3 Ways to Level Up Our Mobility Progressions (And Continue To)

Why It’s Time to Retire the Joint-By-Joint Approach

There are seemingly few things more sacred in the fitness industry than the “Joint by Joint Approach,” which is attributed to Mike Boyle and Gray Cook, 15 or so years ago.

This, (at the time) revolutionary theory stated that the human body is made up of alternating segments of ‘mobile’ and ‘stabile’ joints, and/or alternating segments of ‘mobile’ joints move on segments of ‘stable’ joints. Thus changing the way we look at “mobility.”

If you were expecting an attack on the joint by joint approach, or more specifically an attempt to debunk the joint by joint approach, you’ve come to the wrong place as that is not my intention

The top-tier of my “argument” is that though this theory was revolutionary and extremely helpful, enlightening, and even mind blowing 15ish years ago, we simply know too much more now to hold it to the gospel it was and often times, is still held to.

It did exactly what it needed to do when it needed to be done. It helped a lot of us understand things we didn’t understand at the time, myself included. And indeed, it isn’t wrong and does make sense… on the simplified surface.

Problematic Oversimplification

We look at models as a teaching construct that are meant to give simplification to something that is complicated, in order to make it more teachable and more accessible. However, with that and just like anything, that isn’t without cost(s).

First As the level of complexity rises to a certain “level of complication”, or once we reach a certain level of complexity, attempting to simplify something too much, creates more confusion than help.

There’s a tipping point. Certain “things” can only be simplified so much until it looks too unlike the original “thing” or misrepresents the original “thing”.

We can take something that is a “complexity level” of 6 and create a model or approach to make someone who has a “understanding of complexity level” of 4, understand that. They are close enough to be able to simplify it.

But if we take that same thing, learn so much more about it that that thing is now a “complexity level” of 8 or 9 and use the same model or approach we used to help a “understanding of complexity level of 4” understand the “complexity level” of 6, we can see how that isn’t going to be effective.

We either need to bring the “understanding of complexity level” to a higher level than 4 and/or create a different model or approach that can accurately bridge the gap between the “complexity level” of 8 or 9 and that 4.

Second If we create a model in order to simplify something, there are obviously going to be some concessions made in order to do that.

Which makes sense and is the point as we are trying to make taking something that is too complicated to understand when you are starting, and make that person understand it. If it were looked at as such, there is no real confusion or problem except the aforementioned “First”.

However, the problem occurs when we take this simplified model of this complex thing, and start accepting it as absolute truth. A simplified thus relative truth in order to make one understand, by definition of itself, cannot be an absolute truth.

If a model is simply looked at, as a model, we wouldn’t necessarily be basing more complicated concepts on that model because by definition it tried to take something complex and simplify it.

The Joint by Joint Approach is guilty of both of those and it falls into what I often refer to as a “problematic oversimplification”. Something we see in the fitness industry a lot.

It is guilty of the first, at the very least over the last few years though it wasn’t guilty of it at all when it was developed. The amount we know now and come to understand the human body and its subsequent model has evolved too significantly for this to be an effective way we look at it. It’s more confusing rather than helpful due to the evolution of knowledge.

It is guilty of the second because “based on the joint by joint approach we can say this” doesn’t really work anymore. We can’t say anything based on it because it looks too simply at something that is too complicated for it. The further conclusion we are basing from the joint by joint approach, which is now too simple to be helpful, will be at the absolute best, itself, too simple to be helpful, but likely even less effective or more confusing.

Where We Have to Start - Nomenclature

Nomenclature never fails as a perpetual nuisance in our field and it’s no different here.

“Nomenclature is the bane of our (fitness) existence.” — Craig Rasmussen

“Mobility Before Stability” Is Incomplete (And Confusing)

“Mobility Before Stability” is synonymous with the joint by joint approach.

Gray Cook has said in multiple Perform Better presentations that if he could start over, the Functional Movement Systems (FMS) famed saying “Mobility Before Stability” would instead be “Mobility Before Motor Control”.

And this makes complete sense because if what they are trying to give a title or name to is…

“Coordination and timing that creates instantaneous integrity around a joint in the presence of full range of motion. This aligns your joints creating a better foundation for your prime movers.”

That is indeed what we now know and acknowledge as motor control and to my knowledge, there are not that many other widely accepted definitions of motor control.

Stability, on the other hand, well there are quite a few definitions around it and exactly what it means.

While we’re defining, mobility refers to “the amount of motion available at a joint or series of joints and the ease with which the joints can actively move through the range of motion.” Actively meaning control.

“Okay, so just accept that they are calling and labeling motor control as stability. What’s the deal?”

