This week's post is a short explanation on why we need to prioritize motor control, particularly of the spine, in our tight and restricted athletes. The tendency is often to look right at the joint or muscles that appear tight. Can't bend over? Must be the hamstrings. Can't follow through with the golf club or baseball bat? Must be tight hips. Well maybe, but it's also likely that underlying poor motor control of the spine is negatively affecting mobility and ultimately performance of the extremities and spine.
There is some compelling research by Moreside and McGill (click here for the article) in which they improved hip range of motion by stretching (the hip itself as well as the myofascial components). Makes sense, right? But here's the interesting part: another group performed only core endurance and control exercises and didn't stretch the hip at all - and hip rotation improved. A third group stretched and stabilized - no surprise they improved hip range the most. Why does this matter, besides being pretty cool? Well those with low back pain have been found to have MORE lumbar and pelvis motion during hip rotation which increases dangerous shearing forces across the spine (by the way, the spine was built to handle lots of compression but not so much with the shearing stuff). Hip-spine dissociation then becomes critical in which the stiffened spine allows improved realization of hip motion and power - improving performance.
While this hasn't been explicitly studied in other body regions, I believe there is a significant neuromotor, self-protective event occurring - the nervous system limits joint motion in response to poor dynamic control of the spine. The result is what appears to be tight hips, tight hamstrings, tight shoulders but really may be a vicious cycle in which poor spine control causes poor extremity control and a reactive tightening or fixating of the tissues downstream ultimately causing altered movement of the spine - won't be long before your back hurts. Not to mention excellent hip mobility is necessary for nearly all athletic movements.
Prioritizing motor control and spinal stiffness helps close the circuit yielding better power and mobility through the extremities. Increasing torque and mobility through the extremities keeps the circuit closed - reinforcing proper spinal stiffness. It's an effective system that is so often lost in our athletes who aren't performing to their potential.
What does this all mean? Put simply, organize your spine and prioritize control AND set-up. Getting into a flexed, bent-over spine position prior to swinging a golf club is difficult to overcome once you then load that system. Providing a stable platform to work from (again, proximal stability yields distal mobility) by getting the athlete into a good and repeatable position, along with some selective motor control exercises aimed at separating spinal movement from hip movement, will go a long ways to improve performance. Decreasing load and prioritizing quality is essential especially when learning or tweaking your skill or movement. We've discussed prioritizing spinal control with shoulder performance previously.
Bottomline: Improving spinal control (no, not sit-ups/crunches but functional positions with progressive core demands) and being hyper-aware of spinal positioning before and during movement can help improve extremity control and performance and will certainly augment your ongoing mobility work. Here's a prior piece we did on improving hip rotation mobility in swinging athletes.