9 Pillar of Fitness Deep Dive: Mobility, Movement Skill, and Joint Health

100 year athlete 9 pillars of fitness Apr 03, 2024
100 Year Athlete - Jay Burke

Why 100 Year Athlete starts with mobility, and how we train it.

Imagine feeling the fittest you have ever been when ski season begins. You’ve trained to be stronger, faster, and more powerful. Your aerobic and anaerobic capacity are at all-time highs. You’re ready to send. But on the second day of the season, you rupture your ACL. All that fitness is now useless because one of your joints failed.

That is why the first of the 9 Pillars of Fitness is mobility. Nothing is more important for preventing chronic and catastrophic injuries in mountain sports. Mobility is also critical for being able to do the exercises that feed the other eight pillars.  

Sometimes, you’ll hear us use terms like joint health and movement skill interchangeably with mobility. They aren’t exactly the same thing (as we’ll explain), but they are all part of developing the ability to move your joints in ways required by daily life and your sports. 

The big point today:  Joints that don’t move hurt, and joints that can’t move break.

Think about doing a cat-cow, where you segment the vertebrae in your spine. If you sit at a desk all day and on a couch all evening, those vertebrae rarely move, so they stiffen and hurt. Imagine taking those stiff, sore vertebrae out for a day of skiing with lots of moguls. Those vertebrae can’t move so they can’t absorb force the way they’re designed to, so something else takes the impact—like the discs between the vertebrae.

After that ski day, maybe your back starts to hurt. Maybe you feel nerve pain shoot down your leg. That makes you want to move your spine even less. Immobility and chronic pain become a self-reinforcing cycle. But that cycle is a choice.

Range of Motion

After a major injury, a stretch of inactivity, or years of neglecting mobility, your joints might be like those of a couch potato. That’s why we encourage everyone to start their training with a Functional Range Assessment (FRA). This is where we measure the health of all your major joint systems: shoulders, spine, hips, knees, and ankles. We’re interested in two main things:

  • Passive range of motion: How far a joint will move when someone/something else moves it for you.
  • Active range of motion (aka “mobility”): How far you can move a joint with control. 

Passive range of motion is lying on your back and using your hands to pull your knee towards your chest (easy). Active range of motion is standing up and lifting that same knee to your chest without assistance (harder). Your active range of motion is always smaller than your passive range of motion. We tend to injure joints when we use them beyond their active range of motion.   

In an FRA, we compare your passive and active range of motion measurements to standards established from thousands of FRAs conducted on people of all ages and athletic abilities. We also consider ranges of motion for individual sports. A baseball player needs more range of motion in their shoulder than the average person. An alpine skier needs more range of motion in their knees.

We train to close that gap between passive and active range of motion so that you are in control of your joints in every situation you’ll encounter in your sport. To do that effectively, we figure out what is limiting motion in each joint. There is dense tissue in every joint capsule, the place where one bone meets another bone. We might need to improve communication between that capsule tissue and your nervous system. We might need to reorganize and build up the tendon and ligament tissues to a higher density. And/or we might need to reawaken and train muscles around that joint. 

All of that work requires movement skill: the ability to move joints both independently and together in a coordinated way. And to develop movement skill, we use controlled articular rotations, better known as CARs. In a CAR, you hold tension throughout your body and then move one joint through its full range of motion. We practice moving each joint independently because once you have that, using them together is comparatively easy. 

It Takes Consistent Work

Changing a joint capsule takes about 15 minutes of focused exercises, 3 days a week, for 12 weeks. If you get bored after doing the same thing for 8 weeks, too bad. Go for another month if you want that joint to work properly. 

To maintain your joint health, you must train it daily. That daily training can be as little as 6-8 minutes of CARs. Start the pot of coffee, do the CARs, and then caffeinate. You’ll feel better the rest of your day having done that.  

Meanwhile, you train the pillars of fitness safely within your active range of motion. That might mean you’re doing half squats or box squats instead of full squats. Injuries happen in the gym when people train a movement—like a squat—without the mobility in their ankles, knees, and hips to do it safely. 

One disclaimer: If a joint has degraded to the point where there’s bone on bone, there’s not much we can do. You probably need surgery. Otherwise, you can almost always improve the situation with training.

Again, none of our fitness matters if our joints explode on us. Mobility, movement skill, and joint health are the foundation of everything else you’ll do in 100 Year Athlete.