Mobility and flexibility: what's the difference?

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We hear both often. We are advised to mobilize, become flexible, while sometimes reminded to stretch after a class. In our minds, they probably mean all the same when in reality they translate different movement abilities.

If we are into any kind of sport for fun or healthy competition, whether we just attend fitness classes or use the weights room, we must improve ourselves and give our bodies the tools to reach overall good mobility and flexibility.

There is a misconception that anything which involves the terms mobility and flexibility is reserved to gymnasts or dancers. Athletes such as weightlifters need to be mobile and flexible too in order to perform at their best.

Luckily the difference between these two is easy to grasp. After reading this article, you should be able to find a valuable reason to implement each one into your daily routine.


Definitions and differences


Mobility encompasses strength and neurological control over each articulation. According to Dr Andreo Spina, it allows us to control our flexibility by increasing our load absorbing capacity or load management. That is what occurs when we 'open' our joints to perform a movement such as a loaded squat or an overhead press or any type of functional movement.  


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Flexibility passively achieves range of motion and usually requires an external force. For example, the split doesn’t produce motion but it is a phenomenal static position often used in martial arts, dance, and gymnastics. It is an undeniable asset if we wish to become supple without carrying any weights. The moment we are trying to lift a load overhead for instance in an overhead squat or a thruster, or front rack a kettle bell or a barbell, we employ mobility in both our shoulders and our wrists.


The body is interconnected; therefore, it is not necessary to dissociate joints and muscles. All the components of our bodies need to be challenged. This applies to any kind of activities, including the simplest ones such as running, playing with our children, or catching the bus. When we are sat down all day working on a computer, there is a necessity to stand up, walk and allow our joints a 360-degree both medial and lateral range of motion.



Two abilities, one purpose 

Now that it’s hopefully a little clearer, we must consider why we are trying to become more flexible or mobile in the first place. Is it to improve the quality of our movements, lift heavier, or prevent injuries?

Yogis might work on flexibility to be able to do the splits and they might work on their overhead shoulder mobility to be able to do handstands. One is passive and the other one is active (the body weight which lands on the shoulders attests of this active motion).

Weightlifters might work on hip or ankle mobility to reach full depth in the receiving position of a snatch or a clean. They will progressively load their joints depending on their inherent flexibility. 

No matter the goal, we should remember to always work under progressive adaptation and move in a pain free range of motion.


It is also important to note that mobility is not a general ability which is transferred to the entire body. Someone who has extremely mobile shoulders does not necessarily have mobile hips!


Strength and mobility are connected

If we only focus on strengthening muscles we run the risk to damage our ligaments and joints in the long term. To counterbalance flexibility yogis for instance, need to complement their training with strength training and more specifically isometric exercises to teach their body to control their own flexibility.

Same applies to Crossfitters and weightlifters, it is essential for them to also work on their flexibility especially after strenuous training sessions which affect their  range of motion.  


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What about stretching?

Stretching is often pictured as muscles elongating. Trying to touch our toes while sitting leg extended on the floor is a good example. As a matter of fact, trying to become flexible of mobile by trying the lengthen muscles that way may negatively influence the connective tissues (Connective tissues are a collective of cells, fibers, collagen, and fluid between cells) surrounding those muscles which might tense and create damages.



How to


In an interview with Barbend, Dr Spina explains: "So we’ll emphasize a combination of stretching with isometrics. It prepares a tissue to function in that newly acquired range. That might mean contracting the tissue we’re stretching, and contracting the shortening tissue on the opposite side of the joint."

We might choose to implement mobilization as an accessory exercise to our training or as a localized warm-up.

Here is an example of a mobility exercise for the shoulders: Shoulder Mobility with Dr. Andreo Spina and How to Properly Stretch Your Shoulder | Dr. Dre Spina | Jits Magazine where the notion of 'applying pressure' (Isometrics referred above) is emphasized.


Become more flexible:

There are numerous methods to increase flexibility but the best ones involve Sherrington's law of Irradiation. According to Ming Chew, author of The Permanent Pain Cure, The Breakthrough Way to Heal Your Muscle and Joint Pain for Good:

The law ‘states that muscles work in pairs, such that when one muscle contracts, its opposite muscle receives a nerve signal to release.'

Sherrington's law is also applied to PNF stretching, acronym for Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation. It combines passive stretching and isometric stretching which the technique used by massage therapists as it is more efficient when performed with assistance.


What about SMR?

After a workout, self-myofascial release is a great resource to release tight muscles. With a lacrosse ball, mobility sphere and a foam roller, it targets trigger points to get rid of ‘knots’ and tissue adhesion. It is effective to relax and appreciate a self- massage. Although most people will ‘roll’ over a painful area, it is recommended to find a sensitive spot, holding on to it by applying a gentle pressure for example with a lacrosse ball and contract and release the muscle or move the closest limb to get the tissue under the ball moved and released