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Articles - Strength, Muscle & Athletics

Stability vs. Mobility:
Which is More Important?

          • Stability vs. Mobility... the great debate
          • Athletes in motion
          • Why you need stability AND mobility in every single joint
          • How to acquire both

By Brian Copeland




Stability vs. Mobility... The Great Debate

If you are more than a casual observer of fitness you no doubt have heard of the term "core strength." If you have been in the fitness scene a while you may have heard of "core stability." And if you have dug deep enough you might even be familiar with the terms "joint stability" and "joint mobility." Some of you may actually purposefully train these qualities, and if you do then I salute you... but let's make sure you are training both.

In the last couple of years we have seen a debate amongst some experts regarding the difference between joint mobility and joint stability. Before we get into the debate let's define these terms:

Joint Stability - The ability to resist movement in a joint from an outside force

Joint Mobility - The ability to move a joint through it's full anatomical and available range of motion

Advocates of joint stability or stiffness insist that athletes need the ability to resist dynamic forces applied to joints in order to transfer kinetic energy up through the chain to other joints. You can think of this as keeping your spine straight as you lift something heavy.

Advocates of joint mobility point out that if one joint does not move well then another joint will have to compensate leading to loss of power, loss of range of motion, dramatic increased risk of injury and ultimately dysfunction in the athlete. Think of a whip that carries the force of the strike fluidly from the handle out to the tip where we get a "snap!" This is also like a boxer's punch or a soccer player's kick.

Another example is that if one area of the spine is too stiff, another area will have to move more than it should and will cause dysfunction. So make all joints mobile and you will decrease stress in surrounding joints.

Both are quite valid points when you stop to think about it.

You don't really get transfer of force without movement and you lose transfer of force when joints move sloppily out of place as force is being transferred through them.

Quite a conundrum...


Athletes in Motion

The human spine consists of 24 vertebrae each of which have a Spine capacity to move into the following directions:

  • Flexion - rounding forward as in a toe touch
  • Extension - bending backward
  • Lateral Tilt - leaning to the side
  • Rotation - twisting to the right or left
  • We also have anterior, posterior and lateral gliding which could be considered similar enough to the above mentioned movements that I won't get into them here, although if you do Z-Health dynamic joint mobility you absolutely should train them.

A newer trend that has actually been rehashed from an old trend is telling fitness minded folks and athletes to keep their spine totally straight, to never round your spine, never twist, never bend for fear of injuring an intervertebral disc in your back.

Some people have gone so far as to say that the majority of athletic movements require a totally stiff and straight spine that does not move... but does that hold true when put to the test?

Let's find out.


Mark Mcgwire

Mark Mcgwire

Mark Mcgwire has a tremendous amount of spinal rotation as he hits a home run hit.


In fact, his lumbar spine is rotating left, so is his thoracic spine, but his cervical spine is rotating right.

If you think about the start of a baseball swing, he would be starting in the exact opposite rotations and moving into these positions during the swing which generates a tremendous amount of force by the way.

Barry Sanders



Barry Sanders, the king of juking, is in near full left spinal lateral flexion (tilt) as he jukes to the right.


You might also take note of his right ankle/foot and note the tremendous amount of joint mobility required in this region during dynamic athletic movement such as football, which also has a tremendous amount of force placed in these joints.





Barbora Spotakova


Barbora Spotakova setting a world record in the javelin demonstrating left lateral flexion (tilt), left spinal rotation, thoracic anterior glide and some pretty extreme mobility in the shoulder, elbow and wrist.





Anderson Silva


Anderson Silva in cervical and thoracic flexion and some lumbar flexion as well while throwing a painful front kick



George St. Pierre

George St. Pierre expressing left lateral flexion (tilt) with forward spinal flexion and some left rotation throughout the entire spine while throwing a round kick to the head.




George St. Pierre


Here is GSP again in spinal flexion, right tilt and a little twisting while taking down his opponent.





Manny Pacquiao

The best pound for pound boxer in the world Manny "Pacman" Pacquiao in full spinal flexion while landing a crushing upper cut to his opponent's jaw.




Derek Pounstone


Derek Pounstone, World's Strongest Man competitor from America in spinal flexion lifting a 300 lb Atlas stone.



I could go on and on.

Needless to say, the spine rarely is every straight in athletic movements. Only in the artificial world of the gym do we see a perfectly straight spine... well at least people are told to keep a straight spine.

That isn't to say that we should not be attempting to create a "long" spine, i.e.. space between all of our vertebrae, but that long spine or space between those joints needs to exist during spinal flexion, rotation, tilting, etc. Also I'm not suggesting that a straight spine isn't ideal in certain exercises or athletic movements, just pointing out that rarely in the athletic world do you see straight spines in top level athletes so we need to change our thinking.


Why You Need Both Stability AND Mobility in Every Single Joint

Boxing and MMA coach Steve Baccari coined a phrase many years ago called "linkage vs. leakage." Leakage meaning that you are leaking power (force) out of a movement, such as a punch, when any joint in the chain moves out of alignment. Linkage would then be all of the joints in the punch staying in place relative to the ideal position of the punch.

