What’s the Difference Between Mobility vs. Flexibility?

Mobility is having a moment. But what is it, exactly?

Before you ask: mobility is not synonymous with flexibility. People have been using flexibility and mobility interchangeable forever, but recently there’s been a bigger push to separate the two concepts. That’s because while colloquially “mobility” and “flexibility” may sound the same, they are different (though connected) cornerstones of fitness.

“Flexibility refers to a connective tissues (muscles, ligaments, tendons) ability to temporality elongate,” explains physical therapist Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of Movement Vault, a mobility and movement company. Our 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.

Flexibility is passive. It’s a person’s ability to move their connective tissue with the help of a another person or tool, while their muscles passively allow the movement to happen, he says. “Flexibility means the muscles are and joints are stretchy and pliable,” adds yoga instructor and mobility coach, Alexandra Sheppard CF-L1, 200HR Yoga Cert.

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).

Flexibility is 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 our 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.

On the other hand: “Mobility is our ability to take our body through a range of motion, before being restricted, with control,” Wickham says. Or, as Sheppard likes to say, “Mobility is having strength within your flexibility.”

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 you connective tissues, you’re actively controlling and moving your own body.

Mobility is essential to our overall quality of life, especially as we get older, says Wickham. Our 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),” he says.

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 Wickhams 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 of mobility. So while flexibility is a component of mobility, 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.

Here’s what that looks like in practice: Someone with great mobility may be able to squat below parallel with 200 pounds on their back with no restrictions of range of motion. A flexible person may be able to break parallel with a bodyweight squat, but once you put 100 pounds on their back (let alone 200 pounds) they may not have the strength, core strength, balance, or coordination to perform the same motion. But someone with poor mobility may be able to complete a partial rep with 100 or 200 pounds on their back but does not have the range of motion necessary to break parallel.

That said, both mobility and flexibility are important. You need your muscles to have the strength to support your movements, and elasticity which allows you move freely, says Sheppard. Luckily, it’s possible to to work on improving all-over flexibility and mobility.

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.  

Foam rolling and self-myofascial release can improve mobility, too. It can be a bit torturous at first, but research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that gritting it out can do wonders for tight muscles by breaking up scar tissue and improving circulation.

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 is doing a little bit everyday. Even five minutes can be beneficial.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Featured image: @davedriskell on Instagram

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