You train for better strength, endurance, and cardio, but when was the last time you took the time to help your body move better? Mobility and flexibility can often be overlooked as they may not be as fun as other aspects of fitness. Lifting a barbell overhead or picking up clothes off the floor both rely on these two variables, so you shouldn’t lack either.
Sometimes used interchangeably, it’s important to know that mobility and flexibility aren’t the same, though they do share some similarities. Knowing the difference between them can help you better understand why they’re important and how you may be able to improve them.
Although they may not be as exciting as hitting a new personal record, they’re both essential for better function in and outside of the gym. Here’s how to know the difference, and what to do about it.
- What Is Mobility?
- What Is Flexibility?
- Differences Between Mobility & Flexibility
- Similarities Between Mobility & Flexibility
- How to Increase Mobility
- How to Increase Flexibility
What Is Mobility?
You probably hear it a lot: “work on your mobility.” Although it may not be as fun as throwing a heavy barbell around, mobility is essential to be able to move the barbell and your body properly.
How well you’re able to move your body freely is defined as mobility. Or, more specifically; “mobility is the ability to take your body through a range of motion, before being restricted, with control,” explains physical therapist Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of Movement Vault, a mobility and movement company.
Or, as yoga instructor and mobility coach, Alexandra Sheppard CF-L1, 200HR Yoga Cert likes to say, “Mobility is having strength within your flexibility.”
Take an overhead squat for example. Its more infamous cousin, the back squat, is notorious for allowing a heavy amount of weight, and you might even be able to squat your bodyweight or more. One of the factors in allowing for a heavy back squat is the mobility in your hip joints to be able to move through a range of motion with a load weighing you down.
However, the overhead squat not only requires mobility in your hips, but in your shoulder joints as well. Your squat may be strong, but try holding a barbell overhead and see how confident you feel then.
Why Is Mobility Important?
Mobility is beneficial in the gym, but it’s also beneficial when you throw a ball, walk up the stairs, and sit down and stand up from a chair.
Mobility is essential to our overall quality of life, especially as you get older, says Wickham. Your ability to move without restriction or pain means that we can comfortably perform daily activities and strength train.
“If your body isn’t moving through its natural movement patterns, you’re setting yourself up for an injury (that would be prevented with a little focus on your mobility),” Wickham says.
An estimated 59% of adults ages 60 years or older and 75% of adults 80 or older have mobility limitations when it comes to simple tasks like walking or climbing steps. (1) So, practicing mobility through regular physical activity can help reduce your risk of developing limitations now or as you get older.
How to Test Your Mobility
To measure your mobility, stand up and try to rotate your shoulder to fully extend your arm straight over head. If you’re able to move your arm and shoulder this way freely, your shoulder is mobile. If not, it’s a sign of a lack of mobility. In this example, instead of using a resistance band to move your connective tissues, you’re actively controlling and moving your own body.
What Is Flexibility?
When you think of flexibility, you may imagine someone doing a split. You might even be able to do one yourself or at one time had been able to do one.
“Flexibility refers to a connective tissue’s (muscles, ligaments, tendons) ability to temporarily elongate,” Wickham says. Your connective tissues are like finger traps; the amount of material doesn’t actually change, you can’t lengthen it (it’s physically impossible to lengthen a muscle, because the ends are attached to the bones at a joint), but you can contract it.
Even if doing a split isn’t on your list of goals, maintaining flexibility in your connective tissue can help you avoid an injury in the gym. (2) Hamstring injuries specifically are one of the most common injuries in sports, but having flexible hamstrings may put athletes like sprinters at a lower risk of a muscle strain. (3)
Why Is Flexibility Important?
“Flexibility is also important because when your body is restricted by inflexibility, and you can’t move through your natural range of motion, pain can occur,” explains Sheppard.
That means that your everyday life activities like getting out of bed, sitting to use the toilet, bending down to get a book, or reaching for a cup in the kitchen cabinet can become more difficult.
Poor flexibility can affect your health as much as it can affect your movement. Poor posture, decreased blood flow, and limited supply of key nutrients to your joints are all associated with a lack of flexibility. (4) So, if you can’t touch your toes, it may be causing more issues than you think.
