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Mobility and Stability, part 2

September 29, 2009

Ben Jelinek posted earlier this week about “Mobility vs Stability”, and at least one commenter wanted to know more so I thought I’d throw a few more cents into the pile 🙂

First, I’d like to recast the issue as Mobility and Stability, rather than Mobility versus Stability. One thing I learned from my first K’bell instructor Master RKC Mark Reifkind, who got it from Paul Chek, is that there’s a highly suggested order in training,

1) flexibility/mobility
2) stability
3) strength
4) endurance
5) power

Or as my Z-Health Master Trainer friend Mike T Nelson (PhD candidate in Kinesiology at the U of MN) likes to think of it,

1) mobility first
2) coordination (stability makes it sound like you don’t move)
3) strength (in what position?)
4) power/speed (everyone need to move fast since life is a full contact, fast paced sport)
5) CRF (cardio respiratory fitness).

But first let me take a step back and unpack what we may (or may not) mean when we say “mobility”. When some people say mobility, they just mean joint range of motion, whereas others mean specifically active range of motion (versus passive range of motion as in flexibility). To be specific, you may be flexible enough to stretch and pry into a rock bottom squat, but if you can’t drop from a neutral stance to a rock bottom squat in a coordinated fashion, you may not have great coordinated mobility. In other words, flexibility is about stretching, mobility in this context is about joint range of motion under active control of your nervous system and its motor programs.

If you can’t get enough of different ways to think about it, you can also think of athletic development as having three parts–MSD, NSD, and ESD, or Muscle System Development, Nervous System Development, and Energy System Development.

But back to basics, why is mobility so important? Well, Dr. Gray Cook and the folks at Athletes’ Performance put it well when they say that athleticism is fundamentally about movement. Do you own movement as a diverse skill set (from the movement alphabet of talocalcaneal range of motion and thoracic anterior/posterior glides to complex moves like the overhead empty bar squat, knees tracking but not breaking the plane of your forward-pointed toes as in the Functional Movement Screen)? Nervous system development, muscle activation, and motor patterns. Can you move your body under load? Opposing gravity as you sprint (check out Peter Weyand’s research article “Faster top running speeds are achieved with greater ground forces not more rapid leg movements”), well yes, Muscle System Development. Can you play ten games at Trouble in Vegas? You have the ability to sustain movement over time, aka Energy System Development.

So, if you’re with me, you’ll agree that the skill of movement ought to be the cornerstone of your athletic training–a paradigm shift or retrograde you tell me–but think about it and don’t get too caught up doing bilateral back squats without thinking about getting all your joints moving well first 🙂

I heard about the list Ben posted from Gray Cook and Coach Boyle’s article a “Joint by Joint” approach to training, which has been influential in the S&C sports coaching world of late. Even though the list tries to separate joints by mobility versus stability, folks actually agree that you need basic mobility in all your joints, even your lumbar spine (just listen to the conference call in the StrengthCoach podcast episode mentioned on Mike T Nelson’s blog), they just disagree as to whether or not you need to mobilize the joints in question during/as a loaded exercise (rather than as unloaded mobility work). With the lumbar spine, the current trend in the athletic world is to base our training on one Dr. Stuart McGill’s research on the lumbar spine in athletics, which encourages abdominal bracing rather than hollowing (as you might learn in Pilates or some Yoga), and the development of core stability rather than core mobility in exercise (i.e. you do bird-dogs aka quadriped diagonals and side planks rather than crunches and Supermans, which is what they used to do in the 1990’s. It’s not the 90’s any more, so stop your crunches, there are better things to do!)

It’s getting late, so let me summarize. Movement is the cornerstone to athletic performance and durability. The way you move now can often be a better predictor of injuries, according to Dr. Gray Cook, than many other factors including previous injuries. Mobility drills are not the same as stretches for flexibility, although of course there is a non-zero overlap, but mobility work aims to encourage prioprioception, stimulate mechanoreceptors, and develop movement itself as a skill.

