Mobility vs Flexibility: They Are Different And Why You Care

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.

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