In my previous article on strength training, I discussed how attention to posture during weight training optimizes movement patterns for force production and helps reduce overuse injuries. Moving to part 2 of this series, will hone in on the role that stability and mobility play in making strength gains.
Mobility and Stability Defined
Mobility refers to the freedom of movement in joints through a range of motion. Stability is your musculoskeletal system’s ability to maintain its structure as the body moves, carries load, and transfers forces. Soft tissue must be trained to rotate, stretch, change direction and rebound back in order to execute movements efficiently. Adding a few simple exercises to your lifting routine will improve stability and mobility.
Call on the Specialists
I have a friend who insists on doing all home improvements by himself, instead of using specialists for the toughest parts of the work. He travels a lot for work, and has a wife and two toddlers in the house, so time for the projects is tight. His wife begs him to call a plumber or electrician for the most specialized jobs, but he insists on doing it all himself. During the project, he gets into numerous quarrels with his wife, other parts of the house usually get damaged, he obtains some sort of injury, the projects take much longer than intended, and he eventually gives in to call an expert. My friend could have avoided much pain, fatigue, and irritation if he called on the specialists in the first place.
This situation illustrates what certain muscles and joints go through if they are called upon to perform tasks that the specialist muscles can’t do because of their immobility or instability. Those muscles that are trying to do it all will eventually get fatigued, irritated, or injured. The more mobile and supple your body is, the more each body part can expertly perform its specialized task. In running, a common example of a muscle group over-working is the hamstring. A strain or pull usually occurs in running because the hamstrings are performing tasks that the glutes should be doing. But when the glutes are not firing properly, the hamstrings pick up the slack. Proper function of the muscles in the hips, torso, and lower leg will relieve the hamstrings from overuse.
Lets look at some exercises for joints and muscle groups that play key roles toward optimizing mobility and stability. This list of exercises is not exhaustive, but does target some areas in the body that you may have not have considered essential to your stride efficiency. The stronger and more mobile these areas of the body are, the more efficiently you can move.
1. Thoracic Supine/Upper Back
Why should you focus on your upper back when your legs do most of the work? The shoulders and upper back play an important role in stride mechanics, as they are connected to the hips via fascia that creates an X across the torso and back. This tissue connectivity influences the gait pattern. For example, the backward swing of your right arm aids the forward swing of the left leg, due to the fascial cross- connectivity between the right shoulder and left hip. If your right shoulder is immobile or weak, your left leg will not swing through as efficiently. Having mobility and strength throughout your shoulder girdle and thoracic spine allows greater functionality in your hips. Here are a few exercises that will aid mobility and stability in the upper back:
- Stretch loop bow-and-arrow
- Bar forward- backward
The best way to maintain connectivity and strength, but not stiffness, between the shoulders and hips, is to loosen and strengthen the muscles in the torso. Most athletic tasks, including running, walking, swimming, and cycling, require rotational, dynamic movement through the torso. Here are two exercises that enhance the reflexive effort that is required of your core:
- Low-to-high weighted swings
- Prone physioball torso rotations
Even though most repetitive-motion activities propel you forward, it is important to work the muscles around the hips, low back, and thighs in backward and lateral motions. Global strength and mobility in these muscles provide stability in your your forward movement. Here are a few exercises that emphasize contraction of hip and thigh muscles while moving backwards and sideways:
- 3-way hip: adductors, abductors, and extenders
- Backward extended lunges
- Triple jumper hangs
In running and walking, the hamstrings’ role is to prepare the leg for impact before it strikes the ground, and to assist the glute muscles extend the leg back before it lifts off the ground and swings through. Thus the hamstrings’ isometric and eccentric contractions are vital toward providing stability in the lower leg and mobility through the hip and knee joints. Two exercises that are great for eccentric and isometric contraction of the hamstrings are:
- Nordic hamstring curl
- RDL (Romanian deadlift)
The ankles play a critical role in absorbing the downward force of the foot landing and applying the upward force to push the foot back off the ground. We’ll focus a lot on ankles in Part 3 of this blog, but here are some exercises that you can do to prepare the ankles to perform their two important tasks:
- 3-way heel walks
- Line hops
In running, the big toe is the last body part to leave the ground before the leg swings forward and prepares to land again. When big toe (or “great” toe) is immobile, it is not able to properly extend and plantar flex through the toe-off phase of the stride. A lot of runners, unbeknownst to them, have significant immobility in the big toe. Dysfunction in the big toe’s movement can be traced back to the cause of many injuries that occur somewhere up the connective chain. Luckily, gaining toe mobility and stability is fairly easy and requires very little energy. See a few of my favorite toe exercises below:
- Great toe stretch
- “Toe yoga”
- Towel pickups
Adding stability and mobility exercises to your strength routine will enhance your potential for strength gain, force production, and stride economy. You can definitely add more weight to these activities as you start to master them. You will love the extra range of motion and strength that your joints gain by performing these activities regularly.