Mobility vs Flexibility: They Are Different And Why You Care

mobility vs flexibility

People are often confused about the differences between mobility vs flexibility.   It matters because it affects your athleticism and injury risk.  Hope that gets your attention because it’s often the neglected and mis-understood step-child of training.

You probably recognize that athleticism has multiple facets.  Strength, speed, and stamina are a few.  To be fair, most people would probably include flexibility in there as well. 

Maybe you were taught to stretch in gym class back in the day.  Maybe you’ve read enough articles from trainers to know about foam rolling.  How about endless pics of yoga and mobility work on social media?

You know there’s something that you should probably be doing, but why are some people talking about mobility and others flexibility.  Aren’t these the same thing? 

Mobility vs flexibility: Is there really a difference?

Yes.  Mobility and flexibility are related but different things.

However, as you scroll through feed and listen to trainers talk, they are often used interchangeably.   Most trainers in the fitness and performance training fields don’t even know they are different.

Traditional definition in sports medicine they would be;

FLEXIBILITY: The ability of a muscle to be lengthened.

MOBILITY: The ability of a joint to move through a range of motion

However, this is not what we are discussing here.  We are not as interested in the traditional definition. We are more interested in the modern concepts that apply to injury prevention and performance.

Modern concept definition:

FLEXIBILITY: The ability of a muscle to be lengthened.

MOBILITY: The ability to control movement through a range of motion

Similar, but some key differences.  The concept of mobility incorporates flexibility, but not necessarily vice-versa.  The key for athletes is mobility.  Flexibility isn’t enough.

Mobility is a term and concept that encompasses a range of factors affecting your movement including:

  • The tissues ability to lengthen
  • The joint ability to move
  • The nervous systems ability to relax and allow movement
  • The neuromuscular systems ability to activate muscles and control movement through all ranges of motion.

Flexibility is Important for Mobility

You do need enough flexibility in your muscles to obtain functional and sport specific mobility. This matters, as you are considering whether to work on mobility vs flexibility.

Flexibility is passive. It’s your ability to move your connective tissue with the help of another person or tool, or gravity.  Your muscles passively allow the movement to happen. 

muscle are elastic and should stretch like a rubber band

Think of flexibility like a rubber band. When you pull both ends, it stretches.  It’s flexible. If it doesn’t stretch, it’s inflexible. If it’s too inflexible, it could even snap. It’s the same thing with muscles.  They have elastic components and are designed to move through a stretch.

Flexibility also requires your joint capsule have a full range of motion as well.  It doesn’t matter how stretchy your muscles are if the joint itself won’t allow the movement.

Since. mobility includes moving through a full range of motion, you are going to need to have some flexibility in those muscles to be mobile.

Mobility for Better Movement

The problem comes in when people think being flexible is enough.  Sure you can stretch your body into all kinds of positions.  Your muscle clearly have flexibility, but can they control it?

A person with great mobility is able to perform movement patterns with no restrictions. The movement is efficient and there aren’t any compensations.  They have the range of motion and the neuromuscular control and strength to move through the pattern.

athletes need mobility to move efficiently

On the other hand, some people can perform a movement pattern successfully, but they compensate.  They may fire some muscles in a different sequence, use different muscle for stability or avoid certain joint position.   

A flexible person may or may not have the stabilizer strength, balance, or coordination to perform the same functional movements as the person with great mobility.  This goes back to some of the fundamental differences of flexibility vs mobility.

Control.  Control comes through the strength in your muscles.  Control comes through coordination of those muscles.  Control comes from properly functioning stabilizers.

RELATED: 4 Myths About Muscle Pliability You Need To Know

How Do You Improve Mobility?

Mobility is important, and flexibility is a part of that. That doesn’t usaully mean you need to spend an extra hour in the gym every day.  Incorporating a steady stream of exercises for both flexibility and mobility into you training plan will go a long way.

In addition to a general approach you should prioritize extra time for certain areas.  You may already know the areas or your body that need to improve.  Or maybe its specific to your sport.  A comprehensive profile from a professional goes a long way towards targeting the areas that will get you the most bang for your buck.

