Mobility vs Flexibility
You can only be as strong as your mobility allows
Mobility, Flexibility & Range of Motion (ROM)
The Difference Between Mobility vs Flexibility, and How to Improve Them
There’s more to fitness than just pure strength – flexibility and mobility matter too. You’re going to have a hard time doing exercise if you can’t bend far enough to perform any of the movements. Here is how to improve those skills.
While colloquially, “flexibility” and “mobility” may sound the same, they are different concepts with important impacts on your fitness.
- Mobility is how a joint moves.
Defined as the the ability to move freely or be easily moved. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Sports Science and Medicine, the ease with which an articulation, or series of articulations, is able to move before being restricted by surrounding structures.
- Flexibility is the length of a muscle.
Defined as the range of motion passively covered by bones and accompanying muscles around a joint. In turn, according to the Oxford Dictionary of Sports Science and Medicine, the aforementioned range of motion represents “the angle through which a joint moves from the anatomical position to the extreme limit of its motion in a particular direction”.
Essentially, think of mobility as an umbrella covering a range of factors that may affect the range of motion around a joint. One of these components is flexibility – it is difficult to move a joint if the connected muscles around it do not stretch far enough to allow it. But there are other considerations that come into play as well, like not having the strength to perform the exercises, soft tissue damage (e.g. inflamed tendons), and even problems with other joints in the same chain of movement. So while an adequately stretched muscle may, in theory, be conducive to a greater range of movement around a joint, it is basically useless if your mobility is constricted by other factors.
Why should you care?
Beyond just working out in the gym, both mobility and flexibility affect your joint health in everyday life as well. Think about it this way: if you have a general mobility problem that affects how you move, your body is not going to be functioning in the way it is supposed to. Over time, you can suffer more wear-and-tear, as well as general discomfort, than if the area around the joint could move as normal. Also, when you are exercising you are essentially performing these training these faulty movements under higher intensity and greater stress, so painful injuries can accumulate over time. Example of basketball players, many of whom limit their ankle mobility with high-top sneakers. In doing so, this limits the capacity for the ankle to work, balance, and absorb shock like it is supposed to, frequently leading to knee problems later on.
So mobility is important, and flexibility is a part of that, but that does not mean you need to spend an extra hour in the gym every day limbering up all your joints. Matthew Ibrahim, strength and conditioning coach, recommends working on areas that you know are tight and have a history of limited movement. Everything else is superfluous.
Common problem areas are the hips, shoulders, knees and upper back. If you have experienced trouble in these areas, or others, here are three key steps to help loosen the areas up:
FOAM ROLLING.- Sometimes excruciating but usually effective, foam rolling is essentially a self-massage technique to help you release tight spots in your muscles. If you are unsure how to begin, Eric Cressey has a great video to help you get started.
MOBILITY DRILLS.- These are exercises that are specifically geared towards training your range of motion around joints. MobilityWOD is probably the most comprehensive source of drills on the internet – just search up the relevant body part on the site and an appropriate set of exercises should come up.
STRETCH.- This is not always necessary, especially if you are a naturally bendy person stretching can make your joints more vulnerable to injury than if you just left it out. But if you’ve always been fairly stiff, and it is stopping you from performing exercises correctly, you may benefit from a few short stretches as part of your warm up, and longer stretches for after your workout.
Finally, flexibility brings benefits not only in sports performance, but also in our daily lives, allowing us to be more agile in getting about and performing different common tasks with a lesser risk of injury. Mobility work plays a huge role in improving movement quality and preventing injuries in sport and throughout life.
Range of Motion (ROM) - Passive and Active
The range of motion in your joints can affect your quality of life. Range of motion is the amount of movement you have at each joint. It is related to flexibility and is an important part of an exercise program. Understanding both active and passive ranges of motion and their importance can help you improve your flexibility and performance.
Your active and passive range of motion may be very different, not only from each other, but also at the joints themselves. Active range of motion means you move a joint through its range of motion, or ROM. Passive range of motion involves someone else moving a joint for you. Anytime you are moving your body, you are using active ROM. An example of passive ROM is if a doctor is testing a joint, such as the shoulder, and is moving it for you without your assistance.
Appreciate the Importance of Each
Active ROM is what you work with everyday and tends to be the type of ROM that concerns most people. If you have limited active ROM, you may have trouble lifting your arms overhead for exercising or putting away groceries, for example. It could also limit performance during sporting activities and thus increase the chance of injury. Passive ROM is not a concern for everyone, however. It is significant if you have a long-term or permanent change to your body, such as being in a wheelchair. You may not be able to move your joints, but having a nurse or therapist do it for you helps maintain ROM and can reduce pain or dysfunction. It is also used a lot for physical therapy if you have an injury.
Improve Your ROM
Active and passive ROM can be improved through stretching and even strengthening exercises. Dynamic stretches, such as arm circles, or pulling one knee at a time to your chest in a standing position, take strength and flexibility. It is good for warming up before a sport performance or exercise. Static stretches where you hold a stretch can improve both active and passive ROM. These are the stretches you do after a workout when your muscles are warmed up. Holding a stretch 15 seconds or longer can show greater improvements to your active ROM than shorter stretches, according to researchers from School of Health Sciences, University of Sunderland, United Kingdom, who published a study in the "British Journal of Sports Medicine."
Consider Factors Affecting ROM
There are many factors that can affect both active and passive ROM. Your lifestyle is a major contributing factor. If you are sedentary, or perform repetitive tasks throughout the day, you may have limited ROM. Injury or a chronic condition, such as arthritis, could also affect both active and passive ROM. Your body size can also limit ROM. If you are overweight, excess skin and fat could impede your movement. As you lose weight, however, you will notice that both active and passive ROM improve.