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Exceptions to the exceptional joint by joint approach

28/08/2013 14:13


Exceptions to the exceptional joint by joint approach

by Greg Lehman
Categories: exercise biomechanics, ideal movement, Muscle Function
Tags: No Tags
Comments: 7 Comments
Published on: May 29, 2012

Exceptions to the joint-by-joint approach by Greg Lehman with commentary from Bret Contreras.
by Greg Lehman and Bret Contreras
Quick Background: The joint-by-joint (JBJ) approach, popularized by Mike Boyle and Gray Cook (link here), is a
method of categorizing how each joint should ideally function and what tendencies a joint might have toward
dysfunction. It also suggests how joints interact with each other and might provide shortcuts to identifying
shortcomings in a joints or systems functioning in the cause or persistence of pain, injury or less than ideal
performance. The assumption of the theory is best illustrated with this quote from its original description:

Injuries relate closely to proper joint function, or more appropriately, to joint dysfunction. Problems at
one joint usually show up as pain in the joint above or below.
Purpose of this critique: On first glance (and still) of the JBJ I thought it was beautiful. So simple, so elegant. It
is a common idea to look both above and below a painful joint to hopefully find the criminal that is creating the
painful victim. So at first blush I loved it, but as I thought more about it, I kept seeing exceptions to the rule. And if
exceptions exist to this theory, then maybe the theory is less useful and does not accurately describe function.
This post is not specifically evaluating whether an assumed dysfunction at one joint leads to injuries at other joints
(i.e. questioning regional interdependence), although I think that is important to do. I am merely pointing out
exceptions in the tendencies at each joint and how these exceptions suggest to me that joints may not be governed
by these tendencies and are obviously more complicated. If there are common exceptions at every joint then the JBJ
does not accurately reflect reality.
A caveat about critiques: I could not create this observation (the JBJ) about the body I am not that clever or
astute. I have a lot of respect for Gray Cook and Mike Boyle in creating and publishing their ideas. However, I think
that theories are meant to be tested. The book Movement is attempting to become a university textbook and the
ideas within it should be subject to some rigour. No one would consider it poor taste to critique a theory about the
origins of the universe just because you had a lot of respect for the physicist. In the same light, the JBJ theory
should be questioned because it makes bold statements about the ideal functioning of the body. Further, looking

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and questioning theory helps me understand it. All this being said, I think that anything I write here Gray Cook
already knows. After writing this post in rough months ago, I essentially found a rebuttal by Gray Cook called

expanding on the joint by joint approach here. He explains the limits and utility of the JBJ well and also provides
more food for discussion on how the body should function. He even comments on exceptions

Of course you will find exceptions, but the more you work in exercise and rehabilitation, the more you
will see these common tendencies, patterns and problems.
Brets Notes: I agree I could not have come up with the JBJ approach as Im not that clever either.
I think its a brilliant model and is incredibly simple and elegant. Ive learned a ton through Gray

and Mike over the years but everything should be questioned and scrutinized in the best interest of
scientific advancement.
Im more of a biomechanics and CSCS, so I dont have experience in physical therapy. But coaches
and trainers typically train folks in various states of dysfunction, which gives me some confidence

in critiquing the JBJ approach. Based on my limited experience in rehab, I agree with Gray in that
the body tends to break down in the manner described below, and in general Im a supporter of the
JBJ, but like most models, it needs additional clarification.
Here is the joint by joint in a nutshell. I list the joint and what is assumed to be needed at that joint
1st MTP: mobility
Midfoot: stability
ankle: mobility
knee: stability
hip: mobility
lumbar spine: stability
thoracic spine: mobility
scapulothoracic region: stability
glenohumeral joint: mobility
lower cervical spine: stability
upper cervical spine: mobility
And in Gray Cooks words this is how he describes it:

A quick summary goes like this

1. The foot has a tendency toward sloppiness and therefore could benefit from greater amounts of
stability and motor control. We can blame poor footwear, weak feet and exercises that neglect the foot,
but the point is that the majority of our feet could be more stable.
2. The ankle has a tendency toward stiffness and therefore could benefit from greater amounts of
mobility and flexibility. This is particularly evident in the common tendency toward dorsiflexion
3. The knee has a tendency toward sloppiness and therefore could benefit from greater amounts of
stability and motor control. This tendency usually predates knee injuries and degeneration that
actually make it become stiff.
4. The hip has a tendency toward stiffness and therefore could benefit from greater amounts of
mobility and flexibility. This is particularly evident on range-of-motion testing for extension, medial
and lateral rotation.
5. The lumbar and sacral region has a tendency toward sloppiness and therefore could benefit from
greater amounts of stability and motor control. This region sits at the crossroads of mechanical stress,
and lack of motor control is often replaced with generalized stiffness as a survival strategy.
6. The thoracic region has a tendency toward stiffness and therefore could benefit from greater
amounts of mobility and flexibility. The architecture of this region is designed for support, but poor

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postural habits can promote stiffness.

