Mobility vs Flexibility and why strength not stretching may be what you need.
Human movement is more than meets the eye. A “tight” muscle or difficulty getting in to a position may require more (or less) than your traditional static stretch. In fitness, you may hear the terms mobility and flexibility used interchangeably, but there are significant differences between the two, and can help us understand what we need to improve. Before diving into the differences, let’s define two terms, which will help us understand this better.
Active range of motion: A person’s active range of motion commonly refers to one’s ability to move a joint through its range of motion without assistance. An example would be a standing knee raise where a person lifts their knee towards their chest without pulling on the knee. Active range of motions applies more to MOBILITY.
Passive range of motion- The range of motion involved where a person receives assistance in the movement of a joint. This commonly refers to static stretching where one pulls a joint into position or has a partner press on a limb to increase the range. An example would be pulling your knee to your chest or having a trainer/therapist assist you into this position. Passive range of motion applies more to FLEXIBLITY.
Now that we have defined these two types of ranges, we can see how they play into mobility vs. flexibility. Mobility commonly refers more to one’s active range of motion and applies more to full body movement patterns(i.e. body weight squat.) Flexibility commonly refers more to an isolated joint in a static stretch. More so, mobility requires not only ranges of motion, but strength surrounding the joints to get into, and maintain position.
Mobility and stability
Along with mobility, it’s important to understand it’s counterpart, stability. Although mobility and stability are somewhat opposites of one another, human movement requires a certain degree of both. Differing levels of each are optimal in different joints, and a lack of one or another can affect how we move as a whole. This concept is easily explained using Mike Boyles joint by joint model.
The major joints of our body have alternating demands of mobility and stability to achieve optimal movement. If one or the other is missing, the body can “borrow” from its neighbor. For example, a common example would be if one has immobile hips, the body can borrow movement from the lumbar spine(lower back). As you can imagine, this can lead to back pain. Another common example, in the other direction. If one lacks stability in the lumbar spine and core musculature, the body may enact a “tightening” response in the hips. This helps us to understand why more strength and not more stretching may be the answer to one’s problems. Say one is experiencing difficulty getting to good depth on their squats. The common response is to stretch the hip flexors or hamstrings. While this could be the case with some, for many others, andissue may be that the body just has no general stability, and triggers responses that limit mobility. If stretching isn’t working, strengthening the core musculature surrounding the lumbar spine can lead to increased ability for movement in the hip joint. Anti-movement exercises would be ideal, since core stability involves holding the spin in place. Examples include plank variations, paloff presses, kneeling cable chops, and loaded carries.
The concept of limited stability leading to poor movement and low range of motion is very common amongst youth athletes. Almost all young athletes that come in to our gym and struggle with movements like a squat or hip hinge pattern display obvious signs of hypermobility and low stability. We almost never implement more stretching and mobility work. Instead, simply hammering out the movement pattern in a safe way, performing planks, various loaded carry exercises, and even teaching proper breathing during an exercise, rapidly improves their capacity for movement.
This information helps us go back and look how active and passive range of motion play two separate roles. It is very possible that a person can bend over and easily touch their toes, but can’t even come close to squatting to parallel. Touching ones toes requires little to no stability, whereas a squat requires a great deal of it.
Hopefully this post will help you tackle your own movement problems and even reduce pain your experience!