Let your joints become more mobile

Mobility? What is that? It is something for yoga gurus or Pilates enthusiasts… – that is the typical answer of old school strength coaches to the question whether they check and use mobility in their training programs.

Sorry my “old” colleagues, but that is something very important!

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This Joint by joint training system has been created by Gray Cock and Michael Boyle, and is essentially saying that, for efficient movement, some of our joints need more mobility whilst others need more stability. As you can see, all major joints in human body which need to be mobile such as ankle, hips, thoracic spine, part of the cervical spine, glenohumeral joint and wrist joint are coloured with pink. What they brilliantly discovered is that if we lose mobility in one joint segment, our body will have to replace that lost mobility with another upper or lower joint. If hips are not moving properly, the body will start to compensate that movement and most often the lower back will start to move too much. According to Dr. Stuart McGill, leading authority of spine biomechanics and function, that is the recipe for lower back problems – read pain. If ankles are too stiff and don’t move properly, there is a big chance for knees to suffer and start moving too much what, in the end, can cause knee problems. As far as the upper body is concerned, if the thoracic spine is rigid, scapula starts to move too much creating shoulder instability. And we could go on listing…

WHAT IS MOBILITY

            I found out that too many coaches do not know the difference between flexibility and mobility. They think it’s the same thing. Mobility is not flexibility! By my definition, flexibility is ability of a muscle to reach a maximum length between 2 joints, whilst the mobility is maximum range of movement between structurally connected joints. Mobility includes joint range of motion together with tissue and muscle flexibility and some stability. When you notice someone with flexibility problem, you never know is this actually a muscle length problem, a fascia problem, a passive connective tissue problem, a capsular problem or maybe a stability problem in another body region. By doing so, stretching is definitively not the only way to solve the problem.

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To make mobility easier to understand, I will give you some of the “lack of mobility” examples:

Example 1

Let’s say you have a client or an athlete or you personally have tight hamstring musculature. If your hamstrings are always tight, you can stretch them day after day but nothing will change. Why?
Muscles don’t just get tight because they want to be tight; they’re tight because someone, namely, our brain ordered them to be tight. But why in the first place our brain wants them to be tight? Because by acting so, our brain is protecting the instability in some other joint, compensating another area of the body that isn’t generating enough tension to stabilize it or, we might have lost mobility in some other joint. For example, you can have a thoracic hyperkyphosis and by this, whilst standing or walking, you are leaning too much forward. In this situation your brain sends the message to the hamstring: “Hey guys, be always contracted and protect us from falling down on our nose!” The stretching itself can only help to reduce neural drive to our upper leg backside musculature for a moment and for a while shut down protective mechanisms causing a muscle to be tense. But what is more important, it doesn’t address the cause of the muscle being tense and that’s why you can stretch all day long but length changes will be difficult to notice. Stretching in this situation can’t help because this is the joint alignment problem, you lost the thoracic MOBILITY and you need to correct your upper back posture. Start with some thoracic MOBILITY drills, extension, extension with rotation in order to correct the standing posture. As soon as you start standing more upright, the brain will send the message to the hamstrings musculature: “There is no more danger of falling forward, you can stop working overtime!”

Example 2

During basketball match the coach is yelling to an athlete: “Lower your legs” or “Your stance is too high”. But the athlete, as much as he tries to be lower, no difference can be noticed. I witnessed many similar situations in other sports as well. Where is the problem? We FIRST have to check his MOBILITY in the hips and ankles region! How deep will be his athletic stance depends on his ability of making as deep squat as possible with his own bodyweight. Athletic stance is always somewhere in the middle between max depth bodyweight squat and normal stance. If your athlete is capable of performing only 30-degree deep bodyweight squat, you can imagine how his athletic stance will look like.  While he is not able of performing a bodyweight squat to a minimum 90-degree angle, his movements on the court will not be optimal. Before every workout in the gym or on the court, he needs to mobilize his hips in all 3 planes of motion as well as to gain ankle mobility primarily in sagittal plane. There could appear some stability problems as well but that is not the story for this blog.

Example 3

Pay attention next time you see a 1 or 2 years old children how easily they stay in perfect deep squat position for a long period of time. How is possible that a 1-year old child can deep squat and we can’t? Is he/she having stronger legs? I doubt it… This is a sign of great mobility with which we are born and then we had to gain stability for this mobility system to be able to stand up and to do a perfect squat. This was a normal neurodevelopment strategy by our Mother Nature. So if nature gave us tons of mobility when we came into this world, it is something we have to primarily test and, if it’s necessary, emphasize first before starting with our training or rehabilitation in order to achieve results faster.

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These are the “symptoms” when certain person misses mobility in one or more joints. Because all of that, the importance of mobility in everyday training is very important. Mobility needs regular work on a daily basis. During the general warm up, spend some time doing calf-hip-thoracic mobility and you will be surprised how easier and more fluid you will feel when you start to play your sport, exercise in the gym or run. Come on people, let your joints become more mobile!

