“It’s a mobility issue”, “He’s just not that flexible.” These two terms gets thrown around quite a bit in the fitness industry. If you are in anyway involved with athletics, you would’ve heard these terms at one point or another. So what do they mean? Are they important and if so, why? How do we differentiate the two? These are just a few of the questions that we will answer today.
Wait, There’s a Relationship Between Them?
The easiest way to understand the difference between mobility and flexibility is to understand the relationship between the two. The relationship between mobility and flexibility can be compared to that of explosive power to absolute strength. If you are not very familiar with strength training, the similar comparison can be made for the wattage of a battery to its efficiency.
Simply put, in terms of physical training, flexibility is the maximum range of motion you have in a given area of your body. Mobility, on the other hand, is your ability to express that flexibility in motion. So as you may have guessed, flexibility is static while mobility is dynamic.
So going back to the comparison with explosive to absolute strength; imagine an Olympic weightlifter performing the Snatch lift. The athlete is showing explosive power in this case. Now imagine the athlete training to increase their absolutely strength by squatting heavy weights. The weight being moved in this case are heavier than that of the Snatch lift. I used this comparison on purpose in this case because an Olympic weightlifter needs tremendous mobility in their shoulders, hips, and ankles as much as strength all over their body.
So just like power is based on absolutely strength (not solely, but it’s the foundation), mobility is based on flexibility.
For those of us that do better with an actual definition, here is it:
Mobility- Capable of moving or changing quickly from one state or condition to another.
Flexibility- Readily bending or twisting the body without damage.¹
So What Does It Do For Me?
So what does being flexible or mobile have anything to do with me? I’m not trying to be a contortionist or a yoga master!
Although those endeavors may not be on the top of your priority list (or maybe they are), there are more benefits to being flexible and mobile than just being flexible and mobile. Flexibility and mobility not only yield physical benefits, but they carry psychological benefits as well. Here are just a few key positives effects you may experience if you worked towards being more physically flexible and mobile.
- Increased ranges of motion
- Decreased risk of injury during movements
- Increased muscle activation, which leads to increased strength and decreased fatigue
- In the area of the neck, increased blood flow to the brain
- Healthier joints and tissues
- Decreased blockages in the body leading to overall well-being
The last point may sound a bit “woo-woo” to some of us, but different muscle groups in the body has been linked to different organs, which are linked to different emotions. These parts of your body and mind are all inter-related and have a direct relationship. This means any effects that one part experience will also be reflected in the associated parts as well.
The muscle-organ-emotion association is covered in multiple disciplines such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and resistance stretching. I will be doing a review later on a product related to resistance stretching so be sure to stay tuned for that.
So obviously, being flexible and mobile does a lot more for us than just splits and back bridges.
Is One More Important Than The Other?
If you have ever experience a sprain or a muscle pull, you have experienced the results of not being mobile in that injured area. However, that does not necessarily mean you were not flexible. How does that make sense?
As we discussed before, mobility is your ability to express your flexibility in motion. You can have all the flexibility in the world and lack so much mobility that you pull a hamstring jogging. This is a very common occurrence among athletes (lack of mobility that is) and it’s irritating when they are misdiagnosed with lack of flexibility.
I am by no means a sports coach or physical therapists, but a lot of the athletes that are getting hurt because they are “not flexible enough” have great ranges of motion in static positions. So what’s the fix?
There are really two parts to this, the first being a proper warm-up. But even with that, some athletes still experience problems related to “lack of flexibility”. The second part of the solution is *drum roll… you guessed it: Mobility.
A proper warm-up should automatically include mobility drills that involves the muscles and joints to be worked on. This ensures blood is flowing into those areas and the tissues there are ready for the work ahead. But mobility is something that deserves more time than just in the warm-up. They need to be worked on separately.
So one is not more important than the other. It is important to continually working on both to make sure you have the range of motion (flexibility) and the ability to move within those ranges safely (mobility).
Most people have a basic idea when it comes to gauging how flexible they are. Stretches we learned in gym class in school and see athletes do on TV can help us improve our flexibility. A few key points to keep in mind when you are testing yourself:
- Do not “bounce” to try to get a better measurement. This increases your risk of pulling a muscle and it gives you inaccurate results. It’s not a competition with a cash prize for the winner, you’re competing against yourself.
