Lever #3: Exercise — Part Three: Stability, Flexibility & Mobility
Why and how to train for stability, flexibility, and mobility & structuring a well-rounded weekly exercise routine.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met a person yet who is limited by their mobility rather than their stability.” - Peter Attia
Doing Things Right
Although I’ve grouped these as one sub-lever, stability, flexibility, and mobility are independent types of training where some overlap may occur.
Our main focus in this article will be stability as it’s either overlooked or unknown to many of us and arguably the most important of the three. In addition, it’s often the limiting factor that prevents us from performing many movements. Here’s an example to help think about it.
Achieving proper squat form is a very difficult task to achieve — one that most people are not capable of. As babies, we can drop down into a perfect squat without even knowing or thinking about it.
But some time into our institutionalization (a couple of months or years of sitting for 6-8 hours a day in a classroom), we lose this ability.
You can take almost any adult, have them lie on their back, and by adjusting their legs to the correct position, demonstrate a perfect (albeit horizontal) squat. However, if you ask them to stand up and get into the same position while vertical, they won’t be able to.
Clearly, the issue here is not their mobility since while lying on their back they were mobile enough to get their ankles, knees, hips, and lumbar, thoracic, and cervical spine into a perfect squat position.
It’s when they stand up and gravity comes into play that their lack of strength in the transversalis fascia (part of the abdomen), erector spinae, and other stabilizing muscles prevent them from achieving perfect form while vertical.
If you’re an audio person, Dr. Peter Attia lays this out nicely around the 14:40 mark of this talk.
Similar to how we approached the previous exercise sub-levers (aerobic and anaerobic, strength), we’ll also cover these three by answering the why and then the how.
“[Stability] is the cornerstone upon which your strength is delivered, your aerobic performance is delivered and your anaerobic performance is delivered. And it’s the way that you do so safely.” - Peter Attia
I’ll start off by saying this. I’ve never intentionally trained for stability in my life. The idea of stability training is still relatively new to me and I’m learning and trying to figure out how to best incorporate this type of training into my lifestyle.
Since I’ve been convinced of its importance, I’m committed to incorporating it into my weekly routine and this section will serve as my guide, and hopefully yours too, on how to start doing so.
Stability is the way we transmit force from our body to the outside world. Our goal is to do so in the safest manner possible with the muscles that are designed to carry the load, based on the situation we are in, and not by dispersing force across joints that are not fit to do so (this is how injuries can happen).
The reason that stability is so crucial is that it is the foundation upon which we do everything else from running to lifting weights. The risk of being injured while performing any kind of movement increases as our stability declines. We can see how this progression impacts us over time.
At younger ages, our bodies allow us to get away with a lot. As we reach our middle ages, injuries or nagging pains, possibly stemming from the repetition of movements performed over time with a lack of stability, begin to catch up to us. As we grow into older age, a lack of stability can put us in potentially mortal danger.
For example, if an elderly person with poor stability is also subject to frailty then they are both more likely to fall and less likely to be able to recover from the complications of that fall.
Fun fact to cheer up your day: falls happen to be the leading cause of injury-related death among adults aged 65 and older and the age-adjusted death rate is only increasing* (*U.S. data). There are other factors at play in determining how one responds to a fall (grip and quad strength), but you get the idea.
There are a number of ways to train stability, but for now, we’ll keep it simple and focus on one of the most effective methods: Dynamic Neuromuscular Stabilization (DNS).
DNS was founded on the principle that there are around 14 movements that are natural and intuitive to us by age 1 ½ years old. Around that age, we can perform each movement perfectly.
Sadly, from there it’s all downhill. We lose our ability to perform these movements, largely attributable to the significant amounts of sitting, a stability eroding practice, that comes along when we begin school.
To put it simply, DNS is learning how to move like a baby again — didn’t think you’d go back to crawling around on the floor, did ya?
Before getting into how to perform DNS training, let’s define each word.
Dynamic: The movement pattern, as opposed to static.
Neuromuscular: The connection between the nervous system (neuro) and the muscular system (muscular). When referring to the nervous system here we’re primarily referring to the central nervous system, as opposed to the peripheral nervous system.
Stabilization: The synergy, coordination, and timing of a stabilizing group of musculature — diaphragm, pelvic floor, entire abdominal wall, and the inner segmental spinal musculature that runs throughout the entire spine.
