Intro

The human body is undeniably more complex than most people realize or appreciate. It can be dauntingly complex. It can cause paralysis by analysis. Luckily there are patterns and frameworks we can use to better analyze human movement, performance, and pain disorders.

One of the best frameworks I have come across and learned about is the Joint by Joint approach. I believe this was popularized by Gray Cook and Mike Boyle. Please correct me if I am wrong because I want to give credit where credit is due.

The joint by joint approach says this: the body is made up of mobile “segments” and stable “segments” that alternate as you move up the body starting from the ground such that the mobile segments can gain leverage off the stable segments to effectively produce force. Read that sentence 3 more times.

Now hold on a second. We need to make sure we are all talking about the same thing when we say the following words: mobility, stability, and segment. Let’s define them so we can compare paleo treats to paleo treats.

What is "Mobility"

Is mobility how far you can crank your shoulder using a green band wrapped around a pull up bar? Is mobility how deep you can squat with 225lbs on your back? Is mobility how far you can get into a squat while holding onto the post of your pull up rig? No.

Mobility is how far you can move a joint under your own body's control without external influence.

A classic example is this: do you squat better in your air squat or does having some weight on your back improve your positioning? I would argue that your air squat is a better test of your mobility than a loaded back squat. Re-read the definition if that isn't clear why.

What is "Stability"

Stability is not being rigid or stiff. That would be called rigidity or stiffness, right?

Stability is how well you control the mobility you have.

Stability is also called motor control or simply stated it is how you control your movement. A lot of people have what appear to be “mobility” problems that are really caused because they do not have stability, so their brain unconsciously limits their “mobility” to keep them artificially more controlled so they don’t get injured or because their body doesn’t think certain ranges of motion are “safe” and therefore doesn’t allow you to access them.

What is a "Segment"

A segment is a joint or joint complex, like the knee. The knee has more than one “joint” (one between the tibia and femur, one between the tibia and the fibula, and one between the patella and the femur). But for the sake of the joint by joint approach that we are talking about here, we consider the knee to be one segment. Again, simplicity can help at times.

So What is the Joint by Joint Approach?

The joint by joint approach is a framework that tells us generally if a joint needs to be stable or mobile, and it goes like this:

The foot needs to be stable.
The ankle needs to be mobile.
The knee needs to be stable.
The hip needs to be mobile.
The lumbar spine (low back) needs to be stable.
The thoracic spine (mid back) needs to be mobile.
The cervical spine (neck) needs to be stable.
The scapula-thoracic joint (shoulder blade on ribcage) needs to be stable.
The shoulder joint needs to be mobile.
The elbow needs to be stable.
The wrist needs to be mobile.
The hand needs to be stable.

That’s it. We build off of this framework. We treat off this framework. We build workouts and WODs off this framework. Doesn’t a snatch meet all these criteria? Doesn’t a good deadlift or kettlebell swing meet the joint by joint approach? Think about it (hint: yes).

When exercise and workouts do not respect the joint by joint approach, we encounter problems. We start to have highly mobile low backs that aren’t stable. We get elbows that need to be stable but are forced to be mobile due to stiff shoulders. We get rotator cuff problems because our scapula-thoracic joint isn’t stable and the rotator cuff has to make up for it. The list goes on and on.

Respect the joint by joint approach. Train using the joint by joint approach. Rehab using the joint by joint approach. Stop doing exercises that don’t follow the joint by joint approach. Pain and dysfunction are like a fire. To put it out you have to cut off the gas and spray it with a fire extinguisher. Typically movements that don’t follow the joint by joint approach are the gas. Drills to improve our body’s ability to follow the joint by joint approach are the fire extinguishers. Apply as needed.

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