The Science of the Physical Environment: Understanding why optimal mobility is critical to optimal function

To understand why optimal mobility is so critical for us, we need to know exactly what mobility is. Mobility is defined as: the ability to move or be moved freely and easily.

We know we should have optimal mobility, but do we really understand why we have to have mobility to have optimal function? A major factor is because humans don’t exist in isolation; we interact with the world around us. For us to truly understand why mobility is so important we need to have a grasp on the science of the physical environment in which our bodies exist and function in. Understanding our physical environment will only empower us, enabling us to recognize the importance of how optimal mobility enables us to have the ability to optimally function.

We interact with multiple forces in the physical environment that our bodies function in. Understanding Newton’s Third Law is crucial. To simplify, I break the Law into 3 parts. Part one of the Law states: forces always come in pairs: equal and opposite action-reaction force pairs. For instance, we know that with everything we do our bodies have to deal with the force of gravity. Gravity is the force that attracts our bodies towards the center of the earth. Often, we forget about its opposite action-reaction force; ground reaction force (GRF). To understand human biomechanics it is essential we first understand the interaction of forces in the physical environment that human biomechanics occurs in.

Hi-Res Fig 3 Foot and Ground Reaction Force with LabelsEveryone knows gravity, and if you are clumsy like me, have probably experienced it firsthand by falling a time or two. We blame gravity for the fall, but gravity is not acting alone. We experience gravity during the fall but when we make contact with the ground our body experiences the interaction of gravity with GRF. It’s this interaction in time with gravity and GRF that we physically feel the pain from falling. If we drop a glass, gravity alone does not break it. Gravity’s interaction with GRF with the glass cup and the ground is what shatters it. Other factors obviously go into the equation like mass, velocity, direction, etc., but the main focus here is to understand action-reaction forces.

Lucky for us when we fall, we are not as fragile as the glass. A simple, somewhat comparable object to humans would be a basketball. When the basketball makes contact with the ground we know that gravity and GRF interact with ball and the ground. In physics this is defined as the moment when a pair of forces (gravity and GRF) are acting on two interacting objects (the basketball and the ground). This is where we need to understand part two of Newton’s Third Law which states that: the size of the forces on the first object (ball) equals the size of the force on the second object (ground).

We have seen this Law simply stated as: for every action, there is annewton3-1024x599 equal and opposite reaction. When the glass interacted with gravity and GFR at the ground and shattered, it was due to the fact that the glass did not have the ability to transform the energy of the interaction, so therefore it simply breaks. When the ball interacted with gravity and GRF at the ground it bounces back in the opposite direction (that is if it is properly inflated) due to its ability to transform the energy from the interaction of the forces at the ground. We can experience this equal opposite reaction force when we start to bounce a ball with more force into the ground; it comes back with the same increased force.

The reaction of the ball bouncing back into our hand enables us to understand the third part of Newton’s Third Law which states: the direction of the force on the first object is opposite to the direction of the force on the second object. The ball left our hand into the direction of the ground. Following its interactions with action-reaction forces at the ground, the ball’s ability to transform the energy from that interaction enables it to bounce back and travel in the exact opposite direction of the ground, returning back into our hand.

Newtons_cradle_animation_book_2To better understand the physical environment, we need to understand one more Law of physics which is: The Law of Conservation of Energy. The Law states that: energy cannot be created or destroyed, but only changed from one form into another to transferred from one object to another. For example, when the glass made contact with the ground, the energy from the interaction of forces shattered it and no energy was lost. When the ball made contact with the ground, the energy from the interaction of forces was transferred from the ground into the ball, enabling it to bounce back into our hand. Another we have seen on desks is Newton’s cradle pictured to the right, where the energy is continuously transferred.

In the physical environment in which we exist, these two Laws work in conjunction to enable efficient human function. Lenny Parracino, Fellow of Applied Functional Science at the Gray Institute, articulated it by stating that:

“We need energy to move. Energy allows work to occur. Work is the function of forces. Forces change the way we move. If we want to stop and change direction, we need to exert a force. But we cannot exert a force unless we have energy.”

Just like the example of the basketball, in gait when our foot comes in contact with the ground, we are able to transform the energy of that action-reaction interaction of forces to propel us into walking. However, if we lack optimal mobility in the foot/ankle complex, the transformation of energy will be inefficient. Lenny Parracino calls the inefficient transfer of energy through our bodies “energy leaks”. Optimal human function in the physical environment can then be defined as efficient energy transformations during biomechanics where no energy is “leaked”.