Posterior vs. Anterior

Every time we decide to create exercise programme for someone we need to follow some guidelines. If we are working with athletes, with regard to the client’s goals or sport demands, we use some test protocols that help us define training approach. With the help of today’s modern technology and with the possibility of sharing/buying information on internet, you can find different kinds of assessments, screening and testing which will produce different training approaches. The purpose of this article will not be a discussion about bad, good or the best testing approach. Instead I want to point out that regardless which starting point you are using to create a training plan and programme, you have to respect the difference between posterior and anterior chain musculature.

Let us first take a look at what posterior and what anterior musculature is. It’s very simple: posterior includes everything on your backside and, as you can guess, anterior on your front side – bingo! Therefore, on your backside there are hamstrings, gluteus, “lats”, all scapular retractors and rotator cuff muscles. On the front side there are big quads, hip flexors, abdominals and pectorals above them. Of course these are not all muscles nor on your back or on your front side; I named only the most important to show you why they should be considered and trained differently.

TO RESIST EVERYDAY GRAVITY WE PRIMARILY NEED OUR BACKSIDE MUSCULATURE

Now imagine a person who is standing and suddenly loses consciousness for a second. If that person is standing on the flat floor without shifting weight from left to right or from front to back its body will collapse in place like an old building in a city centre during demolition. Feet will pronate, knees buckle, hips will flex, shoulder collapse forward…

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What is that telling us? Which muscles are responsible to protect us from this scenario in everyday life where we will hopefully not lose consciousness? To avoid this we primarily need our backside musculature! These muscles are our weapon against the everyday gravity forces. Our glutei – the absolute strongest and most powerful muscles in human body produce hip extension with abduction and external rotation preventing in that way our lower body from collapsing.

On the other hand, “lats” with scapular retractors and rotator cuff protect our upper body from simply slouching and collapsing forward.

GLUTEUS ARE “ANATOMICAL ENGINE” FOR EFFICIENT MOVEMENT

If that is not enough for you, think about how we walk, run, jump during our lives. Always with angled tibia! This is not wrong (because moving with vertical tibia will be quite impossible from functional and efficiency point of view) but will give the emphasis on our quads and inhibit our glutei, which are our “anatomical engine”, from efficient movement. In this way, during our everyday activity, we “train” knee flexion movement pattern and avoid hinging at our hips. You must not forget that hip hinge is considered number 1 move for all running, cutting and jumping activities. That is why it is rather meaningless to train quads more intensively with all quads dominant exercises which include high angled tibia. Instead our hips should be trained in order to produce good extension-flexion movement pattern on a stable knee with as much possible vertical tibia position.

90% OF ALL SPORTS ARE FORWARD DOMINATED

The way we use our arms in everyday life is also forward oriented. This creates natural tendency to lean forward which inhibits the middle back musculature and with time causes neck, shoulder or back problems. We bend our upper back whilst sitting, driving a car, running, 90% of all sports are forward dominated – football, soccer, basketball, ice hockey, baseball, all racket sports, you name it…. According to my opinion it is again senseless to train someone, for example, on a bike for 30 min and put him/her in more bended upper back position during cardiovascular training or even doing dominantly more pressing exercises with regard to the pulling during strength training.

FRONT MUSCLES SHOULD LOOK GOOD, MUSCLES ON THE BACK SHOULD PERFORM GOOD

 Finally when we take a look at a posture of modern active or non-active individuals, professional or recreational athletes, we can find out that in most cases muscles on the backside appear to be weak or underdeveloped! Anterior pelvic tilt is a clear sign of inhibited gluteus-hamstrings and short hip flexors-quadriceps, rounded shoulders is a clear sign of “upper cross syndrome” named after Dr. Vladimir Janda where lower traps and rhomboids are inhibited with short upper trapezius and pectoral minor.

Brett Jones, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and Master Instructor in the RKC program excellently explains this: “Front muscles look good, muscles on the back should perform good.”

Because all of this matter, next time think twice before you sit down to write someone an exercise programme. Be aware of the individual posture, daily activity when you decide how many exercises you are going to insert for anterior and how many for posterior part.

Quality of movement before quantity

            In a number of various situations I had the chance to see how athletes or fitness enthusiasts do technically wrong exercises. That is not happening because of the lack of knowing the correct technique but because their own body limits them creating compensation effects. This movement compensations decrease training results and increase the risk of injury.

Let us take for example someone who makes a back squat and when going down in squat position has impressive weight shift on one side so that weight distribution can reach the extreme 60/40 on the left or on the right side. And it continues doing so 20 or more repetitions in one session with often respectable weight on his back…Do you think that person will lift more weight in this way or if the weight has been equally distributed on both legs?

Let us next time pay the attention on the knees position while someone is doing squat jump, long jump or jump on the box and when passing from eccentric to concentric phase during taking-off. In at least 50% of cases you will most probably notice the knee valgus (caving in) of one or even both knees. Do you think that is the natural knee movement and position? We can only imagine how this same knee acts during faster movements where there is no conscious control such as, for example, in case of sudden reactive stopping and changing direction at high speed.

