All About Dynamic Joint Mobility

By mc schraefel

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By practicing joint mobility with intent, we re-educate and rehabilitate our movement towards a healthier ROM.

What is dynamic joint mobility?

Dynamic Joint Mobility (DJM) is when someone actively moves a joint through its range of motion (ROM), and where the goal is, with precise movement practice, to improve the joints’ mobility.

DJM is not:

  • statically holding a joint in position
  • moving a joint through partial ROM
  • having the joint passively moved through its ROM by someone or something else

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DJM: A brief history

DJM has a long history, mainly as an integral part of martial arts practices such as T’ai Chi, Qi Gong and Bagua zhang.

It’s even part of modern martial arts like Russian Systema, particularly the floor movements.

Beyond bodyweight movements, there has been a resurgence of interest in Indian clubs for upper body and shoulder rehab (see DVD in resource section below). Club practices move body joints in multiple planes and through a full ROM.

The late 19th to early 20th century physical culture of richer joint movement that included calisthenics, rope climbing and club swinging waned by the mid 20th century. Exercising in gyms since then has largely become about training in limited planes and ROM.

In the 21st century, specific joint mobility practice outside the martial arts context via programs such as Intu-flow, Super Joints, Spiralflow and Z-Health have been developed. These programs are designed to re-introduce joint mobility practice and overcome limitations of restricted gym movements and sedentary lifestyles.

Why is dynamic joint mobility important?

Our bodies are plastic: we constantly adapt to what we do. This adaptation shows up when we learn new physical skills and build new body tissues. The principle applies to our brains and nervous system, too. We are “use it or lose it” organisms.

Our design is so physically interconnected that what happens at one site cascades to others.

For instance, if the movement in our ankle joints is restricted from normal ROM, this can impact our gait. To make up for this restriction, our knees and/or hips may change movement to support the missed job of the ankles. We practice this compromised gait many times a day, causing our muscles and related tissues to adapt to support our “special” gait.

This adaptation may have painful consequences: our knees may hurt from a walk that moves those joints outside a normal ROM. Likewise, our hips may be pulled out of their normal pattern emerging as low back pain.

This cascade is often why movement specialists will say “the site of pain is not always the source of pain.” Compromised joint ROM is often seen with limited squat depth and poor running economy.

As use-it-or-lose-it organisms, we get the body we practice having.

On the plus side, this means that better practice = better body.

By practicing joint mobility with intent, we re-educate and rehabilitate our movement towards a healthier ROM.

Benefits of DJM training

Proprioception/Sensory motor benefits

Beyond the physiological benefits of moving joints through their ROM, joint work helps us neurologically: joints are key triggers for sensory-motor perception. We experience the world in a sensory-motor hierarchy of visual (vision), vestibular (balance) and proprioceptive (where we are in space) systems. Joints have a very high number of proprioceptive nerves that tell the brain where we are in space and how fast each part of us is moving.

Reducing injury

Studies on ankle mobility have shown that athletes who practiced enhancing mobility/proprioception in their ankles reacted better to simulated stumbling than those who had not. Likewise, mobility work as part of balance and resistance training in elderly women at risk of hip fractures was found to have a profound effect on reducing the incidence of falls.

Micro DJM

To counterbalance high repetition typing/writing, someone can use “micro DJM”.

Typing is largely finger flexion without finger extension. Mobility drills designed for the wrists, hands and fingers help us get in repetitions that balance extension or flexion with up, down, side to side, and back and forth, movements that are all part of this joint’s capacity. These simple strategies can restore mobility around the joints and reduce the effects of associated conditions like repetitive strain injury.

Jammed joints and reduced strength

The nervous system is designed for survival first, not performance. If the nervous system detects a problem in its function – like a joint that is not able to move properly – it more or less cuts down power to the rest of the system (so the compromised component doesn’t put the system at risk).

This shutdown is global. A jammed joint in the foot can be seen in reduced quad muscle strength. Conversely, opening up the jammed joint can bring the power back on line. This phenomenon was first noted decades ago and labelled the “arthrokinetic reflex.”

