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Understanding Mobility and Stability

Cassandra La Madrid is a Kabuki Strength coach who spends her time training and competing as a strongwoman and loving her bulldog Lilo. Cassandra has a BS in Kinesiology from Western Washington University and works in an outpatient Physical Therapy clinic. You can read more on her bio page.

Oftentimes we hear clients and fellow athletes reporting that their warm up routine consists of 30 minutes or more of “stretching” or “rolling” or “smashing” their muscles, only to find themselves back to being “tight” the next training day or feeling little to no benefit in their performance. It’s not uncommon for people to go straight to general mobility drills when the time comes to “warm up” for training. It’s very common for people to give little thought to stability or activation drills prior to their main movement or sport.

Before you continue reading, let me say this early on in this piece: we are not saying to ditch all your mobility drills; some people are “tight” and they need to address it. This article was written to shine a light on the consideration of stabilization exercises in your training, particularly during your warm up. It was written to further expand on the concept that injury prevention and warming up to train isn’t just about decreasing tension and improving mobility… and that muscular tension to generate joint stability can actually serve as a benefit to your training.

Historically, people have latched on to the idea that improving flexibility by stretching in your warm up reduces injury. But we have also learned that increased flexibility is not always desirable depending on the sport, and can actually hinder performance. Tension exists for a reason and our body is a highly adaptive system that will attempt to do what it needs to do to move through a range of motion (whether you think it’s efficient or not). If your body is creating muscular tension, it’s likely attempting to provide stability in order to perform a certain movement, protect against injury, or guard against pain. Therefore, it is important to know why you are trying to mobilize an area to decrease tension prior to your training. It’s valuable to know why because tension also exists to our benefit and does not always indicate pain or dysfunction—it is actually needed for efficient movement and performance. It is through co-contractions of muscles and creation of tension that provides our joints with stability. Therefore, if you’re considering the need for mobility surrounding a joint to improve performance, it would be smart to equally consider the need for stability around that joint to improve performance. After identifying the area needing refinement or correction, utilization of stabilization exercises to activate muscles needed in your sport can assist in improving motor control of our automatic movements and performance.

At Kabuki Strength Lab, we like to challenge athletes to question “why” they are including a movement in their training; this includes the exercises they choose in their warm up. Why do you think you need to constantly smash your erectors? Why are you constantly stretching your hamstrings? Why are you foam rolling your quads? What and why are you stretching, smashing, and rolling? How is your mobility warm up going to prep you for your training?

Let’s take a moment to define what we’re talking about.

Joint Mobility: The ability of a joint to be moved through its range in different planes.

Joint Stability: The ability of the kinetic chain (i.e., nervous, skeletal, and muscular systems) to stabilize a joint during movement.

Flexibility: Range of motion about a joint dependent on the condition of surrounding structures.

Let’s say you sit all day at work, your hips always feel tight prior to your squat or sumo deadlift. You roll your hip muscles out for ten minutes, you sit in static adductor stretches for another five, you do some banded hip mobilization for another five, then you go back to more adductor stretches, then you consider starting your work out… You’ve now been at the gym for over twenty minutes and you haven’t even started your training (or addressed other areas you think you need to “warm up”)! Again, this isn’t saying to ditch those drills forever because you may, in fact, need to address your hip mobility throughout your training cycles. But what about adding in some drills that require a stabilization factor? And instead of focusing just on improving mobility, consider priming your body to move and handle load?

In the words of Chris Duffin, “Remember why you stepped into the gym in the first place.” When you walk into your next training session, be purposeful. If you’re deadlifting, warm up to prepare your body to deadlift. If you need to mobilize your hips, mobilize your hips. Follow it with a drill that intentionally targets stabilizing your trunk and pelvis (such as a shin box get up, hip airplane, or ShouldeRök hip hinge drill, etc.). Pick one or two, then pick up a bar and intentionally think about those stabilizing cues you just practiced.

Screenshots from kabuki.ms videos showing the Tactical Frog, Shin Box Getups, and Hip Airplanes. Full videos are available on kabuki.ms to subscribers.

Under Kabuki Movement Systems, we’ve created a library full of videos on movement drills and “corrective” exercises. But truth be told, we want our athletes to eventually require the least amount of mobility and stability prep drills prior to starting their training session. While technique refinement is an everlasting endeavor, the goal of a purposeful warm up is to prep movement, become more efficient in performance, therefore yield less need for correctives.

So what’s the best warm up? Mobility or stability… what do you really need and what’s more important? Answer: It depends. Assess and address both. There is no cookie cutter warm up.

It is valuable to learn how much joint mobility and flexibility is required for your sport specific movement and once that range of motion is achieved, train your body to know how to use it in your sport specific movement. It’s one thing to gain mobility and the perception of improved flexibility from stretching (because we know stretching is not actually changing the actual tissue structure), and it’s another thing to be able to control that joint movement with loaded activities. Another example? Smashing and stretching your hip flexors until you have gained a perceived amount of flexibility is great in some instances… but if you also have the tendency to lose position and core tension in the bottom of your squat, your hip flexors might be tightening up on you due to compensation from lack of stability in the movement and weakness in the structures needed for efficient movement.

So, if you succeed in your goal in improving range of motion from stretching, smashing, massaging, etc., great! Consider the possibility that you are also creating new range of motion that your body isn’t used to controlling or not yet trained to handle load. Gaining range of motion just for the sake of mobilizing, will probably result in your muscles tightening back up again… not to mention potential risk of injury due to loading a movement without proper neuromuscular control. Ask yourself why you are constantly needing to mobilize a certain structure, what range of motion you need for your sport, and be sure that the range of motion you are achieving is not being achieved at the sacrifice of stability.

Everyone is different; everyone has their own individual demands. For example, the physical demands and intensity of mobility exercises for a ballerina will greatly vary from those of a strongman competitor. Running a marathon requires physical demands different from those needed in competing in a powerlifting meet. Conclusion: Know the demands of the sport and efficiently utilize the coupling of mobility followed by stability exercises. If something feels stiff prior to your training? Stretch, smash, roll, get body work done on your off days, etc., and learn why. Something is weak causing bad form or compensation? Stabilize and activate the muscles needed to improve the movement. Ultimate goal? Improve the carryover of decreasing undesirable tension and increasing active stabilizing muscles in your sport specific movement.

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