In part one I offered some tips about how to address the major influencing factors that affect people’s movement ability. These take place outside of their exercise sessions. Now I’ll share some insights about how to help your clients’ movement within their sessions. Firstly, let’s define movement. You may have broken it down differently, but I view our ability to move as being comprised of three trainable components:
BALANCE + STABILITY + MOBILITY = MOVEMENT
BALANCE: When I say balance, I mean motor control, proprioception and coordination. “Balance” is more relatable to clients and less of a mouthful. It’s the ability to assess and react to the physical environment then coordinate and control movement. All movement and performance is increases with better balance.
STABILITY: The ability to prevent movement in one area to protect vulnerabilities and create efficient or forceful movement elsewhere
MOBILITY: The ability to move through a joint (or series of joints) through its active range of motion. Flexibility is a measurement of passive (not active) end range.
The One Thing
If you take away one thing from this blog, let it be this. To help someone improve their mobility, flexibility or range of motion, first help them with balance and stability. Understanding this was one of my biggest light bulb moments in fitness.
If someone’s brain doesn’t know how to feel or interpret the world it lives in, threat levels rise. If the brain doesn’t know where its body parts are or how to create efficient movement, threat levels rise. If the nervous system has forgotten how to breathe or stabilize vulnerable areas, threat levels rise. When threat levels rise mobility is restricted. The brain locks up entire areas of the body because it craves stability.
Balance and stability training start on the floor, where we learned movement to begin with. To help explain why here’s a concept I call the language of movement.
The Language of Movement
Let’s say for argument's sake that you learned Spanish in school and used to be able to hold your own in a Latino supermarket or restaurant, but you spoke no other languages apart from English. You haven’t spoken a word of Spanish for more than 20 years. If the goal was to become fluent in a second language in the quickest time possible and your options were Mandarin, Spanish or Arabic, which would you pick? I hope your answer was Spanish. This would be the easiest and quickest because the neural pathways already exist. You just need to switch them on again.
It’s the same with movement. You already learned how to move, perfectly. You were born with very little ability to stabilize, balance and control movement. But through instinctual, visual based movements and a desire to assess and explore your new world you developed all the balance and stability you needed. By the age of around six, you were a movement ninja. From then onwards, environmental and lifestyle factors continued to dictate development, for better or worse.
Out of all the personal training clients I’ve had the pleasure of working with, four stand out as the most resilient to injury and the best movers. Two grew up on the floor (in Seoul and Calcutta). They grew up on the floor. They slept on mats and had no table, chairs or usual western furniture. The other two grew up as farm children where farming chores and little technology were part of their daily lives. One of these is now the strongest beast of an adult human I know. I digress.
Re-establishing good balance and stability is achieved by moving like a baby and toddler, on the floor where the brain feels safe. Rock, roll, creep, crawl, reach and tumble. The more head movement, led by the eyes, the better. Further development involves full body functional and primal movements, like the farm child at work or play (climbing, lunge patterns, lifting awkward objects, loaded locomotion, 3D movement).
Some of your clients may appear to possess amazing movement ability, yet they still pick up niggles or chronic “unrelated” injuries. If their fingers, knees or elbows are really bendy, treat them as hypermobiles. Asignificant percentage of the population are so.
Many of their joints are a lot more flexible than they need to be for optimal human movement. The brain feels threatened when performing potentially hazardous movements like walking and bending over. The brain assumes a risk of falling or injury because it feels threatened by the excessive range for many simple movements. Tension is sent down to the feet and ankles because the nervous system is craving stability. Almost all hypermobile people have stiff and restricted ankles and feet. No matter how much mobility training is focused on this area, the brain will not unlock them.
Many hypermobile people experience chronic foot pain as a result of the undue tension in the area. A foot specialist, who only assess feet, may treat the symptoms by prescribing orthotics without considering why a hypermobile is experiencing pain in the first place. The site of pain almost never marks the site of the problem.
GREAT FLEXIBILITY + POOR TOE EXTENSION AND POOR ANKLE DORSIFLEXION = HYPERMOBILE (usually)
Hypermobile people need to reteach their nervous systems where their end range should be, which in many cases means shortening it. They would benefit greatly from regular balance, stability and strength training. However, humans tend to default to their strengths and many hypermobiles are drawn to yoga or gymnastics which can further feed their problem.
How Do you Know If Someone Needs Balance or Stability Training?
