Medicine Ball Plank

These 3 interrelated concepts form the foundation of functional movement, the ability to actively move through the full range of motions with stability. Gray Cook pioneered the concept that certain joints need to be mobile while others need to be stable in order for us to move correctly & to maintain proper posture. Starting from the ankle & working our way up the body & down the arms the pattern is:

  • feet -stable
  • ankles - mobile
  • knees - stable
  • hips - mobile
  • lumbar spine - stable
  • thoracic spine - mobile
  • cervical spine - stable
  • shoulders - mobile
  • elbows - stable
  • wrists - mobile

Unfortunately many people have exactly the opposite pattern (immobile ankles, unstable knees, etc.) which inevitably leads to dysfunctional movement, poor posture, discomfort & ultimately injury. Immobile hips for example will often result in unstable, painful knees & invariably in lower back disorders & pain. Various solutions to the problem have been developed, in a nutshell they all boil down to: make the immobile mobile & the unstable stable (in that order). However before we go too far it's probably worth taking a step back & looking at what we mean by mobility, flexibility (the astute may have noticed we haven't even mentioned this one yet) & stability.

Mobility is the ability to actively move a joint through it's full range of motions with control. That is without outside assistance including that of gravity. Mobility exercises make great warm-ups.

Flexibility is the passive portion of mobility that is determined by the muscles' ability to stretch far enough to allow for the full range of motion. An interesting phenomenon has been noted with stretching. Stretching, in particular static stretching temporarily reduces strength & power in the stretched muscles. It is therefore unwise to stretch before a workout or competition. Stretching is best saved for the cool-down.

Stability is the ability to prevent unwanted movement. That is not to say that these joint don't move; it's that they need to be protected from specific movements. Think about how the knee can't rotate & how dangerous the inward (vargus) movement that damages the ACL is.

Assessing & Correcting Mobility / Stability

In an attempt to define functional movement & create a standard set of tests for healthy individuals, Gray Cook & Lee Burton developed the Functional Movement Screen (FMS). The more advanced Selective Functional Movement Analysis (SFMA) was also developed for the clinical setting.

"Put simply,the Functional Movement Screen is a ranking and grading system that documents movement patterns that are key to normal function. By screening these patterns, the FMS readily identifies functional limitations and asymmetries. These are issues that can reduce the effects of functional training and physical conditioning and distort body awareness."

A self-test version (requiring very little equipment) has been developed which while not as thorough still gives a great idea of where you are having difficulties. There are also recommended protocols for correcting the limitations & asymmetries identified (see the FMS website for details). After some 15yrs it is popular but has not yet been accepted as a standard.

Of course this is not the only way. I am particularly partial to the concept of the auto correcting movement assessments pioneered by Scott Sonnen. The idea is that through a series of flowing movements that take the body through the full range of motions in a controlled manner, the individual will become aware of their limitations (assessment) & by focusing on the correct technique as they perform the movements they are simultaneously correcting them & improving mobility. Those of you who have been to our classes will probably have experienced one of our 'flo-mo' warm-ups.

Ginastica Natural, developed independently by Prof. Alvaro Romano in Brazil, also contains all these elements. These movements are of particular interest to BJJ practitioners & grapplers in general but are applicable to anyone wanting the benefits of functional movement.

Stability, a Specific Case - the Core

The core, from a gross anatomical perspective. is the body minus the legs & arms. We are more specifically interested in the muscular framework that stabilises the lumbar spine:

& to a lesser degree:

The primary functions of the core are to maintain posture, to generate internal pressure (as with expiration & voiding the bowls) & to align / stabilise the pelvis, spine & thorax especially during movement & when resisting forces. The core is also believed to be the originator of most full body movements & transmits the forces generated by the legs through to the shoulder girdle & beyond e.g. hitting a tennis ball. Other notable functions include the Valsalva manoeuver & of course plays a major role in pregnancy. Here we are focused on the role in stabilisation / anti-rotation and how to train the core.

Much of the work on core stabilisation originates with that done by Paul Hodges & published in his book 'Therapeutic Exercise for Segmental Spinal Stabilization in Lower Back Pain'. This is also the origin of the 'draw-in' manoeuvre & the use of the exercise ball for core training. It is worth noting that this was a therapeutic approach & while it was adopted relatively quickly in the realms of sports science it has received some criticism, in particular as to the application in sport / exercise.

The current state of the art in lower back health are Stuart McGill's books 'Low Back Disorders' & 'Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance'. This work largely agrees with that of Hodges although the core stabilisation is achieved through 'bracing'. McGill also proposes the "big three": bird-dog, curl-up & side plank (with systematic progressions). His mantra:

"Do not do sit-ups!"

is now almost universally acknowledged in the world of sports science.

Gray Cooks functional approach to core stabilisation is 'tall & skinny'. I personally use both the tall & skinny & bracing approaches with a particular preference for tall & skinny (no wise cracks please).

An interesting note is that from the functional movement purists perspective all core stabilisation exercise should be done while standing. As with all things functional there is also no isolation, the focus is on integration. Those of us who grapple might argue that there is in fact a function to prone stabilisation...

As for specific exercises there are many to choose from. The big three should be a staple. Many other exercises involve pushes, pulls & isometric holds while destabilised e.g. with a bosu, straps only using 1 dumbbell / weight. Single leg squats & single leg dead-lifts along with farmers carry integrate the legs. Landmine twists are also popular & are similar to spirals with a Bulgarian bag, weighted clubs , plate or other weight (chop-downs are similar). Throwing heavy objects, overhead & twisting as is often done with medicine balls are also very good. The most import thing is to think of the core as a cylinder / tube & to make sure you strengthen all facets through all planes of stabilisation: back, sides & front.

- Mecs Martial Arts (Pty) Ltd