Stability and Mobility in Action Sports

Stability and mobility can sometimes seem like the yin and yang of the fitness world.  One coach says that a performance issue needs to be addressed by stretching and yoga, while another says that the problem is really instability, so targeted strength work is the only answer.  The reality is more complex and, like everything else in the world of athletic performance, solutions are specific to the sport and to the individual.  The fact of the matter is, you need a good balance of stability and mobility to support good movement, reduce your risk of injury, and keep you performing at your peak throughout the season.  Read our latest blog post to learn more about how we address the mobility/stability trade off in our training philosophy.

There has been a lot of back-and-forth in the strength and conditioning community about the appropriate circumstances for encouraging stability over mobility (or vice versa) in a given joint.  Mobility, or “the ability to produce a desired movement”, and Stability, or “the ability to resist an undesired moved, are often at odds from a training perspective.  Generally, an increase in stability in a given joint means a corresponding decrease in mobility.  By the same token, greater mobility usually means less stability.  

This theoretical trade-off is fairly intuitive for anyone with a basic understanding of human movement.  However, as usual, the realities of training and athletic performance are more complex.  Some respected coaches and clinicians contend that certain joints tend to need more stability, while other, typically adjacent, joints need more mobility.  It’s also arguable that some joints should be more mobile in one plane, but more stable in the other two.  The knee is a great example of this, as we want to encourage good mobility through flexion and extension, but promote stability in lateral and rotational movement.

The bottom line is that there are several ways to approach mobility and stability.  At SISU Strong, we believe that the best method is to assess the individual athlete, consider the demands of his/her primary sport, and determine the optimal approach based on those facts. However, we can also make some generalizations based on what we know about the physical demands that are placed on most of our athletes, regardless of sport.   

For example, we know that most of our athletes are exposed to strong, often unexpected rotational forces when they’re performing in their sport.  Whether it’s cornering on a bike, landing a trick on a board, or resisting an opponent’s takedown attempt, one thing we can count on is that the athlete will be called upon to resist some level of torque.  Therefore, we tend to incorporate anti-rotational stability movements into many of our programs.  Exercises like the Palloff Press and its variations help stabilize the trunk against rotational forces, reducing the risk of injury, improving body control, and allowing the athlete to maintain a more efficient position.

The other side of the coin is that action sports are inherently unpredictable.  During an unanticipated event, such as a crash, the forces an athlete is going to need to resist are totally unknown.  In such circumstances, it pays to have a good balance of stability and mobility, as each can mitigate the risk of injury in its own right.  A stable joint is more likely to be able to resist the forces that could lead to injury, while a more mobile joint can potentially absorb more force, also reducing the risk of injury.  

For exactly this reason, we try to cultivate a good balance of baseline stability and mobility in all of our athletes, preparing them for any situation they may encounter.   We do this by teaching good movement patterns.  Every SISU Strong athlete is required to master 4 major movements: the hip hinge, the squat, the upper body push, and the upper body pull.  By learning these movements, the athletes are learning how to move safely and effectively, and how to use the correct muscles to absorb and produce force.  This improves both mobility, by dialing in correct movement patterns, and stability, by developing strength in the muscles that support those movement patterns.  This greater overall efficiency of movement has immense carryover to the bike and board.

To get started with a program that will help you master movement, become more stable and improve your mobility, set up a free consultation.

Bike Position and Lower Back Pain

Take a look at the two images above.  There are many obvious differences – size, attire beard length, overall ginger-ness – but I want to focus on a less obvious, and very important, similarity: body position.  Let’s look again:

 hip_hinge_transfer_lines

If you paid attention to the red lines, hopefully you got the point – despite being in two completely different settings, doing two completely different activities, their back position is almost identical.  Why would that be the case?  What relationship is there between a safe, effective deadlift position and a solid attack position on the bike?

