Let’s End the Mobility Versus Stability Debate

When you move well, your body will inherently take care of what needs to be mobile and stable.

You cannot simply train mobility or stability alone. You need to train movement. Mobility and stability (or more appropriately, motor control) are important concepts to understand and work with, but they have been reduced to buzzwords. As a result, people only focus on small aspects of the greater picture: movement.

In the fitness industry, there is one camp of people who live and breathe mobility exercises: rolling, smashing, and stretching. Then there is the stability camp, whose proponents feel everything can be fixed with stability work. These two groups like to fight it out to prove who’s right, in what I can only imagine will end in some sort of epic Braveheart-style battle. Let’s examine each one in turn.

Mobility Is Not the Answer

Mobility alone is not the answer. You can stretch and roll and smash until the cows come home, but that won’t fix the problem. There is a reason you hold tension in your traps, glutes, or quadratus lumborum. It’s probably because these muscles are picking up the slack for a lazy friend. Until you address that root cause, you are just putting a Band-Aid over the problem.

I encourage this type of work with my clients, because it’s an easy and effective way for them to feel better. They can also do it easily on their own. But mobility work has to be done in conjunction with some sort of motor control training. Otherwise you’re simply chasing pain and symptoms.

Stability Is Not the Answer

Stability or motor control alone isn’t the answer, either. Sure, there are times when range of motion can be drastically improved simply by training motor control. But remember, we are looking at the bigger picture here, and that includes both overall movement and specific movements.

Let’s take your shoulder complex as an example. If someone has a winged scapula, some motor control work needs to be done in order to stabilize the scapula throughout motion. But when the person also has a hypomobile or stiff thoracic spine, you won’t see much progress with your motor control work. The scapula should be firmly attached to the thorax, and the thoracic spine should be mobile in flexion, extension, and rotation. If the thoracic spine is lacking mobility, it will actually disengage from the thorax (a.k.a., wing) in order to maintain mobility in the glenohumeral joint and prevent loss of range of motion in the shoulders.

Combining Both Is Powerful

What I’m telling you applies equally to someone in acute pain who isn’t moving well and someone training for performance in sport. For example, today I worked with a client who was struggling to touch his toes due to low back pain and pinching. Upon assessment, I found significant soft tissue tightness and restriction, as well as flawed motor programming. I knew the tightness was acting as a parking brake, because this client lacked the control to protect his spine if he bent over any further. I was also aware that the tightness was a source of pain.

“When you move well, your body will inherently take care of what needs to be mobile and stable.”

Here’s the key: I did hands-on manual and soft tissue work with him, immediately followed by exercises that forced him to stabilize his spine and train proper motor control. By following soft-tissue work with motor control exercises his body learned how to protect itself during his new found range of motion. The result? The client left feeling great after touching his toes with no pain or hesitation.

Widen Your Scope

There will be times when you have to hone in on movement patterns and other specific issues. But even when you do this, you have to widen your scope, beyond mobility and stability. Train proper, conscious movement. When you move well, your body will inherently take care of what needs to be mobile and stable.

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