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Unraveling the Distinctions: Joint Mobility vs. Motor Control

For this week’s blog, I wanted to cover a question that recently came up in an interview as it clearly highlights what it means to use a brain-based approach to building better movement. 

The question was, “Dr. Cobb, we’ve noticed that you often call many of the exercises that you teach motor control exercises as opposed to mobility exercises. What’s the difference?”

In the realm of human movement and physical performance, joint mobility and motor control play pivotal roles. While they are interconnected and complementary, it is essential to understand their distinct characteristics and contributions. 

Joint Mobility: Unleashing Movement Potential 

Joint mobility refers to the extent to which a joint can move through its full range of motion. There are multiple factors that impact mobility including skeletal structure, ligament size and attachment points, tendon length, muscular competency, fascial tension, and neural mobility.

Going further, joint mobility can be divided into two primary components: passive range of motion (PROM) and active range of motion (AROM). PROM is the degree of movement achievable with external assistance, such as a therapist or equipment, without any voluntary muscle contraction. AROM, on the other hand, refers to the range of motion achieved through voluntary muscle action.

Both PROM and AROM contribute to joint health and overall movement capacity, and limitations in either can lead to problems. Sufficient joint mobility is essential for optimal movement patterns, injury prevention, and overall function and performance. 

Motor Control: Mastering Precision and Coordination 

Motor control is a different beast. It refers to the ability to coordinate muscles and movement patterns to achieve precise and purposeful actions. Motor control involves the integration of sensory information, decision-making, and the execution of motor commands from the central nervous system. 

At its core, motor control relies on the interaction between the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nervous system and encompasses three key elements: stability, mobility, and skill. Stability involves maintaining a stable base and posture during movement, while mobility refers to the capacity to move efficiently with maximal energy conservation. Finally, skill blends stability and mobility into the ability to perform specific tasks with accuracy and control, such as throwing a ball or playing the drums.

Differences and Interplay: 

While joint mobility and motor control are distinct concepts, they are interconnected and mutually influential. Joint mobility forms the foundation upon which motor control operates. Adequate joint mobility allows for a greater potential for movement and enhances the body’s ability to execute precise actions. In contrast, limited joint mobility can restrict movement patterns and impede motor control capabilities.

Motor control, however, goes beyond joint mobility. It encompasses the coordination of muscles, the integration of sensory feedback, and the execution of movement with precision and efficiency. It relies on an intensive integration and interplay between multiple body systems and can compensate for joint limitations by employing alternative movement strategies and recruiting different muscle groups to accomplish a task.

The basic takeaway here is that in the pursuit of optimal performance, both joint mobility and motor control should be addressed. Assessing and improving joint mobility can enhance the body’s capacity for movement, reduce the risk of injury, and provide a solid foundation for motor control development. Simultaneously, enhancing motor control through brain-based exercises can refine movement patterns, optimize efficiency, and unlock our true physical potential.

In today’s movement world mobility is a trendy topic, and a lot of time and focus is spent on it. However, the key to remember is that mobility is simply a base on which to build coordination and control which offers benefits that far exceed localized improvements in joint range of motion. For your long-term growth as a coach and athlete make sure that you clearly understand the difference!

Keep moving.

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