I was totally stumped by this.
The idea of mobility is surely to be able to move a joint through its full range of motion (ROM).
So therefore, stretching your muscles will increase the range of motion and improve mobility…right?…right?…
Well…only half (quarter…smidge?) true.
I know, I was confused by this too!
What doesn’t help things is that the two terms seem to be used interchangeably in the fitness world too. It’s not immediately obvious what the clear difference between the two is.
So let me try and simplify it for you, as the concept is relatively simple.
Flexibility is the ability for a muscle to lengthen. Mobility is the ability of the joints to be able to move the body through space without restriction.
So stretching does help mobility…right?
It does but it’s not the whole story. If you consider the last sentence above “…move itself through space without restriction” then a tight muscle is a restriction.
So therefore, we need to lengthen the muscle to increase that ROM but there’s more to it than that. Which is why stretching alone won’t increase mobility.
So what role does flexibility play?
Flexibility is part of the mobility equation. We need the soft tissue of the muscle to be able to lengthen and not restrict the ROM in a joint.
Typically, the way to increase flexibility is to take the muscle to close (if not the end) to the limit it can lengthen and hold it for an extended period of time. It’s usually done with the aid of resistance and tension, whether that’s the floor, wall, blocks or straps.
Think of a forward fold. If you can get to your feet, grabbing and pulling the soles of your feet as you bend forward creates the additional resistance needed to stretch further, like pulling two end of a rope away from each other.
If you can’t touch your toes, bending forward to the point you can’t anymore is creating the tension in the body that’s needed. The tension is what’s helping the length to increase.
If you’re thinking in terms of when to do this, Yoga workouts such as Yin will focus on lengthening the muscle and getting deeper into the joints, although it’s safe to say that most styles of yoga have a positive effect on flexibility.
In relation to a gym workout, you want to save this type of work until the end, as it’s much more beneficial (and safer) to stretch a warm muscle.
Very relaxing too! Stretching relaxes the muscle and sends signals throughout the body that it’s now time to put your feet up and calm down.
With this increase in range of motion, your body now has to be able to move into it. It’s all well and good being able to push into it but if you can’t freely move into that additional space, then the flexibility isn’t functional. Which brings us onto...
Mobility relates to the joints, whether it’s the hips, the shoulders, the knees, ankles and spine. It’s not just the flexibility of the muscle but the strength of the muscle and stabiliser muscles to be able to move your body into that position freely.
Mobility is a prerequisite for movement.
An example would be in lolasana. Take a look at this pic of me balancing precariously on some blocks...
Now look at the gap between my knees and my chest.
Textbook, the knees should be tucked into the chest which means my hip flexors aren’t strong enough to be able to pull them in on their own (hence why I’m on blocks so I can get off the floor).
Now, I can pull my knees into my chest by grabbing my knees but I can’t lift them into that position without help. Therefore, my mobility in this position doesn’t match my flexibility.
Your muscles can tie themselves in knots too (those glorious points of pain in a massage!) which will hinder movement and can’t be solved with mere stretching alone.
We can’t forget the importance of fascia either. This is the plastic-like sheeting that weaves in and out of the muscles to connect them all together. Think of cling film holding your body together.
This can tighten too.
There’s a lot to mobility, right? Tendons, ligaments, muscles, fascia, joints…but it all boils down to how well that joint can move.
You can be sure though that if you don’t move and you don’t use your body, it will begin to seize up.
If you lose mobility in your hips, it’s like having a flat tyre on your car. You can move but not efficiently.
OK, so how do I improve my mobility?
It pains me to see fitness program after fitness program that don't even mention mobility.
In my personal opinion, flexibility and mobility are the two areas always neglected but they are so important for longevity.
I don’t want to be the grandad that can barely move and is hunched over his walking stick struggling to walk to the Tesco garage at the end of my street.
I want my body to carry me into the good times for as long as humanly possible and this comes from focusing sometime on flexibility and mobility. Making sure my body can actually move.
So to train mobility…
Move the joints through a large range of motion
Strengthen them by moving them into position and keeping them there Example : standing, lift your knee up to your chest with your hands for 5 seconds. Let go and try and keep your knee there.
“Un-knot” your muscles with self myofascial techniques, such as using a foam roller or lacrosse ball
If you’re interested in looking at a mobility specific program then check out Kelly Starrett at MobilityWOD (by the way, I gain nothing from pointing you in his direction. He’s just the authority of all things mobility)
What are the benefits of doing mobility work?
Well, better mobility will…
Significantly reduce the risk of injury
Decrease pain in the joints
Release tension in the body and
Move freely for longer!
Don’t neglect mobility and let’s make longevity a priority.
In a bit.