How to Test Flexibility
Wondering if you’re flexible? Lay on your back and loop a resistance band around your ankle. Use the other side of the band to pull your leg as close to your trunk as possible, if the length of your tissues allows, you’ll be able to pull your leg all the way down and grab hold of your big toe.
If the muscles, ligaments and tendons are shorter, you may only be able to reach your shins or knees, which is a sign that you lack flexibility (or, at least that you lack flexibility in your hamstrings).
Differences Between Mobility & Flexibility
Although related, mobility and flexibility aren’t one and the same.
Mobility Is Dynamic
Dynamic movement means your muscles are lengthening and shortening while the joints are also moving. Your muscles and joints work together to move your body through a range of motion, and practicing mobility can help you move better and easier.
Think of when you’re doing arm circles. This commonly-used upper body warm-up uses the shoulder joint to rotate the arms and can help prime the arms and shoulders for an upper body day.
Flexibility Is Passive
Flexibility is passive, meaning it’s a person’s ability to move their connective tissue with the help of another person or tool, while their muscles passively allow the movement to happen. Typically your passive flexibility is greater than your active since there is an external force helping your muscles stretch.
Think of an active chest stretch. You can stretch your chest muscles by holding your arms like a goal post and retracting your shoulder blades, but you can stretch them more by placing one arm on a wall and leaning forward.
Mobility Requires Strength
The biggest difference between mobility and flexibility is that in order to move a muscle through its range of motion with control (mobility), you need strength, which is why Wickham says mobility is the better indication of how well and efficiently we move.
Flexibility is one part of mobility. But strength, coordination, and body awareness are also elements at play.
Mobility Before Your Workout
If you’re late to your workout, you may be tempted to skip mobility, but it can play an important role in lifting heavier weight and moving better in general. Doing mobility before your workout can help to prime your muscles and joints for the harder work to come. Not skipping out on mobility can help improve your overall strength and lower your risk of developing pain. (5)
Flexibility After Your Workout
After finishing a tough workout, you likely are ready to rush out of the gym and get something to eat. Taking a few minutes to practice flexibility after your workout can help relax tense muscles, reduce the strain on your body, and potentially reduce your risk of an injury.
Increasing your flexibility through stretching may help improve your blood circulation and decrease DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness). (6)
Similarities Between Mobility & Flexibility
Even if mobility and flexibility aren’t synonymous, they do have things in common.
You Can Lose Both
If not practiced, you can lose both your mobility and your flexibility, potentially putting your body at a higher risk of pain, injury, and limited function. Old age is a common reason to lose either, but it can also be due to injury or lack of exercise. Hitting the weights and doing regular cardio can be beneficial for your overall health, but it’s also important for any kind of movement.
They Affect Range of Motion
Inflexible and immobile muscles alike inhibit your body’s overall kinematic potential. Without a healthy combination of both mobility and flexibility, you may not be able to squat with the right technique, catch or throw a ball on the court, or even maintain proper running technique.
Flexibility Can Affect Mobility
They may not be the same, but mobility and flexibility can go hand-in-hand. Flexibility is a component of mobility, but extreme flexibility usually isn’t necessary to perform most exercises. That means that mobility can be limited by flexibility, but that super-flexibility is not necessary for most strength athletes.
How to Increase Mobility
If holding and controlling the barbell overhead is your weakness in overhead squats, the good news is that you can take steps to increase your mobility. The very first step — and possibly the most obvious step — is to start practicing your mobility consistently.
Practice Mobility Exercises
Before your workout, take some time to circulate through some intentional exercises that can benefit your upcoming workout program. For example, if heavy deadlifts are on the docket for today, you may start your mobility training with internal and external hip rotations, t-spine rotations, and controlled leg swings.
The important thing to remember about increasing your mobility is making sure the movements are dynamic. Allowing the joint to move can help improve its range of motion and help enhance your muscle performance.
Get a Foam Roller
Incorporating a foam roller into your mobility routine can also help increase it. Using this self-myofascial stretching technique can help increase blood flow to the targeted area and loosen up tight muscles and joints, which can ultimately help improve your range of motion. (7) Foam rolling may also produce the added benefit of reduced DOMS and better muscle recovery. If a softer foam roller doesn’t do the trick, you can also use a lacrosse ball or barbell.