7. The middle and lower cervical regions have a tendency toward sloppiness and therefore could
benefit from greater amounts of stability and motor control.
8. The upper cervical region has a tendency toward stiffness and therefore could benefit from greater
amounts of mobility and flexibility.
9. The shoulder scapular region has a tendency toward sloppiness and therefore could benefit from
greater amounts of stability and motor control. Scapular substitution represents this problem and is a
common theme in shoulder rehabilitation.
10. The shoulder joint has a tendency toward stiffness and therefore could benefit from greater
amounts of mobility and flexibility.
It is theorized that if a joint moves away from this idealized function (and demonstrates the faulty tendencies), one
will experience dysfunction up or down the chain. This is termed regional interdependence
interdependence. What I question is
whether this is a useful or accurate viewpoint on human function considering that every joint has an exception to
these tendencies and many of these exceptions are not just minor outliers. They are quite robust and prevalent.

Brets Notes: While I agree with Grays summary and am a big proponent of the regional
interdependence theory, Im also of the belief that all joints need specific levels of mobility and
stability training. Im with Greg here there are certainly lots of exceptions to the JBJ, and some of
the exceptions are incredibly important, which casts doubt on the simplicity of the JBJ model.

The Exceptions
1st MTP (mobility assumed to be good)
Having instability or too much movement of the 1st metatarsal (e.g. it dorsiflexes) does not allow the the MTP to
dorsiflex. Therefore, you need stability at this joint for mobility to occur. Therefore the assumed deficit is a lack of
mobility whereas the actual tendency towards dysfunction is a lack of stability. The perceived dysfunction at this
joint is termed functional hallucis limitis and has been questioned by many biomechanists. See a review here.
Midfoot (stability assumed to be good)
The pronation (or a sloppy midfoot) bogeyman shows poor correlation to injury. Yes, the foot must supinate (e.g.
create stability) to lock out the midfoot for power production but we cant assume that having a lot of pronation
means that we lose force production and are at risk for injury up the chain. This has not been proven as a consistent
risk factor for injuries yet it persists despite many reviews questioning its significance.
The video below shows a former world recorder holder in the marathon and 10k demonstrating huge amounts of
pronation. It is hard to argue that he is leaking energy or that this pronation leads to some other damage up his
kinetic chain. This runner is 38, still running and still competing.
Ankle (needs mobility, tendency towards restriction):
An exception would be the tight calf muscles demonstrated in runners with a corresponding increased mechanical
efficiency (a recent cherry picked paper here and here). There is also a lack of research linking tightness in
dorsiflexion with prospective injuries.

Further, I am not arguing that increasing flexibility will negatively influence the performance in runners. I have
heard this argued and think the jury is still out. Here are a few abstracts showing no change in running economy

following acute and chronic stretching regimes (here, here and here). Note, I did cherry pick here. There is some
research suggesting acute stretching does influence running performance, point is, it is still up for debate.
Final point: athletes can get by without restricted dorsiflexion in many sports. Do we always want to go changing
this? Can you with certainty conclude that a lack of dorsiflexion is a true dysfunction? I think a massive post on
restricted dorsiflexion and injury, form and performance would be cool. Any takers?
Brets Notes: Greg raises some excellent points. Im of the belief that lack of dorsiflexion is

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certainly dangerous in weight training as it can lead to form decrements such as lumbar flexion

during heavy squatting. However, its probably not as dangerous for sports performance where you
dont have heavy weight on the back. Furthermore, theres probably a big difference between the
biomechanics of stiff joints in weaker, sedentary individuals versus athletes. For example, joint
stiffness adaptations in athletes may be caused by a shifting of the optimal length and/or
alterations in sarcomeres, titin stiffness, or connective tissue stiffness. However, in a perfect

world, most coaches would agree that they want their athletes to possess sufficient ankle
dorsiflexion ROM, so I tend to focus on whats optimal, rather than whats acceptable. Therefore
I agree, with Gray and Mike; most people would benefit more from mobility-related training than
from stability-related training for the ankle joint.