What makes this confusing is that while “Mobility Before Stability aka Motor Control” is now no longer confusing, it’s still incomplete.

It only tells the second and third pieces of this ‘three act’ context…

It assumes mobility is the starting point. Which we now know, it is not.

It ignores that mobility as per what we defined above, is dependent upon the position in which it/we are starting.

The movement of the hip or mobility of the hip is dependent on the pelvis on which it moves, and the pelvis is dependent on the diaphragm with which influences it.

The movement of the shoulder or mobility of the shoulder is dependent on the ribcage and scapula, which are dependent on the diaphragm.

So we have…

“The thing(s) which are required for mobility”.
Before… Mobility.
Before… “Stability Which Is Actually Motor Control”

Now, “starting position” or “things that influence starting position” aka “the thing(s) which are required for mobility” are most accurately defined as…

“A reflection of the position of many systems that are regulated, determined and created through limited functional patterns. These patterns reflect our ability and inability to breathe, rotate and rest, symmetrically with the left and right hemispheres of our axial structure.” - Ron Hruska (PRI)

Which is how Ron defines “posture”. Now there aren’t too many words that are more misinterpreted, convoluted, and come with more preconceived notions of “what people think they mean but are wrong” than “stability” but “posture” is one of them. And to me, that description and definition sounds a lot like being accurately labeled as “stability” or “positional stability”.

The Recipe

From an optimal movement perspective it comes down to (and forgive a bit of redundancy)…

“A reflection of the position of many systems that are regulated, determined and created through limited functional patterns. These patterns reflect our ability and inability to breathe, rotate and rest, symmetrically with the left and right hemispheres of our axial structure.” Before…

“The amount of motion available at a joint or series of joints and the ease with which the joints can actively move through the range of motion.” Before…

“Coordination and timing that creates instantaneous integrity around a joint in the presence of full range of motion. This aligns your joints creating a better foundation for your prime movers.” Before…

“Healthy Optimal Movement(s) of whatever capacity your heart desires.”

Aka “Positional Stability or Posture” Before “Mobility” Before “Motor Control” Before “Movements Shits and Stuffz.”

And of course, if you want to dismiss nomenclature semantics and simply say the quoted version above as the “recipe”, instead the immediate above, then please, by all means.

Articular Independence Before Articular Interdependence

To put it simply…
Articular = Joint
Independence = By Itself
Interdependence = With Other Joints

We need to have the healthy and necessary independent function of a joint (say, hip) before we can safely, efficiently, and effectively work on what that joint (hip) does in a compound movement (Squat, Deadlift, Gait, Sprint, etc).

Far too often people are focused on training complex movement patterns before they even have the necessary independent joint functions needed to perform them. — Dr. Andreo Spina

“Can/Does the hip do hip things?” needs to be tackled and addressed before we can talk about, “Can/does the hip do squat/sprint/etc things?”

This seems simple but it is missed or ignored all the time and is an accurate way to “tease out” the “mobility” piece of the above recipe.

But saying, “Positional Stability or Posture” Before “Articular Independence” Before “Articular Interdependence” Before “Motor Control” Before “Movements Shits and Stuffz” is getting a little crazy. But it ain’t wrong.

Internal Training…

Refers to “strength training for your joints” or which the desired outcome is to train a/the joint itself specifically. The desired outcome is internal, inside the person, one’s joint(s).

External Training…

Refers to what most people think when they think of training and exercises, aka “strength training for movement patterns” or “strength training for muscles” in which the desired outcome is the movement pattern that has been established (Examples Squat. Hinge. Pull. Press). The desired outcome is external, outside the person, the range or end range of the movement (or muscle) itself.

And Now…

I don’t think it would be fair to say that all of the above doesn’t already speak to the original argument at hand, as I believe it does. It certainly shows how complex what we are trying to simplify is. But it doesn’t stand alone, as now we can address finer details.

Internal Training =/= Mobility Training (As It Is Defined)

This is a big one and I think where a lot of confusion arises. Particularly in people who are critical of the FRS/FRC system.

Everything that has to do with a joint or with actively controlling a joint through a range gets lumped into “mobility”. But it isn’t all the same.

Can “Internal Training” also be “Mobility Training”? Can “Mobility Training” also be “Internal Training”? Yes. But they are not mutually exclusive. A thing can be one and not necessarily the other.

Internal Training includes things like “articular integrity” aka increasing the integrity and health of the joint being worked, and “training the regressive or progressive tissues of a joint”.

None of which’s desired outcome is increasing the amount of motion available at a joint or series of joints and the ease with which the joints can actively move through the range of motion aka mobility. It could do that, but that isn’t the goal or intention of the exercise.