You especially want to mobilize areas which are typically immobile in developed nations peeps, namely the ankle, the hips, and the thoracic spine (mid-back). Ultimate players probably want to add in scapular mobility (I like Z-Health R-phase camshafts, but more on that another day) since I’m guessing that we don’t have much gleno-humeral internal or external rotation deficit (Baseball players throw overhead one way, we throw with both internal and external rotation). Personally, I’ve found thoracic and scapular mobility drills to greatly aid my throwing consistency over time. More on that another day too.. I like Z-health mobility drills, but there’s also plenty of other starting points at

I’m not going to touch on lower-back pain, but please read Dr. Stuart McGill (books and scientific articles) for the latest research. Deadlifts are a really advanced way to try combating back-pain, they may work for you, but McGill would suggest you start out with pyramid sets of bird-dogs (quadriped diagonals) and side planks for 8-10s since actually research shows that if you want to prevent lumbar spine injury, you want to train lower back strength-endurance rather than max-strength (again, citations in McGill such as his book on Lower-back Dysfunction), and bilateral barbell deadlifts are really CNS intensive anyway and may not be the best/most efficient bet for lower back strength-endurance…

Finally, mobility is great, but sometimes symmetry is better. This is actually open to debate in some circles, but I asked RKC Brett Jones to pop up some scientific references on the subject and he posted these citations which I’ll have to look through another day:

One last thing, the previous post recommended unstable surface training for the feet, but I’d like to throw in another perspective. Some people love their Bosu balls, but my sense is that unstable surface training for your feet is on the way out (unless you’re a skier or skateboarder, also see articles on the SAID principle–Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand…), whereas unstable surface training for your upper body is fine. Eric Cressey has a whole book on the topic, but my understanding is that unstable surface training is fine for rehab, just be careful messing with your balance and lower leg strength–recent studies show you can worsen both with unstable surface training for the lower body. I haven’t read Eric’s book, but the talks I’ve heard seem to come to this conclusion: ab wheels and Swiss balls for anterior core training and unstable surface for your upper body? Fine. Think twice before you jump on a Bosu ball and expect to get game-ready. I think folks today might recommend vestibular and single-leg squat (or even single-leg deadlift work if you want) for knee strength and stability.

Umm, long post, but I had a lot to respond to :). Move well and play strong!

16 Comments leave one →
  1. September 29, 2009 3:28 pm

    Nice article and thanks for the link and shout out! MUCH appreciated! Mobility first!

    Rock on
    Mike T Nelson PhD(c)

  2. Vano permalink
    September 29, 2009 4:29 pm

    This is great. We just went from like a post a month to 2-3 posts a day!

    When you say, “and the development of core stability rather than core mobility in exercise (i.e. you do bird-dogs aka quadriped diagonals and side planks rather than crunches and Supermans, which is what they used to do in the 1990’s. It’s not the 90’s any more, so stop your crunches, there are better things to do!)”, you mean we should stop doing crunches(even on the ball?) and switch to planks permanently. I do both, it just doesn’t feel like you’re getting stronger(ie flexing the muscle) with planks, like if I did planks alone I don’t think I’d have a six pack. Obviously this is off feel and has no scientific basis.

    And the citations and scientific jargon are great and all but it’d be more useful to the average ultimate player if you made the information more practical.

    • Leslie Wu permalink
      October 1, 2009 1:34 pm

      @Vano Thanks! I need to write a stop crunching article another day, but for now just check out for the basic idea.

      If you have never had any back/hip pain, are still in college, care as much about your looks as how you do on the field, then perhaps you can stick with your crunching routine.

      BUT =) if you’ve ever had any lower-back / hip dysfunction, are a little older, and care mostly about performance rather than appearance (as they say in the RKC world, Americans point to their core in the front and say looks good, Russians point to their posterior chain and say, performs good :), then you might want to consider cutting out crunches.

      The stopcrunching article has some ideas, but obviously you can try other progressions. Maybe one day I’ll be able to do Bruce Lee-style Dragon Flags and hard core ab wheel outs (Ulty disc on grass-outs?) but I think there’s plenty to engage your anterior and posterior core without crunching. Holding a plank position with a one-arm pushup position (not actually pushing, just holding), side planks, etc.

      Yeah, in the future will try to be more practical, just wanted to start things out on solid ground! I suppose there really aren’t that many Ultimate S&C coaches out there yet, but I’m hoping we’ll grow that market soon and have them focus on injury prevention (as well as movement quality and strength-as-a-skill).