Knee (stability is assumed to be needed)

Of course we need stability but do we actually see unstable knees except when a ligament is blown out? While laxity
of ligaments (abstract here)may predispose to injury we cant see this with the naked eye. Depending on how you
define stability, are you sure that it is the knee that is unstable when you see the knee looking sloppy? The knee

just follows the path set by the hip. There isnt an instability that can be seen or measured until you damage some
internal restraint. We dont train the knee for stability we train the hips in association with the knees. The knees
benefit from the control of the gmax, gmed, gmin and hip rotators and on an unseen level the hamstrings.
An exception to the JBJ rule is the type of mobility we need in our knees (i.e. the tendency for the knees to lose
mobility). We need full extension. A loss of this following injury or surgery is huge for dysfunction. Check this
link here. Further, we need the joint surfaces to translate and rotate that is why some therapists do Mulligan
techniques, manipulations or mobilizations.
Bottom Line: The knees are stable because of what we do at the hips or the passive restraint system of the

ligaments (untrainable). Mobility of the knee is also important. Because of these exceptions I dont see there being a
tendency to sloppiness at the knee because that sloppiness (if relevant) is from the hip and therefore I question the

Brets Notes: For the past few years, Ive been heavily influenced by researcher Chris Powers, who
feels that knee issues are almost always due to problems at the hips. However, a conversation with
a high-level biomechanist in Auckland in addition to a couple of recent journal articles led me to
believe that optimally-functioning knees are not just about the hips we need strong quads to

influence pressure distribution, strong hamstrings as co-contractors for stability, and Im still open
for VMO potential, but more research is needed in this area. So knee health is highly dependent on
hip mechanics, but I feel the knee can be trained for improved stability and improved
biomechanics, meaning that the inherent forces and stress distributions (patellofemoral joint
contact area is increased via quadriceps strengthening, the ACL joint is spared from hamstring co-

contraction, etc.) can be reduced through strengthening muscles acting on the knee joint. So I
agree with Greg about the importance of hip stability but with Gray and Mike about the importance
of knee stability.

Gregs response to Bret: I am not arguing that knee muscles are involved in stability and health of the knee. What I
want to emphasize is that the sloppiness we see at the knee joint is more than likely due to alterations in how the
hip or spine controls the position of the knee or even the soleus. Poor mechanics of the knee are primarily
controlled by something else other than the muscles that just cross the knee.
Hip (assumed need mobility).
The rationale here is that if you dont move in your hips you will move your lumbar spine and predispose yourself to
injury. I love this idea and am reading a great PhD thesis by Janice Moreside (a student of Stu McGills) on this idea

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The obvious exception to the lack of mobility tendency would be the many biomechanists who argue that knee

injuries are related to alterations in control of the femur (increased hip internal rotation and adduction). You can
certainly make a strong case for hip stability being required to prevent injuries and certainly being a greater risk

factor for dysfunction. Because of research funding and the difficulty of research, hip extensibility has less research
supporting its relationship with injury. Regardless, these competing biomechanical rationales suggest that the JBJ
theory has problems.

However, it should be noted that the authors of the JBJ already recognized this exception and wrote:

The exception to the rule seems to be at the hip. The hip can be both immobile and unstable, resulting
in knee pain from the instabilitya weak hip will allow internal rotation and adduction of the femuror
back pain from the immobility.
However, we can also question whether losses in sagittal plane range of motion does lead to increased strain,
changes in movement at the lumbar spine and subsequent injury in the spine. Ive questioned this before here. One
example is the research that looks at individuals who have a loss of hip extension on a Thomas test dont actually
create more motion in the lumbar spines during running. Yes, this is one study and more needs to be done. I am

just saying that this is again something worthy of discussing. Last, in Dr. Moresides PhD thesis, increases in hip
extension following training were not associated with decreases in the amount of spine extension
that occur with an active hip extension movement (I am following this up with a post summarizing Dr. Moresides
great hip and spine research if you are interested in reading more of this).

Hip Bottom Line : The Hips need both stability (motor control training, movement, strength, endurance) and
Brets Notes: I am in complete agreement with Greg here. I dont know whats more important for
injury-prevention purposes hip mobility or hip stability, but suffice to say theyre both incredibly

important. Hip instability begets knee pain. For more info on this topic I highly recommend reading
THIS paper (click on the link and download the pdf). There exists research indicating that hip
instability contributes to low back pain and anterior hip pain as well.