Although parts of those definitions open up a few dozen more cans of worms, we’ll have to put those aside for now and narrow our focus on how to train for stability.
Since this training is less widely practiced, I haven’t come across anything that clearly lays out the MED (minimum effective dose).
Dr. Peter Attia is a huge advocate for the importance of stability and sprinkles stability training into just about every day with one longer, more focused 60-minute session per week.
Work in any stability training you can and you’ll be far ahead of the pack. You can always increase or adjust as you go, but sometimes the most important thing is to just start.
As learning how to perform DNS is a highly visual process, leverage the resources at the bottom where I’ve linked a series of short videos with DNS movements and a few stability exercises from Dr. Attia.
Flexibility vs. Mobility
The difference between these two is that mobility is dynamic or active, whereas flexibility is passive or static.
Another way to think about this is that mobility training is generally required before strength or aerobic exercise as a method of warming up, whereas flexibility training would be performed afterward as a way to cool down and lengthen the muscles while they’re warm. Not to say that you can’t train both of these in isolation of strength or aerobic exercise.
The importance of mobility lies in the role it plays in preparing our bodies for the stress of exercise or just everyday life. Flexibility helps to prevent muscle shortening by maintaining muscle length and as such can lower our risk of injury and improve our posture.
Improving mobility and flexibility can be the difference between slipping and pulling your hamstring and catching yourself and carrying on with your day.
As a starting place, I would highly recommend taking up yoga if you don’t already practice it. Although it skews slightly more towards improving your flexibility, it will also enhance your mobility.
If you’re new to yoga, Rodney Yee has some great videos to get started. As someone who couldn’t touch their toes two years ago, I attribute nearly all of the (minimal) success I’ve achieved in my flexibility to the sequences I learned through his videos.
I’ll link a few additional flexibility and mobility resources, but to keep it simple start with yoga and your favourite static stretches (if you don’t know any, scan the Exercise Resources section for ideas).
When it comes to exercise, doing something (safely) is almost always better than doing nothing. You can optimize and expand your flexibility and mobility practices based on what you enjoy from there.
The MED is between 3-4 yoga sessions of 10-20 minutes in length per week. In addition, perform mobility work to warm up prior to strength, aerobic and anaerobic training, and flexibility training (static stretches) afterward.
On a personal note, I find both of these training modalities to be very enjoyable as stretching your muscles feels amazing and catapults you into a calm, mindful presence and a deeper awareness of your body.
Weekly Exercise Routine
For less than an hour per day (6.2 hours per week) you can transform your body and as a result, your life. I provided numbers here to try and put this into a tangible and hands-on framework. It may not be perfect, and it could change over time, but it doesn’t have to be in order to be effective.
If this was way too much information and you just want to make it as simple as can be and get started, disregard everything you just read, download the Nike Training Club app and get in a few of those workouts each week.
You might choose to revisit these articles later on if you feel like shaking it up or designing your own routine, but the most important thing is to just get started and do something — however that may look for you.
Next week we’ll cover why the scale doesn’t really matter and improve how we track progress, analyze results, and feel good about our journey.
And, as always, please give me feedback on Twitter or by hitting reply to this email.
Dynamics Neuromuscular Stabilization (DNS) video series - The FARM: Functional Athletic Rehabilitation & Movement
Flexibility and Mobility
The "Simple & Sinister" Kettlebell Warm-Up - designed by Pavel Tsatsouline
Mobility Routine - Jeremy Ethier
Make it Easy: Cover Total Body + All 4 Sub-Levers in One Place
This was super interesting to read, Jack! I love the differentiation between stability, mobility, and flexibility and how you provide information for people with different capacities and abilities to get engaged, to tune back into their bodies, and to not just "get stronger." This piece was a great prompting for me to consider adding in 30 minutes before and after my workouts every day to help stability (in addition to flexibility and mobility), which seems like it would be of significant benefit not only as a preventative supplement but a supportive one as well. Excited to read more in the future and to try this out in the next few days!
Jack, this was fascinating and all new info to me on stability. I found the section about DNS and the 14 or so movements we did naturally as kids — and then lost! — especially fascinating. I appreciate the links to the exercises you posted. I need to look through them to see if there are ways I can simply add in different motions to my everyday WFM routine. Thanks!