To highlight my clients’ needs and monitor their progress I put them through an assessment system that I created. I’ll write about that and how to interpret the results another time. But refer back to Part 1 of this blog and you’ll see a list of simple assessments. If someone can’t balance on one leg with their eyes closed for at least 15 seconds or pass the ipsilateral bird dog assessment, that indicates balance and stability issues. Other signs of instability are:
Head movement (nodding, tilting) during the gait cycle
Hip dropping during the gait cycle
Breath holding during unloaded movements/exercise
Chest breathing during conversation and movement/exercise
Claw hands during loaded or unloaded movements/exercise
Funny faces during loaded or unloaded movements/exercise
Why do we hold our breath, make faces and claw our limbs while performing certain movements? Because we don’t own our deep core stabilizers. Or more accurately, our brains have forgotten how to activate them. What are the deep core stabilizers? Why are they underactive? How does their inactivity relate to immobility? How do you switch them on? This is a rabbit hole that I won’t venture down, right now. All answers are covered in my Mobility Training 101 course manual. Instead, let’s get straight to the meat and potatoes (or avocado and chickpea if meat ain’t your thing).
Joint lubing (short for lubrication) is a key ingredient. It involves repeatedly bringing every joint to its active end range of motion. This not only maintains mobility but restores that which has been lost through a lack of movement.
When lubing any joint, the first couple of reps should be very slow and controlled so the full range is visited. The movement should match your slow diaphragmatic breath—not the other way around. People tend to match their breath to the movement, which speeds up the breath pattern. The diaphragm is the most important focus point for all mobility training. A diaphragmatic exhale promotes relaxation and allows increased range. Match the end range with your exhale. Actively hold your end range for at least two seconds before coming out of it.
After some slow reps, speed it up a little. Perform another 3 to 5 reps at a moderately slow pace, now only holding the end range for one second. Then increase the speed further to mimic daily movement. It doesn’t need to be fast or explosive. That’s about 10 to 15 reps of bringing one joint (or family of joints) to their end range of motion. A full body joint lube takes about 30 minutes and feels amazing. I call this the global joint lubing sequence that I cover on my Mobility Training 101 course.
Daily joint mobility is one of the keys to longevity. I recommend that everyone includes 5 to 20-minute sequence, every day. Unlike stretching, lubing doesn’t change the length of our tissue. It relaxes the nervous system, breaks down adhesions caused by a lack of movement, nourishes the joints, lubes up the fascia and relieves stress. It is therefore safe and highly beneficial to begin every training session with it.
My Go-To Movements and Exercises for Balance and Stability Training
The following exercises are in order or threshold, low-to-high. Remember that the lower the threshold, the safer the brain feels and the more it’s likely to allow movement.
Dr. Perry Nickelston is the Jedi master of stability and movement. He is an expert in the fields of the nervous, fascial, musculoskeletal and lymphatic systems. His expertise is matched by his teaching ability and kindness. To maximize performance, minimize pain and learn a lot more about stability and movement I highly recommend attending one of his workshops and becoming a member of his Pro group. His membership group is a goldmine of highly usable and helpful information. The exercises that are highlighted above offer the highest bang for your stability buck, according to Doctor Perry.
PRONE (most stable)
Focused diaphragmatic breathing
Prone deep neck flexor activation
Prone primal gait
Focused diaphragmatic breathing or straw breathing
Supine deep neck flexor activation
Supine primal gait
SIDE-LYING & ROLLING
Roll and reach
Scrambled egg roll (Original Strength)
Side plank on knees
Hard roll (Original Strength)
Six-point neck nods (Original Strength)
Ipsilateral bird dogs
Six-point scap rolls
Half-kneeling bottoms-up press
Kneeling hinge with reach
Prayer to half kneeling
Plank scap rolls
Plank variations (alternating reaches, high-low, gecko, superman, side, one arm one leg, partner planks)
Push-up variations (staggered, scorpion, corkscrew, gecko, hindu, narrow, crucifix, inverted/batwing)
Hand bridge and reach
Modified fish pose
Elevated roll (Original Strength)
Scap dips with legs resting
Single leg balance with unloaded hip movement, torso movement and limb movement
Lunge patterns with multi-vector reaching
Most of these can be found on YouTube by punching in: “Phil McDougall insert name of movement”
How To Implement Mobility, Balance and Stability Training
1. Important Stuff First
Start every training session with a 15 to 20-minute sequence of balance and stability exercises, with full body joint lubrication spliced in. Get creative and make a flow. Start with the lowest threshold activities where the brain feels safest, laying down on the floor. As a rule, always start with diaphragm activation then work out from there. Here’s an example of a 15 to 20-minute starting sequence for someone with a restricted T-spine:
Diaphragmatic breathing supine, 10 focused breaths
Segmental rolling, 3-5 of each
Side-lying twists, 5/5
Roll and reach, 5/5
Six-point neck nods, 4-5 of each
Circular six-point rocking, 10/10
Baby rolling, 5/5
Six-point twists on forearms, 10/10
Deep squat sit, 10 slow breaths
Lizard lunge sequence, 2-3 breaths in each position
Some clients are so mentally pre-occupied with other things that getting them to stop talking and concentrate on their breathing pattern can be tricky. Try offering these clients the challenge of not swallowing a mouthful of water for at least 10 minutes “because breathing with your nose will help open up your nasal passages and help with diaphragm activation”.