If you like to run in the park, on the street, on the beach you can often notice that one runner’s foot (and sometimes both) has significant pronation which significantly affects running technique with unavoidable negative stress distribution on upper joints in kinetic chain.

I deliberately took these three examples to show you how, in various ways of training, is possible to notice the compensation effects resulting from the body’s incorrect movement patterns.  Therefore, regardless whether we are talking about low movement speed with large external weight – squat, high movement speed with only your own weight – jumps or medium speed movements without external weight – low intensity continuous running, the possibility of incorrect movement patterns exists.

What is the incorrect movement pattern? IMP can not be learned accidentally incorrectly and you cannot accidentally become infected by it as you can by a virus or bacteria. Most people (except from the unfortunates who were born with certain neurological and locomotion defects) learned the correct movement pattern (CMP) in the first 12 – 15 months of their lives. Exactly, we were born with more than enough mobility in our joints to be able to immediately start with stability “training” in order to raise our head, turn first time from our back to our stomach, crawl, walk on all fours, get up from the squat and, finally, make a first step. Then we originally learned how to move properly and here we passed through the whole motor development phase where we uploaded all necessary information in our system with regard to the movement quality.

I always enjoy seeing a one year old child raising something from the floor demonstrating a perfect squat as if he wants to show everyone the CMP.

Our lifestyle which is mostly sedentary with almost none physical activity conditions, with time passing, losing the correct movement data from our “software”.  If we do sports (as recreationist or as professionals) and we are only into specific way of training without occasional “resets” and control of fundamental movement patterns, our original movement “software” remains unused and we actually do move, but with significantly decreased efficiency.

 

            The incorrect movement patterns create 2 key problems:

1. The incorrect movement pattern “produces” decreased training effects

What does that mean? If we constantly train with a certain dysfunction with regard to the quality of movement, and if we do not activate our muscles and joints in kinetic chain in correct sequence and correct proportions, we create the loss of energy. Imagine the garden hose which leaks in one place (it is our IMP). The stronger water pressure released in the hose (larger weight used and/or training intensity) with the goal of reaching as far distance as possible (achieving the best result possible), the larger quantity of water is also lost on the leakage point. In that way the quantity of water decreases as well as the water pressure that exits from the hose. In training language, the incorrect movement pattern will bring worse results with significantly larger loss of energy and time.

 

2. The incorrect movement pattern provokes long-term injuries somewhere in the kinetic chain

Let us remind you again about that runner with one foot pronation. The foot pronation causes internal tibia rotation which consequently causes the internal rotation of the femur leading to the anterior pelvic tilt and altogether violating the proportion between stability and mobility in joint structures. If we start from the foot which arch should stabilize our complete weight, it is not able to do it because of its position (foot arch collapses during pronation which causes the loss of natural arch and suddenly we have flatfoot which has not got the proper stabilisation function).

Proper joint mobility is lost (ankle joint have natural tendency to move in sagittal plane, in this foot position, the ankle should take over the new mobility in frontal axis for which it’s not anatomically configurated). The knee is also not acting as optimal stabilizer as the interior tibia and femur rotation bring knee in a quite disadvantageous position with large pressure on medial joint structure. The anterior pelvic tilt has the tendency of inhibiting postural musculature (primarily gluteus) by which the quality hip extension is lost and hamstrings often have to take over that task becoming chronically tight and are not optimally participating in knee stabilization anymore. Due to the change in pelvic position, the abdominal musculature weakens which violates the core stability.

All this “domino effect” that starts in our foot can continue all up to reach the scapulohumeral region and even our neck. And then we have suddenly a lot of structurally connected joints and muscles which surround it and do not function as they should. Then on this incorrect movement structure, that is, movement dysfunction, we every day put tasks such as for example, tennis, football, basketball, working-out in the gym, running several kilometers per day etc.

Don’t put fitness on dysfunction or first move well then move often – are two very important statements by the famous American physiotherapist and strength & conditioning coach, founder of FMS, Gray Coock. The point is not to add additional volume and/or intensity in your training program until you have made the IMP correction! The risk is simply too big. Additional horse power should not be added to a car with a half empty tire just to reach higher speed should it?

According to my opinion nowadays every serious physiotherapist, athletic coach, personal trainer should know what incorrect movement patterns are, how to recognize them, test them and different ways of correcting them.

Introduction Post

This blog has been created in order to share in one place my knowledge and my reflections with regard to the professional and recreational training as well as everything that surrounds and completes it.

Here I will be writing from a perspective of a trainer with 20-year long working experience during which I made many mistakes but I also learned from them. This could be helpful to some of you who can also learn from my mistakes and avoid repeating them.

I will also be writing from the perspective of someone who would like to continue with its education and about everything new I manage to find, possibly implementing that in a training and helping in that way an athlete or recreationist to reach his goal.

Finally, I imagined this blog as a place which some of you could find helpful with regard to your doubts about how to train or simply as a place where someone could get a new idea…