More Thoughts on Mobility and Stability

Mobility and stability are two words which are frequently used in the terminology of physical therapy, athletic training, and movement optimization (to name just a few fields obsessed with the terms). And perhaps this is rightfully so. 

I believe that mobility and stability are very important concepts when we consider the evaluation or execution of movement in homo sapiens, or any other beast. But this is where opinions differ and even arguments ensue. Some experts will contend that we must focus on mobility and maximize the available range of motion at every joint. Others will contest that we must emphasize stability to manage load and maintain integrity in the biomechanical system. Actually, both positions are correct…in part. Both mobility and stability matter, but they exist in harmony, not isolation.

Mobility and stability are just words. They actually describe motion around its two constraints. Mobility addresses the degrees of freedom or variability that any segment or region of the body possesses. And stability speaks to structural rigidity. In reality, these are part of the same entity — and that is motion control. The ability to control, or own, motion…and produce the desired outcome in the organism is key. We must have adequate or ideal mobility (freedom) to create functional movement. But at the very same time we absolutely need the stability (constraints) to prevent undesirable movement.

Mobility and stability exist on a continuum. Ideally, we should generally hover near the mean or middle, and be capable of dancing to one side or the other as indicated. Where the human gets into trouble is when an individual exists too far to one or the other end of the continuum, for too long. Too much mobility is known as instability, and it represents a sloppy, floppy state that tends to cause shearing forces and wear out joints prematurely. Too much stability is essentially stiffness, and movement that comes up against end ranges with no degrees of freedom often results in catastrophic consequences with respect to connective tissue tearing or rupturing. It’s never all mobility or all stability. They have to coexist.

Please allow me to explain the aforementioned point. We require smooth, free-flowing mobility to move without resistance or restriction. This is all about making the movement our central nervous system programs. And we simultaneously need the appropriate amount of stability to prevent our own intrinsically generated forces, or those from external sources, from causing deviations in the motor program or placing the body in awkward, overstressing positions.

Fortunately, this magic, harmonic balance between mobility and stability typically happens without our conscious input. At least in a perfect world. Mobility and stability are much less about “on/off” and are in reality metered, complementary facets of motion. The well-moving body actually blends the ideal amounts of mobility and stability with nearly flawless integration. Depending upon the intended motion, body shape, position, speed, and in response to both intrinsic factors (unique to the individual beast) and extrinsic variables (surfaces, opponents, etc.)…mobility and stability meld to produce fluid, effective motion.

This natural, athletic motion is economical with respect to energy utilization and efficient in terms of power development. It is effective. And effective motion that optimizes mobility and stability is the expression of agility. This is that all-important movement skill that defines the athletic beast. You know it when you see it. Agility needs no further explanation. It makes the onlooker say “Ahhhh” instead of “BleaaeuuwwGGaawwwdd!” 

Training for agility, or in other words, highest-quality movement patterns is critical for athletic performance and injury prevention. It starts with good analysis. What does the athlete require in a given motion, sport, or exercise? Where is he/she lacking? Do they need a little more mobility or movement variability to execute? Or are they wandering a bit and lacking stability and integrity, getting pushed around by forces instead of controlling them. We must initially address these issues. Then, we have to progress to refining the movement pattern, making the CNS capable of ingraining that sequence and flawlessly producing it…ultimately in automatic or subconscious form. That’s proper movement or motion control and it starts with mobility and stability — but it progresses to agility.

How one achieves maximal movement patterning is through both coaching and practice. Good coaching will help to identify the areas needing attention, and then cue the corrections effectively and without being overly complicated or confusing. And practice allows the body to undergo motor learning, and incorporate the ideal motor program (software) in the hard drive of the CNS. This then powers the neuromuscular system (hardware) to make beautiful movement.  

In closing, I want to emphasize this point when you are considering your training: Mobility and stability are both important, but they are only the beginning as we progress toward agile, athletic movement. That’s what peak performance is all about. Thank you for reading!

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