Mobility vs. Flexibility
Mobility training seems to be all the rage these days and has been widely accepted by both ends of the movement, sport and performance spectrum. However, as a growing trend, the word “mobility” is more and more often being used interchangeably with terms, such as; “flexibility,” and “stretching.”
For instance, many clients come to me and say they have been told they are tight, and need to stretch. Some of these clients have been prescribed Yoga classes or been given “stretching” exercises, but isolated stretching or classes that encourage improved flexibility will not address, nor fix a mobility dysfunction problem.
Understanding the “why” we prescribe and the “how” are key to, not only a client’s success, but in their understanding of how to self manage their health. Let’s start by defining the three terms:
Flexibility is the ability of a muscle or group of muscles to lengthen passively through a range of motion. It is specific to that particular “part or parts.” Notice the word passively. During screening, one must assess tissue extensibility and length to determine if the dysfunction is a true muscle tissue issue, or, a joint issue.
Mobility is the ability to move a joint actively through a range of motion. Mobility is all encompassing and takes into account the joint, the joint capsule (ligaments), the muscles crossing the joint and the nervous system (motor control). This requires movement can control. Notice the word actively. This speaks to a clients ability to control movement. Screening mobility should also address mobility dysfunctions and or tissue extensibility dysfunctions.
Joints vs. Tissues:
As an industry too often we merely think of “flexibility” or “mobility” as being solely just tissue related, but what about the joints? Mobility dysfunctions are seldom differentiated appropriately because we need to screen them separately. We need to determine patterns vs. parts. This should be a two pronged process to differentiate mobility dysfunctions; further into either joint mobility or tissue extensibility dysfunctions. Joint pain, unlike muscle soreness, is a legitimate, bonified red flag, much like tight and overly toned tissue restrictions is a legitimate yellow flag. I say yellow because even if there is no pain yet, if not addressed, there could be.
Patterns vs. Parts:
In corrective movement, we focus much of our attention to “training patterns,” not parts.” This means that when a client is prescribed an exercise, it needs to address a pattern of movement, not just a part of the body. If there is an action to one part, there will be an equal reaction to surrounding parts AND to the pattern. As part of my overall screening I ensure “mobility (patterns) is optimal first,” which includes screening “tissue length” (parts) if needed, so that I can address and identify risk, but also ensure I am not just treating the symptom of a larger problem.
After screening or assessment, stretching may be one tool needed if there is a true flexibility issue; but even the word “stretching” has a vast spectrum of meaning. Stretching could apply to, passive, active, dynamic, facilitated, contract/relax etc. As a coach, clarity to the client is key.
Stretching is a form of physical exercise in which a specific muscle or tendon (or muscle group) is deliberately flexed or stretched in order to improve the muscle’s felt elasticity and achieve comfortable muscle tone. The result is a feeling of increased muscle control, flexibility and range of motion. Stretching is also used therapeutically to alleviate cramps.
Here’s an example of screening both for mobility and tissue extensibility (aka flexibility):
In the active straight leg raise screen, we are looking to identify the active mobility of the flexed hip, but also addressing the available hip extension on the alternate hip. We can also add in addressing lumbar and core/trunk stability.
In this screen, we ask a client to actively flex at the hip and raise the leg up straight (no bend in the knee). If the client cannot reach adequate flexion with a straight leg (which is around 70 degrees for leg flexion in this particular screen) we then move into screening the flexed hip through passive range. If the client still cannot reach optimal range, we could define this as requiring more “flexibility” in the hamstring group.
Does the screening process stop here? No…
If a client has movement dysfunction, the tissue length of the hamstring is merely one piece of the overall puzzle. When I screen, I also take into account the mobility of the joints at the hip, knee and ankle. Therefore, breaking this down to include screening the muscles in hip extension; as well as internal and external rotation at the hip, along with screening dorsi flexion at the ankle, would be next on my list to determine the full pattern. And down the rabbit hole we go. If I find other limitations I may take the client to seated and standing and further screen their toe touch to ensure this is a bonified “hip mobility” dysfunction. For the sake of this article, I merely wish to point out the difference between “flexibility” and “mobility” related to both screening and program exercise selection.
Soft Tissue release, we addressed in our 2 part series on myo fascia release. . Muscle soreness, tightness or tone usually changes when an appropriate warm-up, myo fascia release techniques are administered and or flexibility efforts are performed. This is where styles of stretching can be beneficial. Movement is the best remedy for maintaining both adequate flexibility of tissue, and adequate mobility of the surrounding joints.
Static stretching and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretching are the two most common ways to stretch short, tight muscles. Static stretching usually involves using stretches that hold the target muscle in a lengthened position. Through autogenic inhibition, this method allows for increases in passive range of motion. Once we have achieved this, we can then move onto active range, and joint disassociation drills.
Mobility should always be addressed proactively, rather than on a reactionary basis. Do not wait until there is problem, dysfunction will manifest if compensation is present. If you see compensatory movement – address it right away. Mobility comes before stability and stability comes before strength.
Tight tissues are red flags for risk. Mobility drills address the elements that limit movement and performance; they take into account short and tight tissue, soft tissue restrictions, joint capsule limitations, joint range and motor control faults – the pattern, not just the part. Mobility includes, flexibility if needed, but for instance, if a client has a tight chest, tight shoulders, and a tight upper neck, I would look to screen their thoracic spine. Most often mobility exercises; like the rib pull or trunk rotations can clear up limitations in the shoulder, neck and upper girdle. Merely stretching the pecs or lats will not clear up dysfunction.
Mobility should be performed by globally addressing movement above and below the limitation to help weed out performance and movement problems.
Just keep in mind that when you add mobility to a joint, you also increase risk. Stability needs to be earned and applied before you apply strength. Movement and control are the key when mobility is added to a client’s program.