Incorporate Functional Fitness
Mobility work doesn’t always have to be done before a workout, as you can also incorporate it within your routine with functional fitness. Including moves that closely resemble actions we perform daily — like lunges, squats, push-ups, and pull-ups — can help improve the way you move in the gym and at home.
Functional fitness can help build strength in your muscles while also exercising your nervous system to better prepare your body for everyday bending, twisting, pushing, and pulling.
How to Increase Flexibility
Just like with mobility, you can increase your flexibility, but you must do it consistently. Flexibility is only temporary, so you can lose it quickly if it’s not practiced.
Try Static Stretching
There are several different ways to stretch your muscles, but static stretching involves holding a muscle in the lengthened position for an extended period of time. Static stretching can help increase your range of motion, limit muscle stiffness and soreness, and improve blood flow.
Taking the time to stretch your muscles for 15-30 seconds apiece during your cool-down can help increase your flexibility. If you’re looking to challenge your flexibility more, stretching with load can help further improve range of motion and muscle stiffness. (8)
Take a Yoga Class
Anyone from competitive athletes to regular gymgoers can benefit from hopping into a yoga class one or more times a week. Regular practice can help increase flexibility and balance, but it can also improve cardio fitness, body composition, and overall health. (9)
Other related fitness classes like Pure Barre or Pilates can help stretch your muscles while also strengthening them.
Practice Every Day
Just because you’re not at the gym or it’s your rest day doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still be stretching. Sitting at a desk all day or practicing poor posture staring at your phone can both affect your flexibility.
Find a few minutes each day to stretch your muscles before bed, or even on your lunch break. Small changes like this one can have a huge impact on your flexibility and can help improve your overall movement.
Stretching before and after workouts and incorporating yoga into your wellness routine can help with flexibility. Unsurprisingly, the connective tissues you want to keep mobile are closely related to the muscles you want to keep flexible. Incorporate thoracic movements, hip movements, wrist drills, and shoulder exercises to improve mobility.
Whether you add mobility into your routine through an online video series, foam roller, or by focusing on dynamic warm-ups, what’s most important for improving mobility and flexibility is doing a little bit everyday. So, the next time you have five minutes to spare, stretch out and move your muscles. Your body will thank you.
1. Brahms, Clemens Markus, Hortobágyi, Tibor, & Kressig, Reto Werner. The Interaction between Mobility Status and Exercise Specificity in Older Adults. Exercise and Sport Sciences Review. 2021; 49(1).
2. Kozlenia, Dawid, Domaradzi, Jaroslaw. Prediction and injury risk based on movement patterns and flexibility in a 6-month prospective study among physically active adults. PeerJ Life & Environment. 2021; 9.
3. Wan, Xianglin, Qu, Feng, & Garrett, William E. The effect of hamstring flexibility on peak hamstring muscle strain in sprinting. Journal of Sport Health and Science. 2017; 6(3).
4. Ketenci, Aysegui, Evcik, Deniz, Sonel Tur, Birkan. What is the benefits flexibility exercise training for adults with fibromyalgia? A Cochrane review summary with commentary. Turkish Journal of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. 2020; 66(4).
5. Morgan, Kerri A., Taylor, Kelly L., & Wilson Walker, Carla. Mobility Disability and Exercise: Health Outcomes of an Accessible Community-Based Center. Frontiers in Rehabilitation Science. 2022.
6. Deshmukh, Vijay Y. Health Benefits of Stretching. Aayushi International Interdisciplinary Research Journal. 2019; 5(6).
7. Cole, Gibwa. The Evidence Behind Foam Rolling: A Review. ResearchGate. 2019.
8. Takeuchi, Kosuke, Akizuki, Kazunori, Nakamura, Masatoshi. Association between static stretching load and changes in the flexibility of the hamstrings. Scientific Reports. 2021; 11.
9. Polsgrove, M Jay, Eggleston, Brandon M., Lockyer, Roch J. Impact of 10-weeks of yoga practice on flexibility and balance of college athletes. International Journal of Yoga. 2016; 9(1).
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