  3. Chris permalink
    September 29, 2009 11:54 pm

    So, I’ve been following a couple z-health related blogs for a few months now to ascertain how useful it is, and how much is just marketing keywords.

    The posts I have read on and have basically been ‘interesting’ tidbits of physiology (eg arthrokinetic reflex) with a lot of hand waving.

    What I would really like to see is essentially a few case studies, where a practitioner such as yourself (with 60 hours of training from Dr. Cobb) outlines a specific set of problems an athlete has had, and then proceeds to detail what z-health exercises are ‘prescribed’ for this athletes condition, some of the reasoning behind these exercises, and the outcome of the z-health program and how it has improve the athletes performance (with some tangible measurement, whether it’s range of motion, soreness after exercise, length of competition without pain, etc. as long as it’s quantifiable in some way)

    For example:
    “Personally, I’ve found thoracic and scapular mobility drills to greatly aid my throwing consistency over time.”
    Which drills, how often do you do them, how long did it take to “progress”, what differentiates these drills from simply X years or Y months or frisbee playing which could be another stimulus for this “improvement”.

    Z-health sounds incredibly interesting, but it has too many ‘signs’ of being another bullshit system (p90x), without enough factual details or measurable results presented by its advocates for me to consider it seriously.

    • Leslie Wu permalink
      October 1, 2009 1:48 pm

      @Chris I did the same before jumping in. The best way to learn more is to see a Z coach for a session (a good one let’s hope), but in a pinch mc’s blog gives at least a sense of what Z is about.

      Some people have started to recommend the “4 high payoff drill” DVD on the Z website, which I have but haven’t seen yet!

      Actually, I wanted to take a bioengineering class here at Stanford and run a human subjects experiments to show that lateral ankle tilts which focus on opening up the talocalcaneal joint on the, well, lateral side inferior to the malleolus and slightly back, increases contralateral shoulder range of motion (flexion) in volunteers, then publish that as a scientific study.

      Alas, my biophysics adviser got me to TA for him instead this quarter (drats 🙂 and our mtg time conflicts with the class so no go…

      I do think that one of the weakest links about Z right now is the marketing. They’re just opening up a performance center in AZ and looking to hire a marketing expert. I’m also hoping to gently convince them to tone down their website / copy on the BS meter.

      Was going to post about the thoracic/scapula drills specifically another day (writing an e-book actually in my copious spare time har), but it is anecdotal of course for me n=1.

      I’m new to college-level Ultimate but have been throwing forehands/backhands for over a dozen years now. I would perform thoracic spine anterior/posterior glides (basically you try to mobilize the T-spine yourself by going through flexion and extension without moving the shoulders too much) and scapular camshafts (arm out at 45 degrees, axial extension through spine, lock knees, relax, move shoulder blade up/back/down/forward without excess tension in neck). I seem to feel that doing this at least every other day, 1-2x / day 1 set 3 reps in each direction improved my throwing consistency, but just a n=1 anecdote.

      I think the best bet for Z-health claims would be the shoulder ROM test with either ankle tilts or toe pulls. I think it’s easier to teach ankle tilts than toe pulls, and most people need lateral ankle tilts rather than medial, so my suggested scientific study would be a neutral stance + lateral ankle tilt vs neutral stance + calf raise? (still trying to figure out the baseline), have someone else measure contralateral (and I suppose ipsilateral) shoulder flexion ROM.

      Personally, I’m not going to go out there and recommend that Ultimate players go buy Z materials, because I just don’t think the manuals/DVDs are ready for prime-time (with the exception of the newer S-phase DVD). Which is why I’m pushing for the DD folks or other peeps to write books about it so people can learn more about the Z philosophy without as much of an investment.

      That said, mobility is still important. _Magnificent Mobility_ might actually be a better fit to recommend, but I won’t officially recommend that until I’ve seen it. For the moment I’ll just unofficial recommend that non-Z-afilliated mobility product =)

    • Leslie Wu permalink
      October 1, 2009 2:06 pm

      Z is still young–years behind both the RKC and FMS systems, but it’ll get there one day!

