Ailish McLaughlin:
Movement Specialist

By Ailish McLaughlin
February 2020

IG @ailishgetsbetter

Ailish McLaughlin
Credit: @louisahawkinsphotography

I have been a high level athlete for a long time; swimming internationally as a teenager and playing semi professional basketball for 9 years in my twenties. I started work (physiologist and S&C coach) and doing my PhD with GB Taekwondo 5 years ago and through that decided I would try out martial arts. I first started with kickboxing at an MMA gym in Manchester and loved it. But I didn’t enjoy the sparring as I hated getting hit in the face! The coaches there suggested I try BJJ which I eventually did but I it took me a long time to get to grips with it; grappling was very strange and uncomfortable to me at first. When I moved down to London I lived around the corner from Fightzone Gym and decided to give BJJ a proper go. I competed at Euros in January of this year, my 4th ever competition, and managed to get gold and promoted to blue belt on the stadium; this was a very proud moment for me! I am loving being back training as a blue belt and looking forward to hopefully competing at Worlds this summer!

What is joint training and why is it important?

Joint training is the act of training the fundamental motion of your joints (all of the ways your joints should move). It includes expanding the range of motion (traditionally known as flexibility) and increasing the strength and control of that range of motion. A lot of people, especially in martial arts, desire an increase in flexibility to make them better at their sport but flexibility is only half of the battle. Being flexible only means you have good range of motion but does not mean you are strong in that range of motion or that you can control it. This is a problem because if you are not strong in those ranges of motion you cannot use it actively and even more problematic, you are more susceptible to injury in those ranges because there is no ability to produce or resist force there. So joint training aims to ensure that our joints have the ability to move in all necessary directions and then aims to make our joints as strong as is possible in those movements. 


Joint training uses all the same ideas and scientific concepts as strength training but it focuses on maximising the ability of a joint to be able to move well by itself before interplaying with other joints. This helps to reduce compensation patterns and increase movement variability. For example, people who get back pain often rely on their back to do the work of their hips. This means that their back has to do a lot more work then it should. If we help these people to have hips that work as they are supposed to, then they have more options for movement and can take the load off their backs. As an added bonus, they tend to learn new movements more quickly and be better at them because they can better control their hips!

Ailish McLaughlin
Credit: @louisahawkinsphotography
Ailish McLaughlin

Who does joint training benefit?

Joint training is necessary for every human on this planet but especially for martial arts athletes. Most martial arts require participants to use their body and their joints in extreme and end ranges of motions. As explained above, it is not enough to just be able to achieve these ranges passively (flexibility). They must be able to control them actively. Unfortunately, due to the convenience of modern life and sometimes due to the repetitive nature of sport, we lose our ability to move and control our joints in some of their fundamental motions. So we have to do joint training to make up for this and regain adequate range and control in our joints for what we want to do with our bodies. Different martial arts might have slightly different demands from a joint point of view but achieving better rotation in all joints and the ability to segmentally (one vertebrae at a time) flex and extend the spine is critical for all healthy human movement. 

What is aerobic training and why is it important?

Aerobic capacity is the foundation of all fitness. It pertains to an individual’s ability to use oxygen to fuel physiological processes in the body, including movement and exercise. Aerobic training is the act of training to improve our body’s ability to use oxygen during exercise. This is important because this forms the baseline of all fitness. Whether you compete in a high-intensity, strength or endurance sport, you need a good level of aerobic capacity to manage the demands of the sport. This is because even if you do a high-intensity or strength sport and largely depend on anaerobic energy systems in your sport (those that do not need oxygen to create energy for movement), your ability to recover between high-intensity or strength actions will be determined by the capacity of your aerobic system. A better aerobic system will make you more resistant to fatigue in training so that you can train harder for longer with a reduced likelihood of injury, help you recover better between training sessions and help you perform better on the mats/in the ring etc. Aerobic capacity training is low-intensity, long duration training such as steady-state running, cycling, swimming etc. and/or can include some high to low intervals. This type of training should not leave you feeling exhausted and can be performed in addition to normal training. 


What are some simple ways to incorporate joint training into our routine and where can we find out more?

The first place I would start with joint training is to learn how to articulate/move each joint through its full range of motion. The way that we do this is by doing CARs (controlled articular rotations). CARs was developed by Functional Range Systems (@functionalrangeconditioning) creator Dr. Andreo Spina (@drandreospina) and they should be performed every day to maintain the particular health and longevity of each joint. To find out more about joint training head over to these instagram accounts. You can also find IGTV videos explaining how to perform CARs for each joint on my account (@ailishgetsbetter). 

Ailish McLaughlin throwing a ball
Credit: @harrison35mm

How did you get into joint training?

I struggled with a knee injury and lower back pain for most of my semi pro basketball career in my 20s. I saw lots of medical professionals about my knee and did lots of rehab but I could never get it back to normal. There were times where I couldn’t walk up stairs without pain, never mind run and play sports. Towards the end of my 20s, when I was working as an S&C coach and exercise physiologist for GB Taekwondo, I stumbled across something called Functional Range Conditioning on instagram. I wanted to understand joint anatomy better for the athletes I worked with but I also wondered if this might help me to solve my own injuries and issues. I went on two of their courses and my mind was blown. It made me look at the physiology of training and the body in a totally different way.  I was able to use this system of training to improve my own mobility and joint control and resolve my injuries and issues. Then I realized that I might be able to help other people in similar situations to me. So that’s what I have been doing ever since.


What is a movement specialist?

A movement specialist is someone who works to maximise a person’s ability to move their body well. I work by assessing an individual’s active and passive joint function through fundamental joint motion and using this assessment to create training plans and inputs to target improving any deficits in joint function. Creating joints that work well on their own then paves the way for maximizing movement quality by reducing the likelihood of compensatory patterns and improving the quality, function and robustness of all tissues to mitigate injury risk. I do private assessments and 1:1 training as well as run a class based movement enhancement system called Kinstretch®.

What is Kinstretch®? Does it differ to yoga/other forms of stretching and if so, how?

Kinstretch is a movement enhancement system that develops maximal body control through enhancing both flexibility but also usable ranges of motion. In Kinstretch classes, we do joint training so we aim to increase range of motion of the joint and then make it strong so that it can be used in a controlled way. It is different to yoga and other forms of stretching in that typically yoga and stretching is focused on passive flexibility. It is using gravity and or external forces/objects (such as the ground) to get into passive positions and hold them. This is good for improving passive flexibility but, as mentioned above, this alone is not enough. To understand the difference between passive and active movements, try this:

Stand up and pull one of your knees up to your chest as far as you can; this is your passive range of motion. Then let go with your hands and try to keep your knee exactly where it is (be sure not to bend your standing leg or round your back); where your knee drops to is the range of motion you can control. If your knee drops a lot or you have to compensate to hold it there, then you are not strong in that range of motion. You don’t OWN it or you can’t CONTROL it. Now imagine you are doing BJJ and someone is trying to pass your guard. If they push your knee to your chest and you have no strength there, then you will have a hard time stopping them from passing. In Kinstretch we strength train these end ranges of motion so that you can control and be strong there. It will make you a monster on the mats!!!!

About the author:

I am a movement specialist which means I focus on assessing people’s joint function and helping them improve it and learn about their bodies. I have just finished a PhD in exercise physiology in Taekwondo and worked at GB Taekwondo for 3 years as  a physiologist and S&C coach. I now work with MMA and BJJ athletes along with the general population in helping them physically prepare them for the specific needs of their body and the activities they participate in.