Example, if during a punch the wrist bends making the knuckles point down (wrist flexion) then power is leaked from the punch. However if the fist stays aligned then power can be transferred. Also, if the fist is loose when it lands then power is leaked as well but if the fist is tight power is transferred.

So we can see from the above example that joint stability allows force to be transferred through the body. But on the flip side of that we have lots of moving joints in a punch... LOTS! We need all of those joints to be able to move through their full range of motion or anywhere along the kinetic chain of the punch force transfer is lost or technique is compensated for poor technique.

Go back and look at the Barry Sanders photo again, take a look at his right foot and ankle. This is a perfect example of how mobility allows force transfer. If he did not have full ball of foot contact on the ground and was able to only put his little toe side of his ball of foot in contact with the ground, like most people with limited joint mobility, then he would not have enough surface contact to effectively drive off of the ground.

Thanks to Barry's impressive foot (metatarsal) mobility he has lots of surface contact to generate force production. But as he drives off of that foot he needs stability to kick in so that he doesn't leak that force.

The great debate is solved, you need both!

Go back and look at any of those athletes, they are all expressing stability in a dynamic and mobile position. That means they move into a mobile position and then express stability to drive force through it while other joints are moving. This means that one joint is becoming stiff while another becomes mobile and then becomes stiff while another becomes mobile, etc, etc, etc.

So, now you can see we need to have mobility to achieve high level athletic positions and we need to be able to generate stability in those mobile positions to effectively transfer force.


How to Acquire Both

I advise all of my athletes to start with dynamic joint mobility. There really is no sense in learning to become stiff in a joint when you are already stiff there... right?

The best place to get started with dynamic joint mobility is the R-Phase and I-Phase products from Z-Health Performance Solutions.

After you have developed complete and total control of each joint through their full anatomical ranges of motion, you should begin working towards complete control at various speeds from super slow to medium to super fast.

Once again the R and I-Phase products will suit you well.

Next you should begin loading those movements. Load could mean resistance bands, kettlebells, adding more body weight or simply increasing the speed.

An example would be a closed-chain knee circle. Standing with feet under your hips and feet straight ahead make full circles with your knees coming to a complete lock at the top. Think of a clock, drop your knees out to the side to 9 o'clock, then roll to 10, 11, 12, 1, 2, 3 and then full lock. Don't skip any range of motion. (this drill is explained in more detail on the R-Phase DVD)

When you are really good at that and don't miss any range of motion, you would next work on keeping your spine long, making space between your vertebrae like we discussed in the "Athletes in Motion" section. Next work on all speeds from super slow to medium to super fast. Next increase the load by holding a pair of kettlebells in the rack, or wrapping a band around one knee and attach the other end to heavy weight that won't move, or move into a wide lunge position increasing the weight on one knee and do one-leg knee circles with most of your body weight on that moving knee. (this drill is explained in more detail on the I-Phase DVD)

Eventually you will move into your specific sport positions and load those movements. For example, I have my fighters get into a knuckle pushup position on top of a soft pad and do full wrist circles. I have my soccer players get into a sprint positions and do loaded ankle circles on the balls of their feet. The possibilities are endless.

How about a kettlebell lifter?

Get into your normal military press position, now rotate your spine/torso to the left and do your presses here. Do the same to the right. Will you be able to lift as much in this position? Probably not. But what you will develop is odd-angle strength, spinal stability in a mobile position and the ability to express strength when you move out of ideal positions, which is what happens in real life anyway. People go to the gym and lift with perfect form and then hurt themselves lifting a bad of dog food with an imperfect form. We need imperfect strength. Round back deadlifts are another example. Grab a lighter kettlebell and do deadlifts with a rounded back. It is important to note that before you do any of these loaded type strength drills you must first develop mobility and joint control by doing lots of Z-Health dynamic joint mobility, disregard my advice at your own risk. Remember, you must earn the right to do advanced drills!



  • Every athlete from any sport needs to have both mobility and stability (strength, skill and control) in every single joint in their body.

  • Everyone is an athlete!

  • Mobility comes first, then the athlete should work on developing strength, stability and speed in those mobile ranges of motion

  • Next the athlete should develop mobility in various sport positions, the I-Phase product is perfect for that. I-Phase is also good for strength work as there are a lot of unique loaded lunge positions to work in, not to mention the specific athlete positions from various sports.

  • Eventually you can make up your own loaded mobility positions that are required for your own sport. The majority of non-contact injuries in sports happen at joint end range of motion under eccentric loading. So I get my athletes into end ranges of motion for their sports and load them while they do mobility/strength work. Think of the positions you saw on the athletes above such as Barry Sander's right ankle, that is a perfect place to do loaded mobility.

Ultimately all of this discussion is irrelevant if you don't know how to move every single joint in your body through their full ranges of motion with skill and control.

To learn this start with the R-Phase DVD and manual from Z-Health.


Whether you are a competitive athlete, office athlete or weekend warrior joint mobility will make your life or sport easier, decrease your muscular tension, increase your strength, flexibility and coordination and eliminate pain.

Train Like an Athlete, Not a Hamster!



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