Mobility vs Flexibility Defined, and How to Increase Both
Today I want to talk to you about two words we hear a lot about during training: flexibility and mobility. These are two terms that are often used interchangeably; however, they are not quite the same thing. So it is useful to understand the difference, and what that means in terms of taking care of our body.
Flexibility is the ability for a muscle to passively lengthen through a range of motion. It answers the question of “How far can you stretch?” It is the actual stretch capacity of a given tissue. Like most physical demands, you can achieve and increase this through practice. You can accelerate results by adding tension with the assistance of gravity or extra weight. Alternatively, help can come from somebody else pushing you further into a position.
When you think flexibility think: single muscle and isolated tissue
As you can probably guess, to improve flexibility we need to stretch. Putting our body into temporary positions to lengthen it works on the elastic components designed to help the muscles stretch. For example: Yoga or basic stretching where we hold postures for several minutes. However, getting more flexible is not just about holding a few stretches here or there or joining a yoga class. It takes planning, programming, and active efforts to achieve your desired goals. This is similar to how you would build and execute a squat program to achieve muscle-building gains.
Finding stretch positions and exercises you want/need will take you only a few moments of research on the internet. Therefore, I won’t spend much time going through those. Instead I would rather talk about what to do with those poses once you have found them. Back to my squat program analogy… Once you know the right exercise you still have to find the right weights, reps, sets, and number of sessions per week to get the results you want. Only if you set all these components right will you gain flexibility quickly and easily. (Refer to the S.A.I.D Principle at the end of this post and apply, apply, apply!)
How Much / How Often
Regular stretching improves range of motion. Plus: you either use it or you lose it. So follow the below blueprint and include it into your current or upcoming training program.
- You should be stretching every day.
- Stretch after you do your regularly scheduled strength and aerobic activities.
- Do each stretching exercise at least 3 times each session.
- Slowly stretch into the desired position, as far as possible without pain.
- Hold the stretch for 30 seconds. Relax, then repeat, trying to stretch a little farther.
- Always remember to breathe while stretching.
4 Categories of Stretching Techniques
There are different categories of stretching; therefore, it is important to know the difference between them. This will allow you to determine which will work best for you, your goals, or your sport. Current literature suggests that static stretching and PNF are superior in increasing range of motion when compared to dynamic stretching and ballistic stretching.
Movement / Dynamic Stretching: Where the person moves dynamically through their range of motion via controlled mobility drills.
Ballistic Stretching: Involves a less controlled muscular effort and uses a bouncing-type movement in which the end position is not held.
Static Stretching: Is where you stretch and hold your position for a specific amount of time.
PNF Techniques (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation): These techniques are performed with a partner and have 3 phases. A passive pre-stretch, a type of muscle activation and a passive stretch again.
Mobility is being able to move your joint actively through a range of motion. It answers the question of “How well can you move, all on your own?” Another way to think of it is: having the necessary strength to control yourself through a range of motion and your ability to control the movement of a joint.
On average, most people actually tend to have the necessary flexibility to get through a certain range of motion. However, they often lack the mobility to express themselves through that full range of motion. This means they don’t have enough ‘strength’ throughout the range to actively complete a given movement pattern in a controlled manner.
When working on mobility you are bridging the gap between your passive joint flexibility and what you can do actively. To work on mobility you want to use your strength to make your muscles work in opposition. For example: to increase the range of motion in your hamstrings, work on the strength of your quadriceps. This is because these two groups are the opposing muscles on the leg. One counters -and supports- the other.
You can do this different ways including:
- Contracting and relaxing your muscles (PNF).
- Moving your body through its full range of motion, especially end points.
- Moving against gravity or other external form of resistance.
Additionally, when it comes to mobility training we are essentially putting a very profound impact on to our nervous system. This requires communicating with our body and allowing ourselves to get into a further range of motion through strength (and various other processes) compared to general flexibility training.
Eccentric training to improve flexibility and mobility
Doing eccentric training has been shown to be effective in increasing lasting flexibility while gaining strength and mobility at the same time.
An eccentric exercise occurs when your muscle lengthens. For most exercises, it happens when you are lowering the weight. Take a bicep curl as an example. The upward motion in which you are shortening the muscle and curling the weight to your body is referred to as the ‘concentric’ contraction. The downward motion is the ‘eccentric’ contraction in which the muscle lengthens.
Doing bicep curls eccentrically should increase the range of motion around the elbow joint and make the muscles of the arm more flexible. To do this, you would contract the muscle of the bicep in 1 second and then slowly lower the weight under control over 4-6 seconds. The same method can be applied to the hip joint via squats, and around the knee via hamstring curls and leg extensions.
Mobility vs Flexibility
Note that flexibility doesn’t always tell us what we think it should about the health of a our body. So while working on flexibility does lengthen our muscles, it doesn’t actually tell us very much about the strength of those muscles. Nor does it prove their ability to move us around or protect us from injury.
Somebody who is very flexible might be able to take a pretty picture for instagram, but that wont tell us very much about the health of the joints of their bodies. So ideally, we want to be developing good mobility as well. We need flexibility first in order to be able to access certain moves and postures. But we also need mobility in order to correctly engage our muscles and actively access our range of motion.
In today’s world, most flexibility programs are going to have aspects of both mobility and flexibility exercises. So I wouldn’t get so caught up on the terms. Chances are these terms will continue to be used fairly interchangeably. Just remember that there is more than one way to take care of our bodies and that ideally, we want to be working to a) extend our range of motion and b) be able to use it in a healthy way.
Impose Demand to Get Results
With all of this in mind, I’d like to highlight one very important point.
All proven training methods are relevant and useful. And all are governed by the SAID principle, which implies: You (and your body) are going to improve at whatever you work on.
You can think of it this way: If you are not demanding a certain level of flexibility and mobility from your muscles and joints, then your body is not going to be encouraged to develop them. Unless you practice the motions and exercises that promote lengthened muscles and overall mobility, you’ll always be restricted in your range of motion
Ultimately, you need to have pretty much all aspects of a flexibility and mobility practice to get a nice well-rounded, healthy body. Of course, depending on the individual and the activities in which you wish to excel, you may have bias toward some methods over others. But we’ll leave that conversation for another day…
On an end note, one more thing that can be very useful for both mobility and flexibility is massage! You can go see a specialist or perform self-massage, such as foam rolling or other sorts of massage tools. Again, yet another fun topic for another day.
Let me know if you have any questions or would like more details about any of the topics covered above. And as always: Get It! And Good Luck!