More Definition, Please
Regardless of your field of expertise, if you attend any form of regular continuing education via conference or seminar, I know you are familiar with the following game: Buzzword Bingo. Although I live and work in the heart of Silicon Valley – notorious for launching the latest trends, repackaging ideas both old and new, and stretching concepts through creativity, the Health and Fitness Industry may be one of the most egregious when it comes to putting a fresh bow on the same package.
As a cycling-specific endurance athlete, I’ve been fascinated to watch dance, technology, aspirational methodologies, and even hashtags mold a nearly 200-year old concept in recent decades. While I could have chosen any number of fitness-related topics for this illustration, the evolution of strength training and conditioning has been far more ambiguous. The fundamentals – from basic pillars and definitions to actual science-based research - have evolved so dramatically over the past few decades that simple concepts we used to hold as truth are likely now more confusing than ever.
Go ahead, think back to P.E. in Junior High. You know those years… braces, bangs, black shorts and a white Hanes tee with your last name written in Sharpie on the back. My gym teacher was also the coach of football, girl’s basketball, and co-ed track and field. Based upon my current education, he also knew very little about strength training and conditioning despite marching us around the bench press and Universal machine in between laps up and down the bleachers.
Flexibility isn’t touching your toes.
Strength isn’t a pull-up (for boys) or a chin-up hang (for girls).
Mobility and stability aren’t about avoiding a tackle on the football field.
Yet, these four concepts are absolutely critical to both performance and injury prevention for every athlete – especially those in high repetition activities (endurance athletes). My goal through this article is to redefine and repackage these terms in a manner that is both current by today’s research standards and relevant for the endurance athletes we have become.
So let’s start with some basics…
Traditional fitness methodology emphasizes three primary pillars of fitness – muscular strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular endurance. We now know, however, that human movement and behavior is far more complex, as these pillars cannot work in isolation without injury, pain, and/or kinetic disorder.
Flexibility: This typically refers to the length of a muscle, although it can also be a bucket term for movement of a system of joints. It directly correlates with range of motion and mobility, but has very little to do with general strength, balance, and coordination.
Flexibility = Length
However, if you want to elevate “traditional fitness” to the standards of an endurance athlete, we’re actually talking about “performance.” An athlete focused on performance outcomes must also be aware of two additional pillars – mobility and stability - which, like the previous three (strength, flexibility, endurance), cannot work in isolation.
Mobility: This refers to how freely a joint can move throughout a complete range of motion without restriction from surrounding tissue (tendons, muscle, and ligaments, e.g.). Muscle length (flexibility), muscle tension (strength), and neuromuscular control (coordination) are all components of mobility.
Mobility = Movement
Stability: This refers to the ability to maintain control of a joint movement or position by coordinating the actions of the surrounding tissues. Remember that our skeletal system is designed to bear load/stress – not our connective tissues. Having great joint stability is equated with proper joint alignment, strong surrounding muscular tissue, and healthy ligaments and tendons.
While mobility is the ability to produce a desired movement, stability allows you to resist an undesired one.
Stability = Control
As competitive endurance athletes with a goal of performance at some level, let’s now focus on these last two as they relate to the overall strength of an athlete. I am often asked for the “secret sauce” to strength – the one takeaway, that one exercise my top athletes always put into their routine, or that piece of advice that will help prioritize time in the weight room. I’m not only going to GIVE it to you, I’m going to put it into a diagram to ensure that you never forget it. This single strategy is the secret behind true strength and ultimate power, and it is the basis for every program I develop for every athlete.
It is founded on just two simple components: Stability and Mobility.
When athletes run into weakness and/or injury, it’s invariably because there’s incongruence between areas that should be mobile versus the ones that actually are. The same could be said for inconsistency across areas of stability.
How does this correlate to strength? To be completely cliché, the old adage is entirely true: You are only as strong as your weakest link.
I’ve had many athletes who complain about chronically tight hamstrings in our initial sessions – spending time attempting to increase flexibility in that area through stretching. But invariably, the hamstrings aren’t really the problem. Typically, there’s a lack of overall mobility at the hips causing the hamstrings to tighten in order create additional stability across areas more prone to weakness – knees and the lumbar spine.
Simply stated, your body actually wants to protect you from injury. Recognize that tightness and stiffness can be symptoms of compensation (in addition to over recruitment), as your body attempts to maintain in harmony between mobile and stable joint systems. Finding that harmony is the key to proper body mechanics.
The takeaway from this article is that an athlete who is stabile and mobile in the appropriate places will have the platform to leverage maximal muscular tension across a given movement or chorus of movements. It’s this efficiency that stands as the true marker for a “strong” endurance athlete.
As a trainer and coach? Developing this balance and leveraging this efficiency is the basis for all reps and sets completed in the gym.
If you are currently thinking to yourself, “YES! This is me! I want to know how to do this!” – hang tight and come back for Freeplay’s next edition. We’ll discuss various mobilization techniques, recommendations for utilization prior/post workouts, and how to prioritize both mobilization and activation techniques into the performance phase of your season.