Recently a friend brought an article to my attention regarding mobility exercises. The article addressed how often times people utilize mobility exercises to correct or improve movement patterns that are more likely the result of motor control issues, rather than limited mobility. So, how do you know if your movement issue is a mobility problem vs. a motor control problem? One of the easiest ways is to remove one important factor… gravity!
For example, if you are having trouble performing a squat in the usual upright standing position, lye on your back and try to bring your knees to your chest. If you are capable of bending your knees and hips enough to get your knees to your chest, then you have the proper mobility to perform a squat, however you may not possess the proper motor control to execute the squat. Mobility is the body’s physical capability to move through a full range of motion, whereas motor control is the body’s capability to take sensory input from the environment and execute the proper muscle coordination in response.
The best way to improve motor control is with PNF. Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) is the body’s understanding of its position in space. Dynamic exercises work best to improve PNF because of increased sensory input from the environment. The more input the body receives, the more information it has to work with and respond to thus improving balance, coordination, and motor control!
Another somewhat confusing issue in the fitness and rehab fields is stability training vs. strength training. While it may seem like improving one would inherently improve the other, this is not the case. The larger muscle groups in our bodies such as the pecs, quads, and hamstrings are the ones we utilize all day every day to sit, stand, walk, lift, push, and pull, but it is the smaller stabilizing muscles in our neck, back, and extremities that we don’t think about that allow us to react to our environment, remain in proper alignment, and prevent injuries.
Many people think they are performing stabilization exercises, when in reality they are just strength training the large, primary muscle groups. The smaller, stabilizing muscles in our bodies are reflexive, and rely on motor control rather than strength to function properly. Therefore, the best way to improve stabilization is to improve motor control, and as we just discussed, the best way to do that is with PNF. It is also important to remember that whether you are training for strength or stabilization, especially when trying to correct a movement issue. First you have to deactivate the compensatory muscle(s) before you can properly activate the appropriate muscle(s).
In a nutshell, you have to have mobility before you can do anything else. Without the ability to move, it won’t matter how good your motor control or strength is! Once you can move, you then need motor control to be able to properly respond to the environment around you. Once you can move and respond, then you can work on stabilization to be able to respond more efficiently. Lastly and only once the first three factors are well established, should you add load to your body to improve strength. At a recent seminar Gray Cook said, “Stability is the body’s ability to maintain alignment with integrity under load.” The most important word in that sentence is integrity. If you cannot maintain integrity under a weighted load, then you have no business strength training!!
Step 1 – Mobility
Step 2- Motor Control
Step 3 – Stability
Step 4 – Strength
If you fail at step 4, go back to step 3… If you fail at step 3, go back to step 2. If you try to push your body when it’s not ready, you will fail and most likely injure yourself in the process….and then you have to start at step 1!!