It boils down to this:  the lumbar spine (also known as the lower back) and the connective tissues that support it are not made to handle significant external resistance under flexion. In other words, if your back is rounded, you are over-relying on ligaments, as opposed to muscles, to absorb force that should be transferred down the chain to your glutes and hamstrings.  If you want a herniated disc (or any number of other chronic lower back issues), that’s how you get it.  In a more immediate sense, riding with a rounded lower back is often the primary cause of lower back fatigue, which quickly degrades performance and can cost you precious seconds on your race run.

This is one of the reasons why we emphasize development of a good hip hinge in our athletes.  Mastering the hip hinge engrains a movement pattern that secures the lower back, activates your core, and transfers force efficiently down the posterior chain to the glutes and hamstrings.  Learning this relatively simple movement pattern will help save your lower back in both the short and long term.

However, learning the movement pattern is only the first step.  You also need to spend some time working on overall strength to ensure that you have the core stability to hold a good attack position for as long as necessary during a run.  To learn more about how SISU Strong can help you on that front, schedule a free consultation with us!      

Assessing Assessments

Any coach worth their salt knows that an assessment is a critical part of the training process.  Without an understanding of an athlete’s current condition, it’s very difficult to determine which training protocols are going to be most effective for him/her.  It’s also virtually impossible to measure progress, which is crucial for keeping morale high and, most importantly, knowing if your program is working.  As an athlete, there are various parts of an assessment that you should be paying attention to.  Information is power, and an assessment from a qualified trainer should yield some valuable insight into your strengths and weaknesses, which can help you take control of your training and performance

Did Your Coach Do an Assessment?

This should be a no-brainer, for the reasons outlined above. If your training process doesn’t start with some sort of assessment, that should be a huge red flag.  A strength training program that doesn’t have as its foundation a baseline measurement of your performance and physical condition on day one signifies at least one of three things: ignorance, incompetence or ineffectiveness.      

Asymmetries and Imbalances

Asymmetries and imbalances are one of the most important things we look for when assessing an athlete.  Why? Because they are the strongest indicators of potential future injury.  Unfortunately, your brain is very good at compensating for asymmetry.  If your left leg is stronger than your right, your brain will rely more on your left leg, which both compounds the asymmetry issues and ultimately leads to dysfunctional movement patterns and, finally, injury.  If you have serious symmetry issues, correcting them should be a high priority for you and your coach.  

Mobility Issues/Movement Patterns

The next thing you should be looking for in your assessment is identification of any mobility restrictions at any joint.  Inadequate mobility can also kick of the chain reaction of compensation, dysfunction, and injury.  For instance, if you don’t have great hip mobility, your body might compensate for that during a deadlift with movement in the lumbar spine or SI Joint.  Basically, if you’re telling your body to get into a position that it doesn’t have the mobility to get into the “right” way, it will try to get to it another way, regardless of differences in safety or efficiency.

The other side of this coin is hypermobility.  It is entirely possible, and actually quite common, especially in women, to have too much mobility in a joint.  Hypermobility generally indicates insufficient strength to properly stabilize the joint, which also puts the athlete at risk for injury.  Like Goldilocks, we want our mobility to be “not too hot, not too cold”.

Development Priorities

Once you’ve gone through the physical part of your assessment, it’s time to do a little “triage”. Based on the results, you should ask your coach what your training priorities are going to be.  

Are there any issues that may need a referral to a PT or other medical professional?

What needs to be corrected first?  

What can be fixed relatively quickly?  

What will need a more long-term approach?

Your priorities should also be based on your goals.  If you’re just walking into the gym for the first time in years and your priority is just to be able to ride your bike and play with your kids pain-free, your priorities will be much different than a professional athlete who is interested in improving his/her performance and lowering his/her risk of injury.

All in all, you should be looking for a coach who is at least doing some sort of assessment.  Then, if he/she doesn’t answer these questions, make sure you ask them.  Being aware of your problems and knowing the “why” behind your training will help build trust and confidence with your coach and set you up for long-term training success.  At SISU Strong, assessment starts on day 1 and continues every day that you’re in the gym.  It’s not always formal, but it’s always going on in the background.  As coaches, we’re constantly trying to proactively identify minor issues and get them taken care of before they become more serious. If you want to learn more, set up a free intro consultation with us!