Optimal human function in regards to the interaction with the physical environment is for the body to mc-efficiency-equationpossess the ability for the energy of action-reaction interaction forces to enter into the system and efficiently travel through the body. If we have optimal mobility in each joint, as the energy travels through those joints, motion in 3 dimensional space will occur. Joints are not isolated but integrated. An action or lack of action in one joint creates a reaction or lack of a reaction in the other joint(s) which articulate to it in the kinetic chain. In other words, each joint plays a role to each other and to the body as a whole.

If we lack mobility in a joint, there will be stillness. As motion and energy enter into the immobile joint, injury and trauma to the joint and surrounding tissue is likely to occur. If the force entering the immobile joint exceeds the individual’s adaptive potential, injury is very likely. This lack of the energy to be able to efficiently travel through the body is an example of an “energy leak.” When the joints in our body lack the ability to transform energy efficiently, our joints function more like the glass than the ball in the previous examples. In the athletic setting, these inefficiencies greatly reduce one’s athletic potential.

By understanding the physical environment that human biomechanics occur in, we can understand why we need to possess optimal mobility to have optimal function. The objective in human function is to strive for efficiency instead of just being effective. Therefore, we need to identify any inefficiencies and address them to not only prevent injury but to optimize performance.

Just like gravity works as a pair with GRF, mobility works in unison with stability. That is why I stated optimal mobility is needed for efficient human function. Just as too little mobility is not good for the system, too much mobility is also harmful. What is needed is the optimal amount of both mobility and stability. The structures need to be mobile enough to move while at the same time being stable enough to return. We do not want to create mobility in a structure unless at the same time we are creating stability. It would be illogical to create motion and flexibility if we cannot control it. Mobility without stability is the definition of injury. You would be able to move in one direction but due to the lack of control, would not have the ability to stabilize and transform to move in a different direction.

Unknown– During a conversation over two years ago, Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell gave me a Basic Physics book (pictured left) that would forever change my perspective and understanding on both treatment and training. I am forever grateful.

– I want to credit the Gray Institute for furthering my eduction and understanding of human function.

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– John Quint NMT ART CAFS

Maximize Your Trap Training with One Movement

This is my favorite type of row. The objective is to efficiently train the upper, middle and lower fibers of the trapezius in one movement. The middle and lower fibers are stimulated and stressed when performing the row and the upper fibers when performing the shrug. By incorporating this movement you are essentially killing 3 birds with one stone.

Most of us have stronger upper fibers and shrug more than we row. For that reason, I generally shrug last and row first. However, there are times when I start off by performing shrugs, then rows, then finish with shrugging again. Making it essentially a tri-set or giant set.

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The trapezius (pictured right) inserts onto the scapula, so make sure you are fully retracting and protracting your scapula on every repetition for both the shrug and the row.

To fully maximize the contraction of the upper fibers, tilt your head (laterally flex) towards the shrugging shoulder.

If you found this to be informative, please share and subscribe to my blog via email to receive weekly posts directly to your inbox.

– John Quint NMT ART CAFS

Strategy: A Mobility Exercise for Every Athlete who Lifts

Strategy: a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall goal. Strategies are developed from fundamental truths. My strategy is to empower you with strategies that help improve your quality of life.

Normally I never talk in absolutes or generalities when prescribing mobility or stability exercises to individuals, as no one person is the same as another person. It is my belief that to get the most out of any form of exercise, it needs to be tailored to the individual’s needs and goals. With that being said, I am going to contradict what I normally do and say that, in general, I believe this mobility/stability exercise should be done by any athlete who lifts (specifically powerlifters, bodybuilders, crossfitters, and anyone who regularly does some form of bench press.)

Explanation given below in the video.

The reason why I feel comfortable recommending this exercise is because I am not basing it off of the individual. I am basing it upon the science of the physical environment that one of the most common lifting movements, the bench press, puts us in. The science of the physical environment in conjunction with the SAID principle is what justifies my recommendation. Ralph Waldo Emerson said in regards to basing ideas off of principles: “As to the methods there may be a million and then some, but the principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods.” I believe this method/strategy, which is based off of science and principles, will greatly help lifters.