“Mobility” or “Mobility Training” is what we’ve defined it as prior, it isn’t a general catch-all for anything that isn’t a loaded squat, hinge, push, pull, rotate.

The “Red-Headed Step Children” Joints

What about the ribcage? The pelvis? The diaphragm? Why did they get skipped in the categorization of the joint by joint? One could easily argue the diaphragm is a muscle which is why it was excluded in the joint by joint approach. Fair, after all, it is a muscle and not a joint. But the same can’t be said for the ribcage and the pelvis.

But also speaking to the fact if the conversation is about the importance of things that influence mobility, motor control, and movement and what they need, “The Big Three” cannot be left out of that conversation, even if one is a muscle. They are far too influential and impactful. And two of them are even joints, or collections of joints.

While not privy to the conversations of Boyle and Cook in their iteration of the joint by joint approach, one could assume the ribcage and pelvis were left out because they were too complicated thus confused the model. So they got left out for simplicity. This makes sense, but it is also indicative of the limitations.

But now that we know so much more about the ribcage, pelvis, and diaphragm, they can’t be left out.

At a Postural Restoration Institute course I attended, instructor James Anderson asked the attendees to summarize what he had just said and the reply was…

“So in looking at the chicken and the egg question of which comes first the pelvis or the ribcage in addressing, the answer is actually diaphragm.”

To which he agreed. Yet they aren’t even in the conversation of the joint by joint approach. This argument alone could have been the whole article, but brevity, pssshh.

Diving Deeper… All The Things Need All The Things

Categorizing joints into any category, even ones that are more specific, inclusive, and accurate than “mobile” and “stabile” would still be incomplete.

The categorization itself sets a bias to ignore the fact that “all the joints” need “all the elements of what joints need” aka “all the things need all the things.”

Each joint has elements of needing integrity/health in the joint, elements of mobility, and elements of motor control. Among other things.

And even the joints that have more predispositions to a need for mobility are unique to one another in multiple ways, just as the joints that have more predispositions for motor control are unique to one another in multiple ways.

None of the joints we’ve mentioned have no needs for any of the “all the things” we’ve mentioned. There isn’t any reason to bias one over another as there are simply too many exceptions.

Each joint needs specifically what that joint needs for that specific person.

To attempt to simplify that further simply makes too many concessions.

A Few Specific Examples…

To further drive home the point.

Hips and Shoulders

The strongest example here is that for most of us, the clients we serve tend to be women and women tend to have hypermobility/too much mobility issues.

While the hips and shoulders are joints in which are primarily mobile joints as per human anatomy and them being ball and socket joints, the average female does not need more mobility of the shoulder and hips, they already have too much in a lot of cases.

What they need is motor control of the shoulders and hips, strength of the shoulders and hips, and often positional stability to influence it all.

The Spine

Unless you are a hunter gatherer, which if so, I’d like to meet you, everyone’s spine needs attention in some capacity. And that is often that it moves in it’s full and complete range of motion (unloaded to be PC) from all its segments.

The spine is too complicated to be put into any buckets.

What About the Scapula?

The scapula is categorized as “stability” in the approach, but that is as true as it is false. It needs motor control, sure. But only if it is mobile enough to need motor control. We see a lot of scapulae that are stuck “down and back” in overextended and/or what PRI calls “PEC” postures and those scapula actually need mobility in elevation and protraction.

What About the Knee?

The knee as a hinge joint and the patella is part of the knee but not a hinge joint… The patella needs mobility if it doesn’t have it. The knee is a hinge joint and “only” moves front to back or flexion/extension. Except that the root movement of the knee is tibial internal/external rotation. And a lot of people have too much tibial external rotation and not enough tibial internal rotation that jacks up a lot of movement things. So for most people the thing they need the most at the knee is mobility of tibial internal rotation.

What If a Joint Doesn’t Do Something Not Because of Itself?

This is a rabbit hole for not only another post, but probably multiple posts though I’ve alluded to it in this article already. But it is worth mentioning that a lot of times we look at what a specific joint “needs” and often the joint itself is completely optimal and is compromised due to another joint, an element of positional stability, and/or other things that are not that joint.

I could go on but I think I’ve exhausted my extreme lack of brevity.

Here’s where I am supposed to sell you a model of some kind or tell you what the ideal way is. But I don’t have a model to sell or espouse and I can’t tell you what the ideal way for you, and by proxy, your client is.

What I wanted to accomplish here is that the dialogue is started in that we know what is outdated thus ineffective and inefficient, here are the reasons why, and here are the things that need addressed. Then we collectively work on how it is that we address them looking through the more optimal lens.

Dad of 3 under 4. Gym owner. Digital Marketing Agency owner. Continuing Education Nerdy Nerd. Helping the helpers.

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