Methods To Increase Mobility

  • Self Myo-Fascial techniques: Sometimes these may be excruciating but can be very effective.  Foam rolling, lacrosse balls and other tools are basically a type of self-massage. These techniques help you release tight spots in your muscles.
  • Mobility Drills: These are exercises that are specifically geared towards training your range of motion around joints. They involve actively moving, contracting and relaxing muscles through the joints range of motion.  Some of these may isolate, while others involve multi-joint movement patterns.
  • Stretching: This may or may not be necessary. If you’re naturally a very flexible person, stretching can make your joints more vulnerable to injury. However, if you’ve always been stiff, and it’s stopping you from moving well, you may benefit.  Some targeted stretches may be enough both as part of the warm-up and separate from it.
  • Dynamic Warm-Up: Whether its 5 minutes or 30, a good dynamic warm-up can work wonders.  This type of warm-up does more then only increase muscle temperature and blood. It incorporates all of the above with movement.  You actually prep the elements of mobility as you prepare for the workout or competition.

Mobility Matters

Most athletes need to work on maintaining or improving their mobility.  The strains and stresses of playing a sport add up.  Repetitive motion puts uneven stress on your body and it adapts.

Mobility allows you to move as efficiently as possible.  That means better performance and less risk of injury.  In the end it not a question of mobility vs flexibility, but how you are going to maintain or improve them.  Get it right so you can move your best.

Velocity Speed Training Drills: Optimal Range of Motion

Speed training drills: optimal range of motion
The Velocity Speed Formula (read more about it hereuses proven speed training drills to make athletes faster.  Whether its elite speed training or youth speed training, the Formula always has the same 4 parts;
  • Big Force
  • Small Time
  • Proper Direction
  • Optimal Range of Motion

Apply Force in the OPTIMAL RANGE OF MOTION

The range of motion your limbs and joints travel through while sprinting is a Goldilocks scenario; not too big, not too small, but just right.

If the limbs are traveling through too big a range of motion you may be wasting time and energy.

If the range is too small, you wont generate the power you need.

RELATED: Sport Specific Types of Strength

Optimal range of motion is developed by acquiring good motion through stretching and mobility work combined with dynamic mobility drills.  Below we have a few of the speed training drills that help athletes develop the optimal range of motion for sprinting.

Kneeling Arm Action Drill

This drill to reinforce arm action has been around for a long time.  The reason; it still helps athlete work on understanding the arm swing range of motion while running.  One of the keys is that you want athletes using this drill to feel good spinal alignment with relaxed shoulders and neck.

Use this drill through various speeds, push faster until form, coordination or body position start to suffer.  Then back the speed down and regain the form.  Make sure the motion is from the shoulder.  No “karate-chop” actions at the elbows.

Fast Leg Drill

There are many useful variations of the Fast Leg speed drill and multiple benefits.  The one we are focusing on here is the range of motion.  Specifically the range of motion when the leg recovers from behind the body and the thigh lifts in front.  The higher the thigh lift, the more power the drive down and back can be.

This drill breaks up the sprinting motion so athletes can focus on the technical aspects.  As always, great core posture is important.

Velocity Speed Formula

Both of these are important speed training drills to help athletes ability to apply force in the proper direction. These drills reinforce basics physics so athletes can accelerate faster.

RELATED: Velocity Coaches Favorite Speed Drills

4 Myths about Muscle Pliability You Need to Know

Trainer performing graston technique

The term “muscle pliability” has been in the news around the NFL quite a bit. Tom Brady and his trainer, Alex Guerrero, claim that making muscles pliable is the best way to sustain health and performance. How true is that claim? While it’s a great descriptive term, we are going to shed some light on what it really means and how to create muscle pliability.

Defining Words

Our performance coaches, sports medicine specialists, and tissue therapists all find it to be a useful term.  Pliable expresses some of the important qualities of muscle. According to Miriam-Webster Dictionary here’s what pliable means:

Pliable

a: supple enough to bend freely or repeatedly without breaking

b: yielding readily to others

c: adjustable to varying conditions

That’s a pretty good description for many of the qualities we want in the tissue of an athlete (or any human for that matter). The problem is that it’s being mixed up with a lot of inaccurate and confusing statements.

Our Sports Medicine Specialist, Misao Tanioka, says that “the word pliability, in my opinion, depicts the ideal muscle tissue quality. It is similar to suppleness, elasticity, or resilience. Unfortunately, I believe some of the explanations offered by Mr. Brady and Mr. Guerrero have created some misunderstanding of what ‘muscle pliability’ really is.”

Let’s try and separate some of the myths from what is true.

