Flexibility vs Mobility:  What’s the difference, and how to get both

Flexibility and mobility: two commonly heard words in wellness that may, on the surface, seem interchangeable. In fact, they’re very different, yet interrelated – they’re both important in helping you move better.

Let’s start with flexibility. Technically, it’s a muscle’s ability to stretch temporarily. Think of a muscle as like an elastic band. The more flexibility it has, the more it will stretch. A “tight” muscle is in a permanently shortened state, can’t stretch very well, and thus lacks flexibility.

Mobility, on the other hand, is all about how joints move through their normal range of motion. This varies based on the type of joint involved. For instance, the “hinge” joint of the knee moves the lower leg backwards and forwards, and can also rotate it slightly inward and outward. The “ball and socket” joint of the shoulder allows the arm to move up and down, side to side, front to back, across the body, and in a circle.

How flexibility and mobility relate

Flexibility and mobility and interrelated. To understand this, let’s use an example of a forward bend, where you reach down towards your toes. The primary joint involved in this movement is the hip joint.

Some of us may be able to reach our toes with little to no effort, whereas others may only reach our knees. So what’s creating this difference? Mainly, it’s the degree of flexibility in our hamstrings – the muscles in the backs of the thighs – and to some degree, the muscles of the lower back.

When the hamstrings lack the ability to fully stretch, the resulting tightness prevents the hip joint from achieving its full range of motion…and we therefore can only bend forward far enough to touch our knees.

Now there may be other issues at play, such as an impairment in the hip joint itself, which could be keeping the joint from moving through its full range. But it’s important to understand that flexible muscles improve how well joints move, and that’s why flexibility is an important component of mobility. It’s difficult to move a joint if its supporting muscles and tissues are too tight. As well, a chronically tight muscle can pull on its corresponding joint, causing it to become misaligned and unstable.

Flexibility for its own sake isn’t really that important to wellbeing. In fact, being too “bendy” can be detrimental, as it could lead to allowing joints to move beyond a normal range of motion.

Good mobility: three factors

Good mobility is really an interplay of three important factors:  flexibility, muscular strength, and stability. All of these factors impact how well joints, and therefore the body, move.

An image of knee joint anatomy
Image: sportsperformancebulletin.com

To illustrate this, let’s use an example of bending and straightening the knee during walking. To bend the knee, the hamstring muscles (back of the thigh) flex, or tighten, pulling on the attached tendons supporting the knee joint (muscular strength). At the same time, the quadriceps muscles (front of the thigh) must relax and elongate to allow the knee joint to bend (flexibility). The knee’s hinge joint must also be well-supported by its surrounding muscles, tendons and ligaments to ensure it tracks correctly as it bends (stability).

Why mobility is so important

Having good mobility is essential to quality of life. It’s difficult to do many everyday things, from getting in and out of a car, to reaching for something on the top shelf, to enjoying the outdoors, if your joints are stiff or painful and your range of motion is compromised. It’s also much more likely you’ll become injured when your mobility is restricted. Good mobility also helps you retain your independence as you grow older. Studies have shown that adults with moderate to severe mobility problems are more likely to experience falls or need more extensive health care services.

How to improve your mobility

“The body will become better at whatever you do, or don’t do. If you don’t move, your body will make you better at not moving. If you move, your body will allow more movement.”— Ido Portal

So how do you improve your mobility? The simple answer is, just keep moving. The older you are, or the more sedentary you are in daily life, the more important movement, and mobility-specific work, becomes. The key is to be consistent, so that you continuously maintain and improve your mobility.

Keeping in mind the three factors (muscular strength, flexibility, and stability), here are some key ways to improve your mobility.

Strength training with dynamic warm-up

There are many reasons why everyone should strength train – from preventing loss of muscle tissue as we age, to elevating metabolism, to building bone density. And as explained previously, muscle strength is a key component of mobility.

We’re not talking about bodybuilding here. Instead, focus on simple, foundational exercises that correspond to movements in everyday life. Read this article for more about functional fitness.

And before any strength training session, warm up with dynamic movements that work the joints through their full range of motion. Think leg swings, overhead reaches, body-weight squats. For more on effective ways to warm up, read these:  To Stretch or Not to Stretch? and Three Key Reasons to Always Warm Up.

Self-myofascial release (e.g. foam rolling)

Self-myofascial release, or SMR, is a technique that helps to “inhibit” overactive and tight muscle tissues – or more specifically, the fascia. Fascia are sheets of fibrous connective tissue that form webs or bands under the skin to attach, stabilize, surround and separate muscles and internal organs. Fascia can contract, relax and move on its own. It can also dehydrate and form adhesions, a.k.a. “knots”. These knots can lead to chronic pain, muscle imbalances and movement limitations.

