For many of us, our emphasis is on the quantity of movement and usually not the quality of movement. “I need to do 10 reps of [insert exercise here]” or “I’m going to run 13.1 miles today.” While having fitness goals is not a bad thing, little consideration is given to the quality of movement. In this post, we will discuss the components of movement quality and how you can improve it.
Why is movement quality important?
Try this: while sitting on the floor (you can sit with your legs crossed) try to rise from the floor, using the minimum support that you believe is needed. Now reverse the movement, attempting to sit on the floor. Here is a video of the movement.
Your score for each movement (sitting to standing & standing to sitting) begins at 5 points. Subtract one point from your score if you used your hand, forearm, knee, or side of your leg to support you as you moved. Also subtract a point if you placed a hand on your knee for support during the movements. If the movement was unsteady or your lost your balance, subtract an additional 0.5 points.
Now add your scores together (sit-to-stand + stand-to-sit), giving you a total movement score. Researchers found that each increase in score by one point conferred a 21% survival improvement. Sounds like movement could be pretty important...
How does movement work?
Movement quality is the combination of mobility and stability/motor control. Mobility refers to the range of motion of joints, which includes both soft tissue and joint movements (as opposed to flexibility which only includes soft tissue movement). The difference between mobility and flexibility is important, since flexibility typically infers that stretching is the solution. While this is sometimes the case, assessing both joint and soft tissue movements can lead to more effective strategies.
Stability and motor control refers to your ability to keep bones centered in the joint and the sequencing of muscle activity (stability muscles are usually the smaller muscles located close to the joint, such as the rotator cuff). To keep the joint in the proper placement, your stabilizer muscles should activate before your prime movers (ie. your rotator cuff should activate before your deltoids when raising your shoulder). If this sequence is altered, the length-tension relationship in your muscles will be altered, resulting in poor stability.
Evaluating movement quality
Creating a baseline for assessing movement quality has proven to be more difficult than first thought. The squat is a movement that is commonly used assess mobility and stability; however, the squat sometimes falls short. It turns out that mobility and stability can change depending on the demands placed on the body. For example, someone could perform a “perfect” squat, which would mean they are demonstrating adequate mobility and stability, but lack mobility and/or stability during a lunge or deadlift.
The leading method to assess movement quality is through the Functional Movement Screen. The Functional Movement Screen (FMS) is a set of 7 exercises used to evaluate how someone moves looking for limitations and asymmetries. The movements include are: the squat, inline lunge, hurdle step, shoulder mobility, active straight leg raise, trunk push-up, and rotary stability.
In the assessment, each movement is graded from 0-3. A score of 0 would indicate that the movement is painful while a score of 3 is a perfect movement. Contrary to common belief, the goal of the movement assessment is not to have perfect scores, but to have 2’s (which represent acceptable movement) with no asymmetries. Since we are assessing basic movements, it is more important to be competent in all movements instead of varying levels of movement competency.
Improving the quality of movement
There are a few ways that you can improve movement quality.
The first and most important way is consistently using your joints. Many of us get into bad habits which our body will adapt to. An example would be in our hips. Between sitting and standing, most of us rarely move our hips beyond 90 degrees of hip flexion in a given week, let alone daily. Getting into a routine of using your joints at their end range of motion, called controlled articular rotations, can help improve movement quality. The idea is to isolate a joint and move it in a circular motion at the end range of motion. This will get movement in all the structures around the joint (capsule, ligaments, tendons, muscles, and fascia) and help keep those structures healthy. Try to start a 5-minute routine focusing on your hips and shoulders, since these are two common areas that become restricted.
If you have some dysfunctional movements, then you will need to reset your movement software. The important thing to understand is that mobility and stability are closely related. Just because it looks like a mobility issue doesn’t necessarily mean that it is (for example, poor core stability can cause manifest as limited hip mobility). When aiming to reset your movement software, mobility and stability exercises should be used together whenever possible (and even in the same exercise if possible!). An example would be placing a mini-loop around the knees during the squat to help activate the stabilizing muscles with the movement.
When training your stabilizer muscles, it is vital that you keep in mind what their true function is (to keep your joints centered). Therefore, the issue is not as much about strength as it is about endurance. Should your stabilizer muscles be strong? Of course, but they also need to have to be effective through a whole workout or movement.
Let’s go back to our poor core stability and limited hip mobility scenario. Someone may notice that their hips are tight (think about those always tight hamstrings) and begin a stretching/mobilization routine. They continue stretching those darn hamstrings only to have the tightness come back a little while afterwards. This is because the tightness in the hamstrings are providing stability to the low back. Pairing hip mobilization exercises with core stability exercises would provide this person with the ingredients needed to get rid of this issue. Everyone has different strategies when it comes to movement dysfunctions, so a thorough evaluation can help pin point what the issues are (the FMS can be a great starting point).
In closing, creating a foundation of quality movement should be a prerequisite for fitness and life in general. Without an emphasis on the quality of our movement, movement quality will continue to be on the decline. Take some time to focus on how well you move, it can be very important to your overall health. As Gray Cook (creator of the Functional Movement Screen) always says, “move well, then move often.”