Understanding Mobility- Look at the Definitions

April 4, 2018


There is a disturbance in the force. Feathers are ruffling. Chests are puffing. People are peacocking around. Everyone wants to be right. Everyone wants the other guy to be wrong. Everyone wants to try and cut someone else down so people will look at them. Find the biggest target and tell people your way is different and better and the other person’s way is wrong. This is a short term strategy. If you think you have something important to add to the conversation, let your results and the results of those you work with do the talking. It is the fun part of living in the age of the internet and social media. You can throw all the stones you want without actually having meaningful debate with the person you are throwing them at. It would be too hard to pick up a phone and call or go to a person or have that person come to you. Why would you want to have a face to face conversation with someone when you can hide behind social media posts like a coward. 


As you know, I enjoy taking subjects that for one reason or another are being hotly debated and show you most people trying to argue are actually just saying similar things. Before we can come to the conclusion that people are arguing over dumb stuff, first we must look at a few definitions. The first four are from dictionary.com. The fifth one is from good old Wikipedia:


Flexibility- the quality of bending easily without breaking.


Stretch- be made or be capable of being made longer or wider without tearing or breaking.


Mobility- the ability to move or be moved freely and easily.


Mobilization- the action of making something movable or capable of movement.


Motor control- the process by which humans and animals use their brain/cognition to activate and coordinate the muscles and limbs involved in the performance of a motor skill.  Fundamentally, it is the integration of sensory information, both about the world and the current state of the body, to determine the appropriate set of muscle forces and joint activations to generate some desired movement or action. This process requires cooperative interaction between the central nervous system and the musculoskeletal system, and is thus a problem of information processing, coordination, mechanics, physics, and cognition. Successful motor control is crucial to interacting with the world, not only determining action capabilities, but regulating balance and stability as well.


I think most people get lost in what these words actually mean. They see things and hear people talk about things and use different words without knowing what the intended meaning behind the word really is. Flexibility is the ability of something to bend without breaking it. If you are training your flexibility, you are bending your body as far as you can without breaking it in hopes of it moving further without breaking in the future. Think of this as static stretching. While it has its merits for sure, it is really about changing the length/tension relationships in your muscles. It is also believed the big benefit comes from the central nervous system allowing you to be less resistant to a stretching force over time. Another way to put this is the more you stretch something, the more your brain allows you to stretch it. This doesn’t necessarily make this a good thing. Flexibility without context and control is not terribly useful. I would say most people confuse flexibility with mobility and stretching with mobilizing. Let’s take a closer look.








Read the definitions of mobility and mobilization very carefully. What do they mean to you when you say them out loud? Say them out loud to another person. What can that person tell you about the meaning of the word? What kinds of inferences can you make using the exact definitions? I happen to like these definitions because they are succinct and exact yet give you room to interpret. If I am thinking of a joint on a person I am working with and think about it with this definition in mind, I can decide if the joint is or is not freely and easily moveable. I also have to make a decision about why they joint may not be freely moveable and develop a plan of action. 


Now let’s think about the word mobilization. This is the action of making something moveable. You could even go as far to say it is the action of making something freely moveable. Perhaps given the particular circumstances it just means the action of making something more moveable with the intent of continuing to make improvements in movement in the future. How you are planning on making whatever you are working on more moveable is where this argument seems to begin. Some people think certain people are only doing things that look like stretching and sitting on balls and rollers. Some people think the only thing you need to do is just lift weights and you will get where you want to go. The issue is the answer is both and the ability to pair the two methods together in an organized and progressive way is really where the magic happens. I want to make it very clear up front that if you have terrible sleep habits, don’t know how to relax during the day, train beyond your capabilities, eat crappy food, don’t drink any water, and leave yourself in an environment for multiple hours a day that puts your body in a position it is forced to adapt to that is not conducive to optimal performance, you are going to struggle to make significant and lasting changes in your mobility. The timeline you will be operating on will be much longer than the person who takes care of those things. 


Now that you are thinking about what these words actually mean, you start to understand that the words mobility and mobilization actually encompass several things. If you want to change the way something is moving, you have to apply a stimulus that creates an adaptation in the direction you want and then you have to utilize any changes you have made in the way something is moving in order for the body to learn you are interested in having this new way of moving. A mobilization, in the way many people who like to throw stones view it, is a catalyst. It opens a window of opportunity for you to learn. 


This is where the last definition comes into play. Motor control is really what all of this is about. For one reason or another, your body has removed the mobility of a certain joint. Whether there is excessive stiffness in the capsule of the joint, an underlying instability that keeps the brakes one a certain movement, an inability to keep the trunk braced that shows up as lack of range in the shoulders or hips, you name it, it all falls under the umbrella of mobility and motor control. If you look at the word mobility, motor control is even implied. 


If you do not have proper motor control, a joint won’t move freely and easily. Sometimes it is as easy as improving trunk stability and you start to see mobility issues clear up. Sometimes it is as easy as practicing under load and tempo. Sometimes it isn’t and you have to have some kind of joint or soft tissue intervention to allow the body to be in the position necessary for you to do focused practice. Sometimes it is a significant strength imbalance between movers around a joint that needs some attention. Sometimes it isn’t. This is why I caution people about trying to solve all their problems on their own by watching videos. Sometimes you need the guidance of a skilled practitioner up front to make sure you are barking up the right tree. 


Do I need mobility or stability? Well you need both. And technically, stability is part of the definition of mobility because without it, you would not move freely and easily. You work on both to achieve the desired result. It is how motor learning and control works. It takes focused attention and it takes time. That is really the issue. Nobody likes to be told it takes time to get a desired outcome. There is no quick and magical way to gain significantly more mobility without putting in work. If you want your body to move in a particular way because you are getting into some sort of physical endeavor that needs you to move in a particular way, you are going to have to do the work. This is also why I have never really given anyone a stretch to achieve a desired mobility outcome. I have given them activities that tackle joint and muscle range under load and with focused and intentional practice of a position you are trying to achieve. Then I start to challenge the new found place the person wants to take their body with ever increasing demands of volume, tempo, and intensity. This is something I have emphasized in all my books (find them here and here). If you drop it through that lens, you start to realize pretty much everyone out there is working towards the same objective with maybe slightly different methods. The principles don’t change. The principle is the body has to be given an opportunity to learn a new way you want it to move freely and easily. Next time you feel like planting yourself in a camp and decide everyone else is wrong and there is nothing to be gained from their perspective, don’t. 

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