By Coach Joe Zambito
Human movement is a complex combination of muscle action and subsequent joint movement. All joints in the body need a varying level of mobility and stability that is dependent on their structure and position in the kinetic chain. Mobility is the ability to move unrestricted and with control through a range of motion. Stability is the ability to resist unwanted change in motion in all planes of movement, and to demonstrate control during specific movement skills. Through different activities, such as playing our sport and lifestyle choices, our joints can become stiff and immobile. When this happens, the body will compensate by stealing mobility from joints that require more stability. This can predispose us to a higher risk of injury, and lead to a poor level of performance. The Joint By Joint Theory by Mike Boyle and Greg Cook provides us a road map as to which joints need either more stability or mobility.
Here's a great representation of the joint by joint Theory taken from the CPPS certification model. It does a great job illustrating how each joint can effect what's above and below and the distinct roles of each joint.
The joints in our body alternate between the requirements of mobility and stability. Starting with the often-forgotten big toe, which needs mobility, and feet that need stability, we then travel up the limbs to the ankles which need mobility, knees which need stability, and hips that need mobility. Our core and spine continue this trend with the lumbar spine needing stability, the thoracic spine needing mobility, and our cervical spine needing stability. Moving along with our upper extremities, we come to a more complicated joint segment in our shoulder blades which need both mobility and stability depending on the movement that the athlete is performing. Our upper limbs then mirror our lower half in reference to the joint segments and physical requirements needed. The glenohumeral joint needs mobility, the elbows need stability, wrists need mobility, hand stability, and fingers mobility. As mentioned before, these natural joint functions can go haywire due to sport activities, lifestyle choices, and improperly structured training programs. This is where mobility training becomes important. Mobility exercises such as static and dynamic stretching, band distractions, or self-myofascial release work can help restore the proper functions of these joint segments.
How exactly does stiffness at one of the joint segments that needs mobility cause dysfunction at different parts of our body? Shirley Sahrmann came up with an answer with a theory called the compensatory relative flexibility theory. This theory states that “stiffness in one muscle group or joint will cause compensatory movement at adjoining muscle groups that are controlled by muscles and soft tissues that exhibit less stiffness”. This theory fits right in with the Joint by Joint Theory. If a joint segment that needs to be mobile becomes stiff, the body will steal mobility from the joint segments above and below the stiffened segment. This increased laxity will eventually erode the integrity of joint structures that are not designed for this mobility. For example, when the hips become stiff from sitting too much, or the ankles become stiff from wearing shoes or cleats or taping our ankles for sport, the ligaments and structures in the knees need to become more mobile in order to allow the lower half to move. This excessive motion eventually degrades the integrity of the knee which can lead to pain or injury.
There are two common patterns of dysfunction that we see in our clients today. Dr. Vladimir Jada called these patterns Upper and Lower Cross Syndrome. In both, there are areas of the body which are downregulated or weak which need to be strengthened, and areas that are tight that need to be stretched or loosened. Both types of dysfunction need to be addressed to optimize joint function. These are practical examples of how dysfunction across certain joints leads to pain or compensation in other areas of the body.
These compensations patterns show how weakness in certain areas can lead to immobility and dysfunction across certain joints. For example, the glenohumeral joints are joints designed to be more mobile, but a weak upper back can lead to a tightening up of the pecs and other anterior parts of these joints which will not allow for proper function. This weakness leads to stiffening joints, which in turn can cause compensation in other joints above or below the dysfunctional area. All of our joints have certain connections that run throughout the entire body, and you must find the true dysfunctional area and address that in order to optimize the performance of your athlete. This is exactly why we perform a thorough full body mobility and stability assessment with everyone who walks through our doors before starting training.
Using the Joint by Joint Theory, compensatory relative flexibility theory, and Janda's Upper and Lower Cross Syndrome, we can start our detective work as to why an athlete may have pain during certain movements, or not be performing at their highest level possible. In order to get the most out of our athletes we must implement proper mobility and stability work to accompany our strength training and continue down the path of athletic development. One aspect to remember is that mobility and stability is going to be specific to the movement that is being demonstrated. For example, an athlete’s knees may only hurt while squatting, and not running or jumping. This could be due to tight ankles and hips which do not allow for proper squatting technique and therefore lead to compensation patterns during this movement. This pain may even appear before any permanent structural damage occurs in the athlete. If your athlete is in pain then they will never be able to perform at their highest possible level. Use the above-mentioned models of proper joint function to help reduce pain in your athletes and improve performance.
There are many ways to implement proper mobility training into an athlete's routine. The most common way is to start the warm up with SMR work and mobility training. This work tends to be lower intensity, and works great to raise the body temperature of the athlete in order to prepare them for training. However, to truly cement this new and correct joint function often takes many repetitions and time spent in these positions. Just because the warm up is done does not mean mobility exercises and activation exercises cannot be integrated for the rest of the workout. Filler exercises are mobility exercises, static or dynamic stretches, or SMR work that can be added in between your main working sets or warm up sets as an active rest. This will allow you to get more volume of these mobility exercises within a session. Oftentimes these fillers will help you get more out of the main exercises you are doing for that day if you pick ones that help facilitate better technique and allow the athletes to get into better position. Mobility and stability sessions can also be performed on their own as a standalone session as recovery between days of heavy lifting, or directly after a lift to facilitate proper movement for the rest of the day. Static stretching and breath work can be used as a cool down at the end of a workout in order to kick start the recovery process. With all mobility training for athletes, it is important to remember that the warm up opens up a window of trainability. This means that after a warm up we may have an acute increase in our mobility, but in order to cement this mobility in a more permanent form it must be followed up by proper strength training. Proper resistance training through a full range of motion will help make proper joint integrity more permanent. Strength training can also open up mobility as seen with Upper and Lower Cross Syndrome through strengthening weak areas of the body. A well-designed program will integrate all forms of mobility training and strength training in order to ensure proper integrity of the athlete’s joints.