I believe that the exception at the hip provides the second biggest blow to the JBJ approach. In
theory, it would be lovely to see this beautiful, alternating pattern of joints needing mobility and

joints needing stability. While its a nice overall model, the exceptions must be noted. This brings
me to my next point the biggest single blow to the JBJ approach:

The Pelvis!
The pelvis joint is completely ignored in the JBJ model. The pelvis needs mobility, but even more
important is pelvic stability. I am of the belief that pelvic instability is a huge criminal in terms of
creating mechanical insults to the spine. Im not sure if Gray and Mike purposely left out the pelvis
in attempts to simplify the model and allow for the alternating approach, or if they simply
overlooked it, but I feel its time we started giving the pelvis much more attention.

Many individuals are unable to adequately tilt their pelvis in various directions, and they lack the

ability to dissociate the spine and the pelvis. If the joint doesnt function properly dynamically then
I doubt it functions properly statically. Individuals typically possess incredibly poor motor control
in this region and could benefit greatly from static and dynamic strength training for the pelvis.
Core stability doesnt just involve the lumbar spine and hips; the pelvis is just as important.

Furthermore, research has shown that muscle function is unique depending whether core muscles
are acting on the spine/ribcage or the pelvis.
I believe that this is a major area for future research and improvements in human movement
mechanics and I have personally achieved success with my clients in implementing pelvic

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neuromuscular training strategies.

Lumbar spine (assumed to need stability and have a tendency to being sloppy):
I wont even get into this. Too big, too messy, too contentious.
I would just ask do you think it is all that bad to bend your lumbar spine during simple unloaded activities? Can

you name 5 sports that see huge ranges of spine motion as being necessary for success in that sport? Do some
athletes even use a flexed spine to lift heavy weights (although they can still be stable, a great study by Stu McGill is
here. Lots of lumbar flexion during lifting but that position was buttressed with stability derived via cocontraction).
Take a look at the range of motion in the spine in the graph below.

Do you think it is only occurring in the thoracic spine? Please note, the pictures are not exactly linked with the
ROM curves.

Bottom line
line: the lumbar spine probably needs some mobility and stability.
Brets Notes: The lumbar spine indeed loses considerable motility as we age, and while I agree that
stability is more important than mobility in this region (research shows that increased spinal

flexibility doesnt reduce back pain, but again, I focus on whats ideal, not whats acceptable), I

dont feel that its ideal to accept mobility losses. Smart training can allow people to keep their 3D
lumbar spine mobility (or even build lumbar spine mobility) while not posing too much of a threat

for injury, as long as end-ranges of spinal motion are avoided. That said, even when we think were

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stabilizing the core, the spine is moving. This has been shown with squats, deadlifts, sprinting, and
even kettlebell swings.

Over time, with proper training, the brain probably figures out the best compromise between

performance and spinal health and determines just how much ROM to allow in each segment and
how much muscle activation is required in the various core muscles to tune the stiffness and
stabilize in non-neutral positions.

Gregs outrageous comment to Bret: This might come as a surprise but of the studies done to date there isnt

consistent support that spine stability exercises are markedly more effective than other exercises (motor control

exercise, graded exposure, general exercise) for the treatment of back pain. Pain is a separate beast and we have to
be cautious in thinking that just hammering stability will decrease pain. Prevention of injury may be something

Thoracic spine (needs mobility): I dont have a strong exception that I absolutely stand behind. I just think that
like any joint it needs to both move and be challenged with physical stress (stability). There are researchers that
suggest the thoracic spine is also subject to the same form and force closure demands that the SI joint exhibits. I
believe they might argue that instability or a tendency to sloppiness can also occur here if you look for it (see
Diane Lee and LJ Lee in their Thorax book Just another exception to consider.

Brets Notes: Sure the ribcage adds considerably to the t-spines stability, so this portion of the

spine has a built-in stabilizer. However, some research shows that the thoracic intervertebral discs
suffer from an alarming number of herniations just as the lumbar discs do. Of course, this isnt
well-correlated with pain, but Im sure that most individuals break down in terms of erector
spinae weakening and can benefit biomechanically from increased static thoracic extension
strength, especially in weight-training

