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Flexibility vs Mobility

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The ideas of flexibility and mobility play a vital role in the fitness and rehab industry. One is just as important as the other, but one thing I’ve noticed throughout years of practice is that many times both terms are used interchangeably, when in fact, both hold completely separate meanings. How you integrate both into your training could be one of the main factors in injury prevention and performance.

Difference between flexibility and mobility

Simply Defined:

Flexibility is defined as the ability of a muscle or muscle groups to lengthen or stretch. Keywords here are ‘muscle’ and ‘lengthen’.

Mobility is defined as the ability of a joint to move actively through its range of motion. Keywords here are ‘joint’ and ‘move’.

In order to have good joint mobility, muscle flexibility is imperative. A person could have great flexibility but still have poor mobility because muscle flexibility is only one of many factors in how a given joint moves. The primary factor of how a joint moves is its structure – the shape of its bones, how they meet and the joint’s ligaments and tendons connect to those bones.

Take a straddle split for example. Come into a wide-legged seated position. Feel the stretch all along the inside of your leg as you slowly inch your legs further apart. How far you could get your legs apart while maintaining and holding proper upright alignment will show you the stretch capacity and flexibility in your Adductor muscle group. On the other hand, if you perform something such as a standing side to side lunge, how well you control the movement while going back and forth will determine an area of hip mobility. Even though you’re using the same group of muscles, passively holding a stretch is not the same as actively utilizing the muscle and making it work as you stabilize and control it through space in a concentric and eccentric movement. Strength, coordination, and body awareness are also elements of mobility.

Another example, this time using the shoulder. Interlace your hands behind your back, straighten your elbows and begin to raise your arms to the point of feeling a good stretch across the chest and in the front of the shoulder. This indicates flexibility in the Anterior Deltoid and Pectoral muscles. Now, take a resistance band in both hands. Keeping the elbows straight, begin to move both arms overhead and back. How far back you’re able to comfortably keep control of your shoulders during this movement will give you a gauge of shoulder mobility.

Muscles can have good flexibility but be overactive because they’re trying to make up for lack of stability elsewhere. Muscles that cross multiple joints are muscles that tend to move us. Stabilizing muscles tend to cross only one joint. When the stabilizers are not doing their job well – or a person’s posture does not allow them to do their job – mover muscles try to stabilize. But because they cross multiple joints, they end up limiting joint mobility. Take the hamstrings as an example. Many people say tight hamstrings are what’s limiting them from touching their toes, but inflexibility isn’t the issue; the muscles are overactive. If someone’s stabilizer muscles aren’t strong enough to keep the pelvis in proper alignment, the front of the pelvis will tilt down. As a result, the back of the pelvis tilts upward (anterior tilt) causing a dip in the low back. Remember, the hamstrings attach to the back of the pelvis. So now when you fold forward, you have an overactive muscle already stretched to its max, making it seem impossible to touch your toes. Remember: a joint will move in the path of least resistance (Relative Flexibility). If one area is restricted due to poor flexibility and mobility, compensation patterns and potential injury now become a concern.

When to Integrate Flexibility Training

Within the last decade, studies have shown that flexibility training and stretching inhibit the body to produce power and strength by relaxing the nervous system. Obviously, not ideal before a workout and best to hold off until post-workout. When performing post-workout flexibility training, focus more so on static stretches; holding the stretches between 15-20 seconds. An example of a thorough option is practicing yin yoga.

 When to Integrate Mobility Training

When comparing mobility training to stretching, it has the opposite effect on your body. It enhances your nervous system, warms-up the muscles more efficiently and prepares the joints for exercise. Examples of mobility drills include foam rolling, dynamic stretching, bodyweight squat and lunge variations. Check out the video clip to the right showing a few examples of hip and shoulder mobility drills.

Sports massage can be helpful to identify areas lacking in mobility or flexibility. At Phila Massages, your therapist will integrate stretching in a session when needed, as well as demonstrate stretches or warm up routines so you can integrate flexibility and mobility training to your fitness routine.

References (accessed 08/09/2019):


Image references (accessed 08/12/2019):


This article/video is for educational purposes only; do not attempt without your physician’s clearance. If you are in pain or injured, see your physician.

Copyright © Vidal Sports LLC 2019

Copyright © Vidal Sports LLC 2020

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