We've all been there. Someone walks into your gym, you put them through a basic assessment looking for biomechanical feedback that can potentially tell you something about the athlete's limiting factors. For many coaches, it's the air squat (although, we have a much better tool). You stand back and evaluate range of motion issues, general movement pattern flaws, and analyze stability status from virtually every angle. As with any assessment tool, we are looking to maximize athletic awesomeness by identifying the body's limitations, and then correcting those limitations with an array of training tools. That's what being a strength and conditioning coach is all about.
But what are the "order of operations" for exposing and diagnosing the bod's incapabilities? Is there a hierarchy of movement standards to best address the most pertinent weakness first? Until a recent article written by The Physio Detective, Antony Lo, I hadn't heard anyone challenge the almost unanimously accepted theory that mobility takes precedence over stability. As Lo describes in his piece, it's just not that simple. Never one to shy away from stirring up a bit of conversation to refute training norms, Antony goes on argue "Why attempt to improve mobility if one cannot control and stabilize within the range of motion they currently have? Mobility should never exist without stability."
Part of the controversy lies in semantics. Like so many other aspects of our field, we need to qualify our theories by first defining what the shit it is we're talking about. Antony gives us his understanding and working definitions for the following terms:
The ability to move or be moved freely and easily.
In Sport: The ability to move through the necessary range of motion for the required movements to achieve optimal efficiency and/or the required movement standards – how well can you move with what you have.
The ability to maintain the desired trajectory despite kinetic, kinematic or control disturbances.
In Sport: The ability to complete the required movements without excessive shearing or unwanted motion in all joints – how well you can control your movement and posture.
The quality of bending easily without breaking.
In Sport: The amount of range of motion you have across one or more joints – how far can you move (range of motion).
The disconnection or separation of something from something else or the state of being disconnected.
A recent conversation with Antony helped to shed light on some of the questions and quandaries that most of us struggle with when identifying these barriers. He recommends that athletes start with mobility and not just any type of mobility work. "Sitting at the bottom of a squat for a length of time whether it be 2 minutes or ten will not improve mobility alone". As he describes, mobility requires movement because of the need to allow synovial fluid- our body's natural joint lubrication- to sufficiently spread throughout a joint. This protocol will more accurately reflect a bod's true mobility. So, if you decide to do an isometric hold at the bottom range of your squat it's necessary for you to then walk around before resuming your end range of motion.
Lo also see's this drill as an opportunity to view someone's ability to stabilize. As stated before, what is the purpose of spending countless hours doing pre-hab and mobility work for something like the squat, if you are incapable of supporting your system in your existing ROM. Once that becomes stable, we can utilize flexibility training (stretches) as a tool to improve ROM. The emphasis on stability really stems from the idea that with a stable structure, we are actually requiring less muscular activity and therefore a more efficient movement pattern. When I asked Lo to elaborate, he gave me the following example:
"Let's compare a back squat on a lifting platform vs a back squat on two BOSUs. The load on the bar is the same. How many reps can you get out and in what time? Experience and common sense will tell you that because you aren't having to deal with a stability issue on the lifting platform, you can output more work in the same time compared to an unstable surface. A lot of the problems people have with flexibility and mobility are that they lack the stability in certain regions and in a coordinated way as a whole. Providing the body stability allows you to become more efficient at maintaining stability and less reliance on protective muscle's spasms by the big torque producing muscles. Because your torque producing muscles are less active in stability, they can be more active in developing torque to move the heavy load."
I asked The Physio Detective to speak about some of the most common mobility and stability issues among athletes and to no one's surprise, he had this to say: "The most underrated control/stability region has to be the thorax - the thoracic spine and ribs. Just this area alone can affect every single athletic movement." Similarly, he discussed some of the lesser diagnosed issues which often times go overlooked by coaches. "Hip flexors, such as the TFL (tensor fasciae latae) are frequently undiagnosed or misdiagnosed." In his own words, Lo describes what is really occurring when seemingly, the problem appears to be the vague and often used statement: tight hips.
The problem is that a lack of internal rotation leads to an anterior translation of the head of femur (ball of the hip) in the acetabulum (the socket). Because of that anterior translation, the hip flexors and TFL will often fire up in protective muscle contraction to prevent the hip from "dislocating" anteriorly (out the front) meaning the hip flexor and TFL are trying to keep the ball in the socket! People beat up on their hip flexors and TFL in an attempt to free them up but the brain has decided it is more important to stabilize the hip than to let go of the tension. Therefore, they will find little relief from their 30 minutes of rolling out. For those that genuinely NEED more flexibility in the hip flexors, they will see improvement over time but most people are too tight in their hip flexors and TFL BECAUSE their posterior hip is too tight. So, the over-diagnosed conditions are tight hip flexors and TFL and the UNDER-diagnosed conditions are lack of Internal rotation and tight posterior hip muscles.
Hopefully I don't need to tell you how imperative this particular articulation is for sport not only regarding joint stability, lateral movement, but also eliminating force bleed.
Another problem coaches run into is seeing beyond the start and finish phases of a lift/movement/exercise. He asserts that most coaches were not taught to evaluate movement between point A and point B and that's really "where the gold is". If a coach can not correctly assess the entire execution or the "meat" of the movement, they may be missing out on some serious stability, mobility, or flexibility problems. In any gym at any given time, there's someone capable of starting and finishing a lift decent but doing so "with some dodgy trouble or traffic in between" as Ant puts it. More specifically, you might even find someone is hyper-mobile in a particular movement pattern and because we "tend to search for a bit of tension to learn where our body is in space, these athletes are more prone to adopt some pretty extreme postures". This obviously leads to poor position and an unsustainable mechanism for developing stability.
Take it from The Physio Detective, each component is key to maximizing performance but there is an intelligent way to organize your pre-hab training. Focus on being stable in your existing ROM before prematurely attempting to increase it which could inhibit strength and in serious cases, cause injury. Having the luxury of time and the knowhow to tackle your limitations or those of your athletes will translate to big gains on and off the field.