Flexibility Versus Mobility: What Do You Need?

Jennifer Pilotti

Coach

Yoga, Personal Training, Mobility & Recovery

What do you think of when someone talks about flexibility? Is it the ability to bend over and touch your toes? Or maybe it conjures up images of ballet dancers and yogis, easily dropping into the splits.

 

What happens when you think of mobility? Does your image change? Perhaps you think of someone sitting into a deep squat, or the BJJ person moving easily across the floor on his knees.

 

 

Mobility and Flexibility, Defined

In the literature, flexibility is generally considered how much passive range of motion you have.1 If you were to lie on your back and I were to pick up your right leg and move it towards the ceiling, the point at which the leg stops moving would be considered your passive flexibility.

 

Mobility, on the other hand, is how much range of motion you can actively control. If you were to stay on your back and use the strength of your right leg to lift it up, flexing at the hip, the point at which you couldn’t move the leg anymore would be considered your active range of motion, or your mobility.

 

Interestingly, your experience of both of these measurements would be different. Let’s say you are someone that is fairly flexible. When I pick your leg up and move it towards the ceiling (and maybe your foot even moves towards your face since, in this scenario, you are that flexible), it will probably feel pleasant. As I approach the stopping point, the stretch will feel “good.”

 

When this hypothetical version of you picks your leg up on your own, you will feel a strong sense of work in your thigh muscles. It will feel a lot less pleasant (unless you regularly work on strength), and your leg probably won’t go as far as it did when I moved it. You may even find yourself shaking a little bit and cramping as you approach the point at which you can’t lift your leg any higher.

 

Now let’s pretend you are someone that’s less bendy, stiff, in fact. If I lift your leg up in this scenario, as I approach the stopping point, you would look a bit uncomfortable. The sensation of the stretch would be unpleasant, and the stopping point would feel firm, as though the muscle might tear from the bone if I were to push any further.

 

When you're stiff and you lift your leg on your own, it will still feel like work, but chances are high your stopping point will be close to what it was when I lifted your leg. You may not shake as much, and the sensation of work will feel less anxiety provoking than the sensation of stretch.

 

The Flexibility/Mobility Spectrum

Most people fall somewhere between these two extreme examples on the flexibility/mobility spectrum. The person with a lot of natural flexibility but not much strength needs more mobility; the person with limited range of motion but good control might need more of both, depending upon his goals (it seems unfair, doesn’t it?).

 

In truth, the person with limited range of motion is going to acquire more flexibility and mobility as soon as he introduces new movements into his life, just like the flexible person will begin to acquire more active strength as soon as she begins adding strength based movements into her routine. When it comes to maintaining strength and mobility for everyday life, adopting the attitude of the generalist (a little bit of ground based movement, a few exercises that are concentrated strength and mobility exercises, and a little bit of restorative work), will do wonders for most people.

 

Assess Your Goals

When you are considering your flexibility/mobility needs, it’s useful to assess specific positions based on your goals. For instance, let’s say you are more on the bendy side of the flexibility spectrum. You would like to gain more usable strength and feel a little more stable. You have no trouble dropping into a deep squat and find it quite comfortable. However, you find things like hanging knee raises and tuck holds difficult. How can you use something you are good at, like the squat, to help your knee raise?

 

 

Controlling the descent (aka eccentric exercise) and isometrics are excellent ways to begin improving strength in the squat. One of the things bendy people tend to struggle with is isolating movement at specific joints; slowing things down and paying attention to position can be extremely helpful for building usable strength.

 

Eccentric work improves force development and may reduce risk of injury, in addition to being an effective way to improve mobility.2 An easy way to improve eccentric strength is lowering into the squat on a slow count of eight, pausing every once in a while to assess your strength in different positions, and returning to standing for a slow count of eight. Perform six times and assess how your legs feel.

 

Another example of eccentrically strengthening the hips can be found below. Make sure you slide the knees towards your upper arms and away from your upper arms slowly. Also, notice how my torso position doesn’t change throughout the motion. I am isolating the movement to the hips, forcing the muscles in my torso to keep me still. I chose to demonstrate a fairly small range of motion, close to my end range of hip flexion. You can make the motion as small or as big as you would like, as long as you isolate hip flexion.

 

 

An isometric contraction means to hold a position in an active way, feeling the sensation of your muscles working. One of the reasons feeling the muscular effort is important is because it improves proprioception.3 Proprioception, remember, is your sense of where your body is located in space. When you hold an isometric contraction, your brain has a chance to register the exact position of where the limbs are located in space, making it easier to sense your position when you are moving and, ultimately, improving your mobility.

 

Examples of isometric contractions include holding a wall sit position at different angles, pausing and breathing for a couple of breaths at different points when you are lowering down into the squat, and pausing at different points when you are sliding the towel in towards the back of your arms. Hold long enough that you feel the work, but not so long that you can’t get out of the position and return to the starting position. Then contraction should be strong enough that you feel it, but not so strong that your entire body starts shaking uncontrollably.

