

Shoulders = Mobility

Notice a pattern here?

We can sit around and discuss the best corrective exercises for our program all day, but as far as I’m concerned, correctives deserve about 10% of our attention in a single workout, not 90%. Strength coach Dan John once called out the fact that trainees are getting so wrapped up in foam rolling and correctives that they end up never training at all! Talk about a waste of a trip to the gym.

Addressing Mobility

We need motion to address mobility issues. If our hamstrings are stiff and tight, intuitively we think of stretching the hamstring. Only issue here is that a tight hamstring can be associated with something else. It’s a classic case of treating the symptom rather than the root cause.

A smart trainer or coach will look at what is happening above and below the tight hamstring to determine what is causing the stiffness and or pain (if present). Tight hamstrings usually signal a lack of mobility in the hips. To compensate for that immobility, the hamstrings pull the pelvis into extension and out of alignment. If one were to stretch the hamstring, that ‘feel good’ sensation will fizzle in just a few hours.

Why does this happen? Well, let’s look at the anatomy for a hot second:

The hip connects to the femur and the pelvis, and the musculature around it requires a combination of strength and stability for movements like standing or walking. A dysfunction in this musculature can affect the lower back, knee and ankle joints because of how they’re all connected. The tight hamstring is most likely a symptom of an immobile hip and weak hip musculature.

Here’s another example of the mobility vs. stability issue gone wrong.

Tight ankles are a result of immobility around the ankle joint. Can we all agree to this?

A common mistake is to stretch the calf muscle, which also feels nice but does little to improve our performance and movement quality. Using a drill in our warm-up that releases the ankle joint specifically is a lot more useful than calf stretches. As minor as the ankle joint is in terms of size, it serves an important function. A stiff ankle joint goes up the kinetic chain, creating problems everywhere else. Lesson: Be nice to your ankles!

Addressing Stability

Understanding stability issues requires a similar approach. For example, trainees that have issues squatting to parallel are made to think they lack mobility or flexibility in the hips. So they stretch, mobilize and yogaify until they are blue in the face with little to no difference in the squat pattern. Oftentimes, we overlook the root cause: a lack of anterior core stability.

Want to know which is which?

1.) Start on your hands and knees with feet about an inch or two away from a wall.

2.) Shift the weight back.

In this position you’ll want to avoid looking anyone in the eye first and foremost (it’s awkward). But notice how ‘deep’ you can get to parallel in this position. It’s essentially a squat in the quadruped position, and if you can hit depth with ease then it’s not a hip mobility issue.

Now compare that with this test:

1.) Stand up in your squat position.

2.) Hold a light kettlebell or plate in front of your chest (arms extended or bent in).

3.) Squat

If you can squat to proper depth while holding the weight in front of your chest, you’ve uncovered the real issue: a lack of anterior core stability.

This assessment tells us two very significant things: 1.) It pinpoints the real weakness and 2.) Guides us on how to fix it.

What About Flexibility?

I won’t spend a lot of time here as the world has beaten the concept of flexibility over our heads since grade school. The takeaway here is that flexibility is just as important as mobility and should be done in conjunction with our training. Frequent stretching, either after weight training or on rest days, improves our muscles’s range of motion, allowing us to move better and with more ease. It also aids in preventing injuries from muscular imbalances and over-use (think: a tennis player that swings with his right arm and is therefore over-developed in one part of his body).

As avid lifters, athletes or super active people, we want to keep our bodies as mobile, flexible and as stable as possible to keep doing what we’re doing. We must take a proactive approach to mobility and flexibility, and when problems do arise, know the difference between mobility, flexibility and stability to assess the root cause of the problem and address it systematically.

It’s time to prioritize your mobility and flexibility with Pilates training for athletes. Interested in learning more? Email me if you’re in San Diego for a private session: trishdc {at} gmail {dot} com.


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