When under load, you can have all the mobility needed but without strength the upper back could

round too far forward and cause problems over time. Furthermore, I feel that poor postural habits

in addition to weak muscles contribute to the stiffening of the t-spine as muscle force is required
to pull the t-spine into proper position in the first place.
Scapula (needs stability): this one is easy using biomechanical reasoning. We need the scapula to get out of the

way of the arm bone. There is cross sectional evidence suggesting that those with impingement type pain have less
posterior rotation and elevation of the scapula. This joint has to moveit must posteriorly tilt and upwardly rotate. I
suppose you could flip things on their heads and say that a lack of mobility in one direction is really a lack of

stability in the opposite direction. The motor control deficit here is that we dont control the scap to get out of the

way. Again, I recognize that stability can be compromised when we dont want the scap to move but the point of the
article is to show that every joint has an exception and that all capacities are important.
Glenohumeral (needs mobility): Well of course it needs mobility, cant argue that, but biomechanically we also

argue that the head of the humerus needs to be positioned properly in the socketthis is stability. Deviations from
this (anterior or superior glide) are biomechanically considered to be linked with pain. Again, mobility and stability
are both important.
The tendencies at some joints can certainly occur and they might even be linked with pain and dysfunction

(although, I think this can be debated in another post and was only briefly touched on here, e.g. pronation), but the

point of this blogpost was to highlight how often we have exceptions to the JBJ. So we have observed tendencies but
also common exceptions at the same joint. When we have this many exceptions to the JBJ rule we might want to
consider questioning whether this is a theory that adequately describes human function. Is it even helpful if there

are so many exceptions? What I would stress here is that Gray Cook probably already knows this stuff and would be
flexible in his programming and assessments about function anyway. I bet he doesnt even need the JBJ and nor do
you. But, lots of other people may not view the JBJ with such flexibility and can become dogmatic and rigid. This
post was for those individuals.

Brets Notes: Im sure that Gray and Mike are well-aware that each joint needs both mobility and

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stability, but the JBJ model is directed at dysfunction and portrays how the effects of gravity, poor
posture, and sedentarism typically affect joint behavior. I still like the JBJ and teach it to my

students, but I also point out the exceptions and stress to them that all joints need varying degrees
of mobility and stability, and I especially stress the contentions at the hips and pelvis. The model
created by Gray and Mike is both genius and useful, but it needs further explanation to be more

Grays main point in this quote hits the nail on the head: The whole purpose of the joint-by-joint

concept is to realize generalitiesThe examples are there to make you think above and below the
area youre working on and in the things youre asking for.
So the way I see it, the JBJ model could be improved dramatically just by adding in the following
two adjustments:

1st MTP: mobility

Midfoot: stability
ankle: mobility
knee: stability
hip: mobility and stability
pelvis: mobility and stability
lumbar spine: stability
thoracic spine: mobility
scapulothoracic region: stability
glenohumeral joint: mobility
lower cervical spine: stability
upper cervical spine: mobility
Gregs Last Points
The exceptions pointed out above illustrate to me that most joints need both mobility and stability and we can make
an argument to train capacity in all realms of joint function to maximize a happy body. I would even go so far to

suggest that some tendencies to dysfunction suggested in the JBJ (and by Bret) are not even dysfunctionsjust the
normal variability that the body possesses. I disagree somewhat with Bret with the tendencies he suggested above.
That is cool. My opinions are provisional and will certainly change with more information. Its interesting that you
cant look at the same research and have different final opinions.

Last, I wont even discuss pain. The link between assumed altered biomechanics, poor form and future injury and
pain is extremely weak and may even be non-existent. This is something again worth discussing, just not here.

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7 Comments - Leave a comment
1, 2012 at 5:47
quoted on Exceptions to the joint-by-joint approach by Greg Lehman withJune
Bret Contreras. athleticevolution

[...] [...]

quoted on Bret Contreras Random Thoughts

June 3, 2012 at 3:09 am

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Exceptions to the exceptional joint by joint approach

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[...] colleague Greg Lehman and I recently pointed out exceptions and limitations of the JBJ model in THIS
article. The model is brilliant, but it needs some fine-tuning. I train mostly women and their hip [...]

7, 2012 at 1:54 am
quoted on Running in the Backseat: A rationale for improving hip extension
in runners

[...] terms of how the hip flexors get tight and the relevance of regional interdependence to pain (see here
and here). Yet, I do not completely ignore the possibility that hip extension limitations (or not [...]

quoted on

October 6, 2012 at 11:47 pm
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quoted on 12.10.15 | Phenomenal CrossFit

October 15, 2012 at 12:20 pm

[...] Exceptions to the exceptional joint-by-joint approach from The Body Mechanic This entry was posted
in Workout of the Day by Todd. Bookmark the permalink. [...]
November 4, 2012 at 1:42 am

quoted on Homepage

[...] Read More here: [...]

quoted on A review of Charlie Weingroff, his course and the SFMA November 15, 2012 at 11:59 am
[...] 2. My and Bret Contreras minor critical analysis of the Joint by Joint Approach [...]
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