2. Lead by Example
At the time I left the Royal Marines I could run up a mountain with a heavy pack strapped to my back any day of the week, but a yoga class was my seventh level of hell. I was about eight inches away from touching my toes, the deep squat position was a complete mystery and I couldn’t even reach my arms overhead without shoulder pain. I managed to transform myself over the course of about 2-3 years because I did 10 to 20-minutes mobility work 20 to 30 times per week, with paying clients.
Of course, tactile cuing is frequently required but people learn really well when they’re shown. I find people feel more comfortable being in these odd shapes when you’re doing it with them, especially when it comes to the rolling and tumbling. I consider joining clients with their pre-workout mobility as one of the great perks of being a trainer. And who are potential clients more likely to approach? The trainer who’s just standing there watching their client or the one getting down and dirty with them?
3. Mobility Splicing
I try to make training sessions flow so well that the client is surprised when it’s time to finish. I do this by splicing joint mobility, rocking and rolling movements in as active recovery anywhere I can. This makes sessions fly by and sneaks in many more high-value minutes of good movement. Here’s a main workout component example:
Goblet squats, 5
Tiger crawl, 8 fwd 8 back
Six-point twists, 5/5
This strategy also prevents the really chatty clients from delaying the next round with chit-chat.
4. Mobility, Balance and Stability Chain
When clients love joint mobility, balance and stability work, you could make the entire workout one big chain of it. Mix in a few bouts of high intensity to help with the flow and offer that feeling of satisfaction having just “worked out”. For example, you could just run through every one of the go-to exercises listed above.
5. Train Barefoot
“Our brain has proprioceptive maps of every part of our body. There are eleven of these maps in our cerebellum alone. Training barefoot develops a clearer map of your feet, inside your brain. The smarter your foot and the clearer the map, the less threat your brain feels. The less threat your brain feels, the more it is able to activate the other stabilizers in your body and the more neurological innervation will be available for lifting heavy. The smarter the foot map, the stronger the neurological connection your brain will have to all other parts of your body. Smart feet that know how to move and how to feel, literally make everything better”.
Missy Bunch – neurological and vestibular Jedi master
6. Train Movement, Don’t Isolate
We’re trying to teach our clients’ brains how to activate it’s own stabilizers. Using external apparatus, such as chairs, benches or any machines to isolate muscle groups causes havoc and long-term weakness. Instead, teach the nervous system to isolate for itself using the stabilizers it was born with.
For instance, preacher curls versus standing curls:
Preacher curls send more tension through the biceps than standing curls while involving less overall energy because there’s no brace required. If the goal is large biceps and a vulnerable lower back, great. Regularly training the biceps in isolation messes up the neurological movement map. When you lift something up, your deep core (global) stabilizers should fire up first, then your local stabilizers, then the prime mover muscle (biceps). Training in isolation teaches the nervous system that it doesn’t need to fire up the stabilizers. This leads to susceptibility to injury when it comes to performing real-life tasks.
Standing curls on the other hand can’t create as much tension through the biceps for most people. However, they involve full body tension, require a good sequence of muscle activation by the nervous system and they build useful strength. Don’t even get me started on hamstring curl machines, adductor machines, GHDs or ab machines. In fact, please do ask me what wrong with those. I'd love to write about it.
Let Me Show You the Way of the Jedi
On Saturday 27th April 2019 in Peekskill, New York, I’m teaching a full day’s course called Mobility Training 101 and Killer Kettlebell Complexes. It’s an entire morning of joint lube, mobility, stability and balance training. Then in the afternoon I’ll be breaking down the get-up, teaching the ingredients for the greatest kettlebell complexes then teaching students how to form their own recipes to target any given goal. Students will receive two PDF manuals in advance, two certificates and 0.9 NASM CEUs. Rates are as follows:
Tickets bought in February: $199
Tickets bought in March: $249
Tickets bought in April: $299
For full information and tickets please CLICK HERE.
Thanks for reading!