To refresh our memories, the SAID principle “asserts that the human body adapts specifically to imposed demands. In other words, given stressors on the human system, whether biomechanical or neurological, there will be a Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands (SAID).” This is one of the most basic principles in science. The issue is we generally assume that all adaptations from exercise are “good”, but that is false.

There is a risk and reward for everything that we do. Everything in life seems to come in some sort of paired dynamic relationship just like mobility and stability. As lifters, we understand and have experienced the favorable adaptations from pressing movements like the bench press with increased strength, hypertrophy, etc. However, there are less favorable adaptations that we need to analyze as well so that we can address them.

In any type of press, one of the main objectives is to keep everything as stable and tight as possible. In order to lift maximal weights, the musculoskeletal system has to be stable. Louie Simmons was a former crane operator, once told me that you can’t do much with a crane that is on a barge; meaning even though the crane has the capacity to do the work, the lack of stability significantly inhibits its performance. Powerlifters understand this concept very well and have even developed gear like bench press shirts which significantly increase the stability in the musculoskeletal system. The increased stability leads to increased strength.

Through my years of experience treating a countless number of individuals who regularly bench press, myself included, I have found that one of the least favorable adaptations to the movement is loss of mobility in the scapulothoracic joints. This is not the the only unfavorable adaptation; however, it is one of the most common ones for the demographic of people who regularly bench press.

Image by Tom Myers, Anatomy Trains

Image by Tom Myers, Anatomy Trains

A joint is an articulation where bones meet and create a space allowing us to dissipate force. The joint we are going to emphasize in this mobility/stability exercise is the scapulothoracic joint (pictured right), which is the space between the scapula and the thoracic cavity. The physical environment that the joint is placed in is not optimal for mobility as we know that we have to create as much stability as possible to maximize our performance. We place the scapula on the bench to increase stability in the scapulothoracic joint. When the scapula is placed on the bench, the weight of our body in conjunction with gravity and the weight of the bar significantly compresses the joint space in the sagittal plane. Add into the equation the force of gravity, which is the weight of our torso, plus the weight of the load on the bar. Newton’s Third Law, which states that: for every force there is an equal opposing force, makes us remember that we have an equal opposing force of ground reaction force interacting between us on the bench.

Due to the combination of the SAID principle and the physical environment that our bodies are in during a bench press, what will occur over time is we will start to increase stability in the scapulothoracic joint, primarily in the sagittal plane, but due to the lack of any mobility during the movement it will negatively alter the optimal dynamic relationship of mobility/stability in the joint. This would be considered an optimal adaption if all we did was bench press, but we know that isn’t the case. In optimal human function, the scapula is supposed to translate and glide in 3 dimensional space with the thoracic cavity. However, the scapulothoracic joint does not get the stressor of mobility during pressing, but gets the opposite, so SAID dictates that mobility will decrease as there is no mobility stressor or stimulus.

The body is a whole and needs to be treated as such, but we can emphasize certain segments.Obviously if we are regularly bench pressing, it would be a good idea to add in a mobility stimulus to complement the stability stimulus from the press. The following mobility/stability exercise in the video below demonstrates how to effectively add functional mobility and stability into the scapulothoracic joint.

I set the exercise up in the gym setting using a band and a squat rack. What you do is:

  • put your hand in the band and and then wrap the band around your wrist and grab the rest of it with your hand so that you have a secure grip
  • take a couple steps back to increase the tension in the band so that you feel a stretch between your scapulae and in your lattisimus dorsi
  • have a wider than shoulder width stance and squat down – this should greatly increase the stretch you feel
    relax your arm and let the band take and traction your scapula
  • with you arm staying totally relaxed, rotate your opposite side hip into the same side the band is on (so if right arm in band tension, then you will rotate your left hip to your right side)
  • perform repetitions just as you would any other exercise

The goal of this exercise is to create traction and long axial distraction with the band in the entire upper extremity emphasizing the scapulothoracic joint, while simultaneously using your hips to drive in transverse and frontal motion into the joint and surrounding soft tissue structures. The band tension will take the scapula one way while the rotation at your hips will create a rotation in your spine and thoracic cavity in the opposite direction that the scapula is being tractioned in. The motion of the scapula going one way with traction and long axial distraction, while at the same time driving your hips in the opposite direction, will create real bone movement of the scapula over the thoracic cavity.  

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