- Do this after you have warmed up at the very least, preferably after a workout when your muscles are warmed and primed.
- Be conservative. If you feel pain, do NOT push further. Clearly differentiate between painful and uncomfortable, then aim for the most uncomfortable state without landing in the painful zone.
- For testing, just hold the stretch for 3 to 5 seconds max.
All you have to do to test your mobility is simply perform a dynamic movement involving the joint or muscle of your choice. If it’s shoulder mobility that you want to test, try an exercise called Shoulder Dislocates (you’re not supposed to actually dislocate your shoulders with this). If it’s your hips, try a deep side lunge. Here are a few pointers:
- Start SLOW. Not million dollar man slow, but do a few slow versions of the movements. This primes your motor for doing the movement faster and also gives you confidence.
- Stop if it feels uncomfortable. Unlike testing for flexibility, mobility testing is dynamic, which carries a higher risk of injury. It’s better to err on the side of caution than risk hurting yourself.
- Record yourself if necessary. If you can remember how a certain movement feels or how far you can reach then you don’t have to do this. But if you want to keep records of your progress, then this is the way to go.
There is one exercise that tests your mobility like no other. It will tests the mobility in your wrists, shoulders, spine, hips, and ankles. All you will need is a broomstick or even a towel. This exercise is…
The Overhead Squat.
If you can successfully complete this exercise with decent form then congratulations, you are mobile and flexible enough to perform most athletic movements safety with proper form. Notice that this exercise puts you through the bottom portion of the Olympic snatch lift and standing back up. As big as the 105 kg+ lifters are, they are extremely flexible and mobile. So don’t think that people with big builds are limited with their flexibility and mobility.
So if you feel you are lacking in flexibility and/or mobility, what can you do to improve?
Basic Improvement Principles
As mentioned earlier, mobility drills should be an integral part of your warm-up. However, it is essential that you include mobility work in your regular training sessions, as a separate session on its own.
This will not only allow you to focus solely on the training mobility during that session, but also helps you set aside time in your routine to dedicated to mobility work.
I won’t bore you with basic exercises to improve upon your flexibility and mobility, but there a few important principles to keep in mind:
- The same keep points for testing applies to training, with a slight exception to mobility.
SomeMost of the exercises involves relieving muscle tensions and “glued” tissues, which can be slightlypainful. But here’s where another differentiation comes in. This pain is the “it hurts so good” type of pain, not the “i need an ambulance” type.
- The inflexible or immobile area may not always be the source of inflexibility or immobility. Your lack of mobility in the overhead squat may be in your thoracic spine, which causes you to bend forward and not able to sit down low enough. Just focusing on not sitting low enough may cause us to think the problem is in the hips, but it’s actually in the thoracic spine. So experiment with different exercises to see which areas you can narrow down.
- Be patient. Although you will see immediate improvements and possible pain relieve from these exercises, this is a continual process. Even if you are not an athlete training for strength or speed, improving your flexibility and mobility brings numerous benefits as we mentioned.
I personally work on mobility during my warm-ups before every strength session. Once a week, I do a full body mobility session involving a DIY voodoo floss bands, a PVC pipe, a lacrosse ball, and other gadgets. This keeps my muscles from tightening up, allowing blood to carry nutrients and oxygen for quick healing after workouts.
Putting It All Together
Now that we have a clear idea of the difference between flexibility and mobility, we can do a much better job at assessing the two. We have also discussed some of benefits to improving our flexibility and mobility; everything to better blood flow to organ health.
We now know how we improve these two attributes and what to keep in mind when we are doing so. Most of all, we see that both are equally important in maintaining our health and overall well-being.
For those of you that are interested in some of the specific tools I use for mobility improvement, here is a review I did for the best mobility bands I could find on the market.
So what do you guys think about mobility and flexibility? How do you go about training and testing each? Leave your comments in the section below!
- “Dictionary, Encyclopedia and Thesaurus.” The Free Dictionary. Farlex, n.d. Web. 13 May 2016.