The Mobility, Stability, Strength Triad
Have you ever really thought about where strength or power derive from?
For a long time, I never really thought about it other than the obvious suspects. Of course, bigger muscles produce more force. End of story, right? Not exactly.
Sure, bigger muscles have the ability to produce more force, but that’s really where we begin to uncover the true potential of our bodies. It's great that muscles produce force, but we should be more concerned with how our muscles produce force. Looking deeper, we begin to uncover the nervous system and the electrical impulses that control motor units, which controls the amount of muscle fibers that contract in a given movement. The more practice we get with movements, the better the signals we produce and the more motor units we can recruit, the better our muscles fire.
In order to fully express our power and strength, we need muscular and neural input. We also need a platform to send those forces through. This is where our kinetic chain and how forces are transferred through our bodies comes in to play.
The kinetic chain is how our body transfers forces from the ground to the rest of our body. It starts at our feet and works joint-by-joint up to the torso, then out to the limbs. The efficiency of force transfer becomes pivotal in the expression of strength and power. Arthrokinematic dysfunction, or energy leaks, not only limit our force production capabilities, but also leave us susceptible to injury.
If there is a dysfunction at one joint, it’s going to affect the amount of energy that gets transferred to the next, and so on. It makes sense, then, to make sure we address this. There are two primary ways we can improve this energy transfer: through mobility and stability.
Think of mobility, stability, and strength/power like a pyramid. Mobility is the base— we need it to unlock inhibited muscle activity and ranges of motion that will be required for stability. Then we work stability to have a solid base from which to generate forces. And finally, we can maximize what we do on the strength/power side.
Mobility is your active range of motion at a given joint. In other words, how much range of motion you can actually control. This is important because when most of us think of mobility, the first thing that comes to mind is stretching, but typical stretching is a passive endeavor and only touches on end-range of motion. While stretching can absolutely play a part in our mobility, it’s not mandatory.
If the goal is to improve movement quality (and force transfer), then we have to look beyond stretching and start looking at our tissue quality (myofascial release) and active range of motion with controlled movements and drills. Techniques, such as active-isolated stretching, dynamic stretches, and full range movements build the capacity for mobility, as well as ingrain the neurological signals to maintain that mobility. Once we achieve appropriate mobility, then we can start to focus on stability.
The interplay between mobility and stability cannot be overlooked. Again, mobility is our uninhibited range of motion, whereas stability is resisting movement or controlling joint movement or position. In order for us to utilize the muscles necessary for stability, we must first obtain a certain amount of mobility due to factors such as: altered reciprocal inhibition, synergistic dominance, and relative flexibility— all of which cause muscle, joint, and/or movement imbalances. Our goal is to address and limit those imbalances to get a fully functioning, balanced, body.
So then, how do we go about training for stability? Do we spend “x” amount of sessions just on mobility until we acquire the appropriate range of motion to be able to work on stability? Luckily for everyone involved, that isn’t the case. First off, just because we can’t optimally contract our inhibited muscles, it doesn’t mean they’re dead; they are still able to produce force. Second, with some of the mobility interventions we’ve gone over (foam rolling, stretches), we are able to gain temporary improvements in range of motion right away, which will also help activate those inhibited muscles. This means that we can work mobility and stability within the same session.
Training stability doesn’t have to look like some of the crazy stuff we see on Instagram, like squatting on Bosu or stability balls, or curling on 1 leg with 1 hand tied behind your back. There are some very simple, yet very effective ways to work on our stability, without compromising our ability to produce force or increase risk of injury.
The easiest, and first step I’ll take to improve stability is to take a basic exercise (squat, pushups, etc) and use tempos. If you follow the NASM OPT model, you’ll use a 4-2-1 tempo, meaning a 4 count eccentric, 2 second paused isometric, and 1 second concentric. Tempos are great for giving your body proprioceptive information about where it’s at in space and understanding proper positioning. The more time we’re able to spend in each position (which is what tempos allow us to do), we also build more of those neurological signals to improve
To add a greater degree of stabilization, we simply adjust points of contact we have on the ground, then add load to strengthen those positions.
To give you a better idea of how to progress an exercise through the stabilization continuum, we’ll break down the hip hinge pattern.
The most stable hinge pattern we can perform is a bridge lying on the floor. In this position, we have a lot of contact with the ground, so we’re very stable. Again, we’ll start with tempo work with both feet on the ground to establish baseline stability and strength. From there, we’ll remove one area of support and go into a single leg bridge. I choose the single leg bridge before a deadlift because we still have more contact points with the ground with the bridge (foot, hips, back, shoulders, head) than we do with the deadlift (just 2 feet).
After our bridge progression, then we can move to deadlifts. Beginning with our stable, even, 2 foot stance. We can then branch off into staggered stance and single leg variations. We can apply the same progressions to any other exercise to build foundational stability.
The amount of time needed in the mobility or stability phase will depend the severity of current mobility/stability issues, how much time the client is willing to put into the process, and individual differences. But once we obtain a requisite amount of both mobility and stability, strength and/or power can now be built to a much greater degree with the body moving properly and transferring forces appropriately.
If you’re looking to build any appreciable muscle/strength/power/athleticism, mobility and stability are the gatekeepers to obtaining, and sustaining those qualities.