Myth 1: Muscles that are “soft” are better than dense

That depends on what qualifies as “soft” muscle.  Tissue Specialist Cindy Vick has worked on hundreds of elite athletes, including NFL players and Olympians across many sports. “Soft isn’t a word I would use for an athlete. When I’m working on an elderly client, I often feel muscles that could be called soft; they’re not dense. That’s not what I feel when working on elite athletes. Athletes who are healthy and performing well have muscles that have density without being overly tense and move freely. The tissue is still smooth and supple.”

This muscle quality is affected by many factors, ranging from stress, competition, nutrition, training, and recovery. At Velocity, maintaining optimal tissue quality is a constant endeavor.  Proper self-myofascial release, various stretching techniques, and manual therapy are all part of the equation.

MORE INFO: Mobility vs Flexibility: They are different and it matters for athletes

Myth 2: Dense muscles = stiff muscles = easily injured athletes

Relating these terms in this way grossly over-simplifies reality and is in some ways completely wrong.

You have to start with the operative word: “dense.” Tanioka says, “Dense tissue can be elastic; elastic tissue is resilient to injury. What we have to look for is inelastic tissue.” Cindy Vick adds that “if you mean ‘dense’ to refer to a muscle with adhesions, or that doesn’t move evenly and smoothly, then yes, that’s a problem.”

Scientifically, stiffness refers to how much a muscle resists stretch under tension. It’s like thinking about the elastic qualities of a rubber band. The harder it is to pull, the stiffer it is. If a muscle can’t give and stretch when it needs to, that’s bad.

Imagine a rubber band that protects your joint. When a muscle exerts a force against the impact of an opponent or gravity, stiffness can help resist the joint and ligaments from being overloaded and consequently injured.

“I agree with Mr. Brady’s statement about the importance of a muscle’s ability to lengthen, relax and disperse high-velocity, heavy incoming force to avoid injury,” says Tanioka. “However, I think that athletes also must be able to exert maximum power whether actively generating force or passively resisting incoming stress, which requires the ability to shorten and be taut and firm as well as lengthen. The ability of the tissue to be durable and contractile is just as important as to elongate and soften when it comes to performance and injury prevention.”

In the view of our experts, it’s not about dense, soft, stiff, or other qualitative words. Instead, they emphasize developing function through different types of strength qualities athletes need.   Athletes must prepare for the intense stress and strain their muscles will face in their sport.  They need to blend the right strength training with mobility and flexibility.

Myth 3: Strength training makes muscles short

“It’s an old wives’ tale that took hold when bodybuilding techniques had a big influence on strength and conditioning. A muscle can be incredibly strong without sacrificing any range of motion” according to international expert and President of Velocity Sports Performance, Ken Vick, who has worked with athletes in 10 Olympic Games and helped lead the Chinese Olympic Committee’s preparation efforts for 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

“I’ll give you two great examples: Gymnasts are, pound-for-pound, very strong and incredibly explosive, yet they are known to be some of the most flexible athletes. Olympic weightlifters are clearly some of the strongest athletes in the world and are also generally very flexible. They spend practically every day doing strength training and their muscles aren’t ‘short’.”

RELATED: Why Athletic Strength Is More Than Just How Much Weight Is on The Barbell. 

In fact, proper lifting technique demands excellent flexibility and mobility. For example, poor hip flexor flexibility or limited ankle mobility results in an athlete who probably cannot reach the lowest point of a back squat. Our proven methods combine strength training with dynamic mobility, movement training, and state of the art recovery technology to help our athletes gain and maintain the flexibility and mobility required for strength training and optimal performance on the field of competition.

Myth 4: Plyometrics and band training are better for pliability

We hear these types of claims time and again from coaches, trainers, and others who are quoting something they’ve read without much knowledge of the actual training science. Our muscles and brain don’t care if the resistance is provided by bodyweight, bands, weights, cables, or medicine balls. They can all be effective or detrimental, depending on how they are used.

Sports science has shown that manipulating different variables influences both the physiological and neurological effects of strength training. Rate of motion, movement patterns, environment, and type of resistance all influence the results.

Truth: Muscle Pliability is a good thing

Like so many ideas, muscle pliability is a very good concept. The challenge lies in discerning and then conveying what is true and what is not. An experienced therapist can, within just a few moments of touching a person, tell whether that tissue is healthy. A good coach can tell whether an athlete has flexibility or mobility problems, or both, simply by watching them move.

In either case, it takes years of experience and understanding of the human body and training science, like that which is possessed by the performance and sports medicine staff at Velocity, to correctly apply a concept like muscle pliability to an athlete’s training program.