Mobility vs. Flexibility

Is there a difference between mobility and flexibility? If I’m flexible, that means I’m mobile right?

I get asked these and similar questions a lot. The answer is out there. Medical doctors, physical therapists, chiropractors, and other professionals will likely have much better answers that are well sourced and backed by scientific evidence.  Here is the opinion and experience of one woman who observes it daily.

Mobility

The way I learned it is that mobility generally refers to as the movement around a joint (think range of motion in your shoulder). In this sense, mobility is affected by all the tissue and physical structures that support proper movement, of which flexibility is one component.  This is particularly important because people tend to either confuse or equate mobility with flexibillity, but they are not the same. Take for example: ME! I am pretty flexible. At the same time I suffer from mobility limitations in my upper thorasic spine, due to poor posture working long hours at a desk staring at a computer screen (correcting my posture as I type this), and in my rotator cuff, due to an old volleyball injury that gets reaggravated in overhead movements.

One of the most compelling explanation of how mobility is experienced in the body was taught to me by my physical therapist, Claire of Rose Physical Therapy. She said that the body alternates between stable and dynamic joints.

  • Stable joints are those that performance moves long one primary axis and with an extension limit (e.g., knees, elbows)
  • Dynamic joints are those that can rotate and hinge in a wide range of angles and directions (e.g., hips, shoulders)

Starting from the ankles (dynamic), you have the knee (stable), then the hip (dynamic), then the lumbar spine (stable), so on and so forth. Claire noted that hyper mobility in one region may be indication of over compensation for limited mobility in an adjacent region. For me, I am very mobile in my lumber spine which may be compensating for my limited thorasic mobility. The ability to test your own mobility and locate areas for improvement will go a long way towards keeping yourself healthy.

Everyone – athletes, yogis, corporate ninjas, power mom’s, the average Joe – should be mobilizing DAILY. Mobility is not only critical for physical performance and injury prevention, it is an essential component of health, well-being, and aging gracefully. I’m a huge fan of Mobility WOD (or the Starrett Method of Movement & Mobility) and the proud owners of both Becoming a Supple Leopard and Ready to Run. These books have become my go-to bible for mobility movements and self-care.

Flexibility

If mobility is the movement around a joint, then flexibility can be thought of as the movement between two joints (think hamstring stretching between the knee and hip joints). During workouts, we constantly flex and extent our muscles to move heavy things (sometimes that that heavy thing is our own body). Flexible muscles mean improved musclar efficiency and blood circulation which both support muscle gain. It also lends suppleness to our muscles that support faster recovery and fewer injuries.

I’ve noticed a lot of people stretching to gain flexibility, which is great. However, mindlessly collapsing into a stretch is not doing your body any good. The inverse is also true. Forcing your body into a stretch that is beyond your flexibility limit while retaining tension everywhere else in your body because you are so uncomfortable/in pain is putting tremendous strain on your nervous system (see great articles from sock doc on stretching for flexibility and its relationship to your nervous system). Here are some tips for stretching:

  1. Listen to your body. I can’t stress this enough.  Your body knows when somethign doesn’t feel quite right. You should feel tightness but never pain.
  2. Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. Make sure you modify properly if you are inflexible. If you don’t, you’ll be subjecting yourself to possible injury which defeats the purpose.  Here’s a great resource for some starter stretches.
  3. BREATHE! Especially when it’s super tight, you feel like no blood is flowing there (but it is, trust me), a tingling sensation creeps in, and you start to sweat. BREATHE! In fact, imagine you are breathing into the soreness. It’s a powerful visual.
  4. Dynamically stretch along with your mobility movements before a workout. Hold the stretches for longer periods of time or more breaths after a workout or on active rest days after you warm up the body.

Together, mobility and flexibility is a killer one-two punch. Mobility help to keep your joints healthy so that you can keep training, and flexibility help to keep your muscles limber so that you can recover faster. Both help reduce the likelihood of injury. Hve you done your mobility and stretching today? GO NOW! 🙂

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