The most well-known SMR method is with a foam roller, but there are other options as well. Read all about SMR in this article.

Practice yoga

Contrary to what you might think, you don’t have to be flexible to do yoga. In fact, the less flexible you are, the more yoga will benefit you. Forget the Instagram images of people contorted like pretzels. Yoga is for everyone. Read more about yoga here.

Here are five simple yoga movements that will help improve your mobility:

[All images are copyright Tummee.com and are used with permission]

1. Stir the Shoulders

Bring the fingertips to the tops of your shoulders. Then begin to slowly rotate the elbows in a circle, feeling the top of the arm bone rotating in the shoulder joint socket. Breathe steadily as you do this. After about five to ten circles, switch directions and do another five to ten.

2. Chest and Shoulder Opener

Do this move either standing or seated. Begin by bringing your arms to a “cactus” position, with elbows bent 90 degrees and upper arms at shoulder level. Take a big inhale, then exhale as you press your elbows together in front of you, pulling your shoulder blades apart. Now inhale as you press your elbows back in cactus position, but also squeezing your shoulder blades together and opening your chest. Keep going with this pattern for five to ten repetitions.

3. Cat and Cow

Come to all fours (pad your knees with a blanket if they’re sensitive). Take a deep breath in, then exhale while rounding your back, dropping your chin towards your chest and pressing your hips forward towards your forehead. This is Cat Pose (imagine an angry cat). Then inhale again as you lift your chin upward while gently arching your back and pressing your hips up towards the ceiling. This is Cow Pose. Now exhale and come back into Cat Pose, then inhale to Cow. Keep flowing through these movements five to seven times (or more if it feels good!).

4. Child’s Pose to Tabletop to Downward Facing Dog

Kneel on the floor and lower your hips toward your heels, letting your torso fall over your knees. Your head falls between your arms as you reach the hands forward. This is Child’s Pose. Hold for a few deep breaths.

Then come into Tabletop position, shifting your weight forward until your hips are over your knees, and shoulders are over wrists.

Finally, if it’s within your current mobility, come into Downward Facing Dog Pose. Starting in Tabletop, turn your toes under and push your heels back toward the floor, lifting your hips while extending your arms, forming a triangle with your body. Your shoulders press away from your ears, and knees can bend as much as needed to accommodate tight hamstrings (with practice, the hamstrings will lengthen.) Don’t worry if your heels don’t reach the floor.

Take a few deep breaths, then slowly release your knees to floor, untucking the toes and moving back into Child’s Pose.

Repeat three to five times total, taking three or four deep breaths per pose.

5. Dragon Pose to Half Splits

For this exercise, you’ll want to have a pair of yoga blocks – or something firm that will give you a little height to place your hands on, such as thick books (phone books are great, but who has those anymore?) soup cans, etc. You may also want to pad the bottom knee with a cushion or blanket if your knees are sensitive.

Kneel on the floor with your right knee down and your left leg bent in front of you. Now begin to move your front foot forward by using your toes. Next, shift your hips forward, placing your hands on the blocks. Adjust your front foot so that your front knee is directly above your ankle. Your back leg is relaxed to allow for a deep stretch in the front of its thigh and hip. This is Dragon Pose. Stay here for three or four deep breaths.

Next, shift your hips back while extending the front knee until the leg is straight (or almost straight), with the heel on the floor and toes up. This is Half Splits Pose. Continue pressing your hips back while resisting with your front heel. You’ll feel a very deep stretch in the front leg’s hamstrings (back of thigh). Take three or four deep breaths here, then shift your weight forward again into Dragon Pose.

Repeat this flow three to five times on this side, then switch legs and do it again on the other side.

More reasons to practice yoga

Yoga is a mind-body practice that can boost your overall wellness. It involves the whole body – not just one or two joints – and it improves strength, flexibility and balance while teaching you how to move efficiently.

One particular style of yoga, known as Yin, specifically targets your deep connective tissues – the fascia, ligaments, joints, and bones – while the muscles relax. It is a slow and meditative practice where poses (all done on the floor) are held for a much longer time. Yin yoga is another wonderful complementary practice that can significantly improve overall mobility.

The Takeaway

Mobility is the foundation of physical health, and the key to longevity. Without it, the body will begin to break down, leading to pain and injury. Taking care of your body by maintaining and improving your mobility through strong muscles, flexibility and stable joints will ensure it will sustain you throughout your entire life!

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