      If you have specific questions about Z you can mail me at my address (lwu2@) or just post it on the DragonDoor forums and ping me about it.

      That said, Z obviously shares a lot with other systems / schools of thought. I talked to a bunch of folks who have done both RKC / FMS at the Z R-phase cert about how Gray Cook’s FMS compares, and they’re similar in some sense–focus on movement, test & retest with dynamic motion, but they differ in that the FMS is a movement screen (looking for risk and asymmetry, weakest links), whereas Z R-phase gait assessment isn’t scored, it’s qualitative and intended for Z practitioners working as bodyworkers.

      I think getting FMS into the Ultimate community would be great, as it meshes well with team sport dynamics, can easily be screened on fields, you get numbers, and there’s a lot more scientific research / social proof that FMS the philosophy makes sense (NFL teams yadda yadda, check out the CK-FMS DD page for more rah rah).

      So do check that out as well =). I’m going to try to learn from the man himself Gray Cook if I can wrangle the time next year for a FMS cert on the west coast.

      (For others interested in Z-health, also see this audio interview with Dr. Cobb or ask me at a tourney some time 🙂

  4. ultimateperformance permalink
    September 30, 2009 2:08 am

    Vano, you complain of not being stronger with crunches and sit ups. Crunches tend to be performed at high reps, high reps don’t breed strength. And even if they did make your 6 pack muscles stonger, there are still a plethora of core muscles you have not recruited with your crunches. These muscles sit deeper in your core/ abdominal region and include your lower back.

    Now, how do I get strong in my core?

    One must first define core. Core is the pillar of the body, from the pelvis region up through the abdominals and lower back. From the pillar all movements are initiated.

    In order to strengthen your core, which is what you say you are looking to strengthen, you must do ‘core’ multijoint movements. Squat variations, deadlift variations and olympic lifting movements.

    Now if 6 pack abs are what you are looking for, go with Chris’s favorite gimmek, P90X. However if you are looking to perform better, squat.

  5. ultimateperformance permalink
    September 30, 2009 2:16 am


    Excellent article! I see you list 1-5 “order of training”. Can you explain why the one – five. Is it a list a hierarchy of importance or is it how you feel an individual session should be structured…?

    • Leslie Wu permalink
      October 1, 2009 1:56 pm

      Hi @ultimateperformance, I can’t speak for Mike T Nelson’s list (the second one), or officially for the first, since it comes from Paul Check who I have yet to study with directly, but it’s sort of a guideline for how “correct” training should be done.

      Interestingly, in practice, people do the exact opposite of these orders! CRF / strength work first, then learn to stabilize, then mobilize stuff when you break.

      I wouldn’t say it’s exactly how an individual session should be structured, although often times mobility precedes strength work… but a common order now is mobility, soft tissue work, strength work, cardio, core stability, stretching, which isn’t the order listed.

      I guess I would say it’s an ideal which we don’t really reach since in practice it’s easier to do what we know — run / lift / blah — then fix the foundations of our fitness.

      It’s not quite a hierarchy? but it just reminds us to avoid putting “fitness on top of dysfunction” as Gray Cook would say. Obviously if you spend all your time on mobility and strength without CRF you’re gonna be sucking wind on the field, but the idea is that you’ll quickly build up your aerobic systems at least, and it’s better to get your mobility and motor programs running well first before you start loading weight (strength) and time (endurance).

      Does that make sense?

  6. October 1, 2009 2:34 pm

    Good stuff here!

    I can speak for the hierarchy that I stole it from other people. by thinking of Quality over Quantity. It is good to run 5 miles if your gait (walking motion) sucks? Should you just keep pounding your joints to dust to increase your “cardio”?

    If you want to get even simpler, you can just go with
    1) mobility
    2) coordination (unloaded, under load and at different speeds)

    Keep us updated on your study! Ever thought of using a Biodex to measure muscle force? Nice to see you here again in MN at the Z-Health R Phase!

    Rock on
    Mike T Nelson PhD(c)

  7. October 16, 2009 12:14 am

    Great article with great insight. Thank you for taking the time to bring awareness and education to this topic. You’re amazing!


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