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Targeting Your Mobility Training

By David Drinks

Last week, I filmed a Technique Tuesday video on how to avoid some common mistakes that we see with various mobility exercises.

Mobility training is one of the most important parts of a regular exercise routine, but I’ve found that one of the first steps to performing mobility drills effectively is to know what you’re trying to mobilize.

Often, the effectiveness of a mobility exercise gets lost when you don’t know what the goal is in the first place. So, today I wanted to expand a bit on what to focus on when you approach mobility training. It all starts with knowing what parts of the body you should be trying to mobilize and which parts you should not.

In the video (you can check it out below if you haven’t seen it yet!), I reference something known as the “joint-by-joint” approach to training.

The joint-by-joint approach is something that was first discussed and then popularized by two authorities within the world of modern strength & conditioning, fitness, and physical rehabilitation - Mike Boyle and Gray Cook.

To give you some background on the joint-by-joint approach, it really is more about the thought process behind training than it is about physiological facts and absolutes. However, it gives us an excellent framework to understand how the human body works from an orthopedic standpoint.

This understanding can then help to direct our approach to training the human body for better movement.

So, the joint-by-joint approach to training goes like this – our modern bodies have developed certain tendencies. Both sedentary and active people in today’s society tend to migrate toward similar mobility and stability problems in the joints of the body.

Now, of course, these common tendencies are not absolute. Not every single person lines up perfectly with the common adaptive tendencies that we see in the majority of the population. However, the more I work with clients from a multitude of backgrounds and ages, the more I see these common patterns popping up.

What are these common tendencies? Well, they have to do with the balance between mobility and stability throughout the various joints of the body. You see, some of our joints require more mobility function optimally and allow us to move well, while other joints require more stability to function optimally and allow us to move well.

The problems arise, however, when the joints that require mobility tend toward stiffness, and the joints that require stability tend toward sloppiness (i.e., instability).

Interestingly, as you take a joint-by-joint assessment of the body (thus the name of the approach) to determine what each joint requires, you realize that our joints tend to work in an alternating pattern of requiring stability and mobility.

Here’s how it breaks down:

  • The foot – requires stability as the foundation for the rest of the body.

  • The ankle – requires mobility to allow for proper gait patterns, squatting, lunging, etc.

  • The knee – requires more stability and is primarily meant to move in one plane of motion.

  • The hip – requires mobility in all planes of motion for optimal human movement.

  • The lumbar and sacral region – requires stability as it sits at the crossroads of mechanical stress and is often injured when it exhibits poor stability and motor control.

  • The thoracic region – requires mobility to allow proper upper body movement. Problems tend to arise, and injuries often occur when the thoracic spine region becomes overly stiff.

  • The middle and lower cervical region – require more stability to support the weight of the head.

  • The upper cervical region – requires more mobility to allow for full head rotation.

  • The scapular region of the shoulder – requires a certain amount of stability to set a proper foundation for shoulder movement.

  • The shoulder joint – requires mobility to be able to move in all planes of motion and reach overhead.

Unfortunately, as I briefly mentioned above, problems can arise when the joints that require more mobility tend toward being stiffer. Likewise, when the joints that require stability tend to lack motor control and become “sloppy.”

These are exactly the common tendencies that we see in our modern society, however.

Here’s a breakdown:

  • The foot – should create a stable foundation for the rest of the body, but it often becomes unstable with excessive pronation and collapsing of the arch.

  • The ankle – should be mobile, but often becomes excessively stiff, especially in dorsiflexion (the ability to move the knee forward over the toe). This negatively affects all kinds of movement patterns.

  • The knee – should have stability with the primary movement being to flex and extend. However, poor motor control tends to arise at the knee, resulting in rotational and shear forces on the joint that lead to injury and degeneration. Side note: the injury/degeneration ultimately results in excessive stiffness at the joint, but what leads to the injury/degeneration in the first place is a lack of stability (i.e., good stiffness).

  • The hip – should move in all planes of motion, but it tends to become stiff and lack the ability to flex, extend, and rotate well.

  • The lumbar spine – should have lots of stability to support loading on the body, but it tends to become excessively mobile. Again, this poor motor control often leads to injury, which then results in excessive stiffness. However, the injury occurs from a lack of good stiffness around the lumbar spine.

  • The thoracic spine region – should have much more freedom of movement in flexion, extension, and rotation. However, due to multiple factors (e.g., sitting, reading, computer work, texting, etc.), the thoracic spine tends toward excessive stiffness.

  • The lower and middle cervical regions – should provide stability for the upper cervical to rotate the head on top of. However, the common forward head posture and excessive stiffness at the thoracic region and upper cervical region lead to an overuse of the lower/mid-cervical region, creating sloppiness.

  • The scapular region (e.g., the shoulder blades) – should provide a stable base of support for the shoulders to move on. However, a lack of strength and motor control in the many muscles that support the shoulder blades often leads to a lack of control of the shoulder blade during movement and loading.

  • The shoulder joint – should have tons of mobility, but often becomes stiff due to poor motor control of the scapular region and many other possible factors. This leads to a lack of ability to elevate the arms overhead or rotate the shoulders sufficiently for activities like throwing, swimming, tennis, etc.

Phew! That was a lot of detail!

The bottom line is this – once you understand the needs of each joint/region of the body, you can develop a framework for targeted mobility training. This mobility training should promote positive movement at the joints/regions of the body that need it, while not allowing those parts of the body that tend toward sloppiness to take over.

Practically speaking, most people need more ankle, hip, thoracic spine, and shoulder mobility. Most people need better motor and stability at the foot, knee, sacral/lumbar region, and scapular region.

The problem that I’ve seen too often when people approach flexibility and mobility training is that they don’t focus on the right areas of the body. They either think that everything needs to be more flexible throughout their body, or they don’t understand how to properly set up for or perform certain mobility drills.

Either way, the result is that the right parts of the body are not mobilized, and the wrong parts of the body are. This further ingrains instability at commonly injured areas (knees, low back, etc.), which leads us further away from quality movement and health.

So, that’s why I filmed this video to teach you how to avoid some common mobility mistakes:

Be sure that you are focused on mobilizing the right joints with your flexibility and mobility training. Your body will thank you!


Want to learn more about training your body to Move Better, Feel Better, and Live Better? Our exercise programs at the Med Gym are custom-made to get you exactly what you need.

Whether you come into the gym or work with us via Med Gym Online, we can help you get on the right track with your movement and fitness.

Contact us here to talk about how we can help you develop an exercise routine to maximize your mobility and get you started on your journey!

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