The line between flexibility and mobility is often blurred and confused. This is understandable. Although they shouldn’t be used interchangeably, they are certainly correlated and limitations in either flexibility or mobility will result in a restriction of movement. There is a definable difference between the two and understanding the difference will not only help you maximize your ability to move but also limit your risk of injury.
Flexibility, in general terms, is defined as the ability to bend without breaking. Flexibility refers to your ability to move passively through your joints. Imagine: a static stretch where you’re leveraging your bodyweight or other parts of your body (limbs, etc.) to maximize the depth or length of the stretch. The assistance from your bodyweight, limbs, or external apparatus is what makes the movement “passive”. Flexibility is a function of how long or short, i.e. how tight, a muscle or a group of muscles are.
Mobility, in general terms, is defined as the ability to move freely and easily. Although simple by definition, conceptually, it is a bit more complex than its counterpart. Mobility refers our ability to move actively and dynamically through our joints; our ability to move through a complete range of motion without restriction and limitation and without the help of any external support.
Mobility is the complex cousin of flexibility and is a function of factors such as strength, neuromuscular response, and flexibility itself. An individual that has good flexibility doesn’t necessarily have good mobility but an individual that has good mobility probably has good flexibility. So, for the purposes and simplicity of this article, we will refer to the two cohesively as “mobility”.
Mobility will vary from joint to joint and from individual to individual. It can be dependent on factors like age, gender, time of day, temperature, etc. It is an essential component of how functional we are and, needless to say, it should be part of a complete health and fitness routine. The problem is, for many, mobility training is often an afterthought and is something they do “if” they have the time.
Why is Mobility Important?
In short, adequate mobility decreases your susceptibility to injury and increases the effectiveness of your movements. The discussion should end right here.
Having adequate mobility will allow you to set up properly for key functional exercises and movements. To put this into perspective, imagine a squat. To execute a proper squat, bodyweight or otherwise, one must be able to move without restriction through the hip and ankle joints – the range of motion through the movement is dependent on the mobility of the hip and ankle joints.
It should be noted that when you squat you also move through the knee joint but, unlike the hip and ankle joints which are synovial joints and are anatomically designed to have a large range of motion, the knee joint is a hinge joint and should be limited in mobility. You wouldn’t want your knee to be excessively mobile side-to-side or backwards… right?
Oftentimes, it is believed that we can’t sink into a deeper squat due to lack of strength but a of lack of mobility through your ankles and hips is just as likely a culprit. By now, we all know the importance of functional movements such as squats and lunges. Therefore, we all know that having the mobility to support these movements simply makes our daily lives easier.
Many of us spend large portions of the day sitting – at work, at home, when we’re out with friends. In the seated position, our hip flexors are shortened. This is just basic body mechanics. If we don’t work on our hip mobility, these muscles will remain short. Shortened (tight) hip flexors are a common cause of lower back pain which, statistically speaking, 80% of us have suffered at one point or another in our lives. Lower back pain is one of many possible injuries induced by poor mobility.
We need to get over the idea that mobility training is supplemental to our fitness programs. Regardless of what your goals may be, it should be a primary part of our programs. Our lives literally depend on it.
How I Train Mobility
Mobility isn’t something you just have or can force. It has to be trained carefully and gradually. This is why resistance bands are the ONLY way to train mobility. The gradual and elastic nature of resistance bands are exactly what you need to ease your way into mobility exercises. Resistance bands, which are not dependent on gravity, offer resistance in all planes and this makes them integral in challenging your mobility from all angles. Consider your shoulder joint, a ball and socket joint capable of 360 rotation. How are you going to adequately and completely train its mobility with free weights which only offer resistance in the vertical plane?
Think of your body as a vehicle. Both are extremely useful in helping you move from place to place but it only continues to be useful if you maintain it. Mobility training is how we maintain our body’s ability to move.