 

One last thing that may benefit the bendy person is periodically making the movement as small as possible. Making the movement small allows you to begin feeling how you do the movement. It also allows you to investigate performing the movement with fewer body parts involved or with more overall control.

 

Practice for the Stiff Person

What about the stiff person? His situation is a little bit different. For those of us that tend towards tightness (and I am one), finding a sense of comfort in the position can often make more of a difference than focusing on the work of the muscles. Let’s take a closer look at what this means.

 

Let’s say you can’t squat because your hips are tight (at least, that’s what you tell yourself). Your ankles probably feel a bit tight as well, and chances are high your mid-back also feels tight. All of these things work together to allow you to squat, so you probably need to spend time working on isolated mobility at various joints and find calmness during the movement. For real. It seems silly, but learning to relax and breathe more fully will change your life and loosen things up before you embark on an in-depth flexibility routine. When the nervous system is down-regulated, it gives you a more accurate starting point of your flexibility and mobility needs.

 

The other thing you need to learn to do is get comfortable in the position. Those of us that tend towards tightness are a little hypersensitive to new positions, probably because they come along with so much discomfort. So we try to cram ourselves into a shape, only to have all kinds of mechanoreceptors scream, “Stop! These joints don’t bend this way!” We ignore our nervous system, stay there for a while, and are discouraged when progress is insanely slow.

 

There is a better way. Instead of hanging out somewhere that is extremely uncomfortable, touch the position and move out of it. And then touch it again. Gradually, your nervous system will begin to realize the position isn’t threatening and it’s okay to be there. Your mobility and flexibility will improve.

 

With our squat example, movements like monkey and frogger (or traveling ape and lateral squat walk, depending upon whose stuff you are reading), work really well to introduce the position and get out of it. The videos below show me moving forward in a squat and sideways in a squat. When I hop, I am moving away from the shape, only to return to it when I land. I spend a moment there, and then hop again.

 

 

 

This doesn’t mean the less flexible person wouldn’t benefit from isometric work and eccentric work. However, introduce isometrics and eccentrics at first in ranges that are comfortable, and don’t try to get a maximal contraction in the isometric. Bendy people tend to use lots of joints to transition from one place to the next; stiff people tend to use lots of muscles to contract one area. Attempting to maximally contract in a position you aren’t very comfortable when you are stiff might make you feel worse later.

 

Let’s say you want to introduce isometric work in the squat. Come part way down, stopping before you get to the point that feels like you are holding on for dear life in an effort not to fall over, and pause for two or three breaths. Better yet, do something in the position. Move your arms, shift your weight a little bit side to side, or rotate your head a little bit. It will distract you from the sense of work and reduce the perception of threat. Gradually, you will begin to feel more comfortable and less like your muscles are on fire. Challenge yourself to go slowly regularly, as though were exploring your sticking points. If you find areas that you rush through, consciously slow it down, deliberately moving through that area.

 

Determine What You Need

As I said, most people aren’t quite as extreme as the examples above. So how do you know what you need?

 

First, establish what you are trying to do. Now ask yourself:

 

  • Am I comfortable at the starting position?
  • Am I comfortable at the end position?

 

If the answer to either of those is no, you need to work on building a sense of ease in the positions you want to transition between. This can involve moving in and out of the position, holding different parts of the position while doing something else, and/or exploring the shape you want to make in different ways, like lying on your back, standing, or hanging. You need to work on flexibility as well as mobility.

 

Flexibility Versus Mobility: What Do You Need? - Fitness, natural movement, hip stretch, ankle mobility, air squat, daily practice

 

If the answer is yes, you can easily make the shape at the start and finish of the movement, ask yourself how you transition. When you move slowly, what happens? Can you not go as far? Do multiple parts of your body move to allow you to transition between the two movements? Where do you rush through the movement? And perhaps most importantly, can you make the movement really small? You have the flexibility needed for the skill, but may not have the mobility required to support the path between beginning and end shapes.

 

Move More

Instead of overthinking which muscles are tight and which are loose, or which need to be stretched and which need to be mobilized, ask yourself what you are trying to accomplish during specific tasks. Can you be in the beginning shape and the end shape comfortably? Can you move slowly and with control from start to finish? At the end of the day, simply moving more in a variety of ways increases mobility; however, specific athletic goals require more flexibility and mobility than others. Be honest with your assessment of your abilities and gradually and consistently work on the elements of the shape you are trying to make. Like all aspects of fitness, there aren’t any magic bullets, but a little bit of work and a lot of patience can go a long way. And don’t forget to breathe.

 

References:

1. Kisner, C., Colby, L.A., & Borstad, J., (2018). Therapeutic Exercises: Foundations and Techniques (Seventh Edition). F.A. Davis Company: Philadelphia.

2. O’Sullivan, K., McAuliffe, S., & DeBurca, N., (2017). The effects of eccentric training on lower limb flexibility: a systematic review. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 46, 838-845.

3. Bourguignon, M., Piitulainen, H., Smeds, e., Zhou, G., Jousmaki, V., & Hari, R., (2017). MEG insight into the spectral dynamics of isometric muscle contraction. The Journal of Neuroscience, 37(43), 10421-10437.

 

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