Here, Z-Health Master trainer Mike T Nelson demonstrates the effect of jammed and unjammed joints on any other muscle’s performance.

How does DJM compare to…

…stretching?

Stretching has emerged as a dominant form of warm-up and cool-down. If someone has restricted ROM when doing a lift, we hear about “tight muscles” needing to be “stretched out.” We know, however, that there are times (such as before a heavy lift) when elongating a muscle is not optimal. See more: All About Warming Up.

DJM can improve performance without the potential negatives of static stretching. A DJM movement such as the outside toe pull (described here, shown above) can have a direct effect on the hamstrings to increase ROM at the hip.

…foam rolling?

Foam rolling is an increasingly popular strategy to work what is presumed to be restricted fascia, trigger points and/or again “tight” muscles. These approaches often tend to focus on the site of the issue as the source of the issue, without necessarily exploring why this tightness has evolved in the first place.

By working on joint mobility across the body, areas previously seen to be persistently tight begin to open up and, importantly, stay open. Further, foam rolling, from the body’s perspective, is passive – it’s an act being done to part of the body by something else – thus, less of the nervous system is involved in the movement.

Active vs. passive body mechanics

DJM is an active model, rather than passive, meaning that the body is actively engaged in movement and therefore firing up more neurons to learn how to reproduce these movement patterns on its own. It’s the difference we experience between someone putting their hands on our wrists and guiding us through a tennis swing, for instance, and doing it ourselves.

Below: Eric Cobb demonstrates differences between active vs. passive therapy in Essentials of Elite Performance Mini Course

Proprioception & pain

Pain is part of neurological signalling triggered by another proprioceptive nerve, the nociceptor.

Typically, there are more mechanoreceptors (nerves that sense touch, movement, and position) around joints than nociceptors. Mechcanoreceptive nerves send their signals several hundred times faster than most nociceptors. This means that proper joint movement can send a far stronger signal, faster, to the body than a pain signal can.


To get a sense of this effect, imagine a room where someone begins to sing God Save The Queen – if they’re the only person singing, they can be heard quite well. In fact, if they are the only person making a noise, it’s hard not to hear them.

Now imagine another 100 people in the room singing Oh Canada. Which tune will someone standing on the edge of the room hear?  Of course, the song sung by 100 people.

This overwhelming Oh Canada effect seems to be what happens to pain when mechanorecptors fire from proper joint movement. (It also sums up the Confederation of 1867 fairly succinctly.)

This effect contributes to why people who practice DJM report both pain reduction and a sense of improved energy.

Summary and recommendations

1. Dynamic joint mobility is important for overall wellness and function.

We have seen that one jammed joint anywhere reduces the strength of the body everywhere, but freeing this joint immediately improves performance. Our bodies are designed to move through a large ROM and various planes of movement.

Sedentary bodies rarely experience this full ROM in all joints. Since our bodies are designed to adapt to what we do, lack of movement can quickly develop into movement restrictions that have associated effects on well being, from tight muscles to arthritis.

2. This same plasticity, however, can quickly adapt to movement practice.

A deliberately designed DJM practice has tremendous and rapid benefits for well being, and re-educating our bodies about how our limbs are supposed to move. Such programs can be time efficient and move each body joint through its ROM in just 10 minutes.

3. Find a mobility coach.

Mobility practice, like any movement, requires skill development. While there are DJM programs available on DVD, for guidance and support, a coach can ensure quality of movement and accelerated progress (listings below).

Resources

Linked Listing for movement coaches (PN’s guidelines on how to pick a personal trainer apply here, too).

Cobb, E, Mauck, K, Mauck , Z-Health Neural Warm Up 1 and R-Phase Package (DVDs and manuals). Z-Heath Performance Solutions, Arizona USA, 2006.

Cobb, E, Mauck, K, Mauck, S. The Essentials of Elite Performance (DVD Mini-Course) Z-Heath Performance Solutions, Arizona USA, 2010.

Jones, Brett, Cook, Gray . Club Swinging Essentials (Featuring Ed Thomas) (DVD). Functional Movement, Virginia, USA, 2010

References

Click here to view the information sources referenced in this article.