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Maximizing Movement: The Key to Understanding Mobility and Flexibility

A woman jumps onto a concrete wall in a squat position

While some fitness professionals may use the terms mobility and flexibility interchangeably, it is crucial to understand that despite their relation, they have distinct meanings.

Put simply, flexibility refers to the soft tissues' (muscles, ligaments, tendons) capacity for passive stretching. Mobility, however, pertains to the joint's capability to actively move through its complete range of motion.

Mobility means being able to move naturally, with control but without noticeable effort, as your body seamlessly responds in time to your intentions. When you have good mobility, you should experience no strain or pain as you move through your day, such as during these common daily actions:

  • Bending to tie your shoes (which activates the hips and knees)

  • Reaching for a glass on the highest shelf (which utilizes the shoulder joint and muscles)

  • Walking up or down stairs (which requires healthy leg muscles and a full range of motion in the ankles)

Good mobility involves many components, including muscle strength, flexibility, joint health, motor control, body awareness (a type of sensation called proprioception), agility, and more. This makes sense; after all, mobility serves as the basis for everything you do. 

Both mobility and flexibility are important components of healthy movement. Good mobility requires flexibility in the muscles and other soft tissues surrounding the joint. But, keep in mind, mobility also requires strength and stability. So, it's possible for an individual to be flexible but lack mobility.

Flexibility is the ability of a muscle or tendon to lengthen or shorten when appropriate. It describes your range of motion around a joint that can be achieved without actively engaging your muscles. The greater your flexibility, the more balanced the load on various muscle groups. Without flexibility, for example, some muscles may take on more of a load, leading to a muscular imbalance, and making the weaker muscles more susceptible to injury. 

Mobility, however, goes a step further. It’s about how well you can control and move a joint through its entire range of motion. In our daily lives, we need both flexibility and mobility to move capably and effectively from task to task. 

Flexibility is the ‘lengthening’ of muscle between joints. Mobility is the active range of motion around a joint: how far you can move your leg around your hip, using your own muscles. Many mobility exercises mobilize the joint (including the capsule and connective tissue), while stretching your muscles in the process. 

Why Are Flexibility and Mobility Important?

Flexible muscles and joints allow the joints to move through the proper range of motion. If a muscle lacks flexibility, an individual's mobility is also impacted. This, in turn, can alter movement and posture, impact performance, and increase the risk of injury. But, keep in mind, we aren't just talking about athletes. Everyday movements like sitting, walking, and reaching all require flexibility and mobility. Both flexibility and mobility play a key role in the quality of life.

In addition, healthy movement includes a combination of joints that aren't supposed to move (immoveable), joints that have limited movement, and other joints that allow for a much broader range of motion. Functional movements typically require a blend of different joints working together to stabilize, support, and move the body. Having the strength and stabilization to support the appropriate joints while another joint is moving and keeping those joints in a safe and optimal position is important.

Before learning ways you can improve your flexibility and mobility, check out some of the factors that play a role in an individual's ability to stretch and/or move.

Factors That Can Influence Flexibility

  • Genetics: Genes play a large role in an individual's natural flexibility.

  • Age: Flexibility typically declines with age.

  • Injury: Pain, scar tissue, etc., can limit the range of motion.

  • Hormones: Pregnancy hormones can increase the elasticity of the connective tissue in the body.

  • Gender: Females tend to be more flexible than males.

Factors That Can Influence Mobility

  • Joint structure: Different types of joints allow for different movements.

  • Age: Joint mobility typically declines with age.

  • Soft tissue flexibility: Proper elasticity in the muscles, tendons, and ligaments are essential for a full range of motion.

  • Overall health: Certain health conditions can impact an individual's mobility.

  • Fat/muscle mass: Excess fat or excess muscle can impact movement.

Despite the fact that many of these things are outside of your control, you can still work to improve your flexibility and mobility! The good news is that mobility is primarily a lifestyle choice. The key to increasing and maintaining good mobility is regular physical activity. (That’s why children tend to have excellent mobility.) You don’t have to do cartwheels to boost yours though—instead, try mobility training. 

Aging, mobility & flexibility

Muscle mass decline, reduced bone density, slower nervous system responses—these are just a few of the natural, age-related changes that occur in the body and can affect how easily you move. On top of that, your mobility can be compromised by any of the oh-so-common chronic health conditions among Americans, such as arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease. And your chances of being diagnosed with any one of these increases as you get older.  

All told, it’s no wonder that pain, stiffness, and reduced range of motion occur more frequently with age. But you don’t have to succumb to these difficulties. You can lessen their impact with mobility training. 

Flexibility and mobility training

Self-Myofascial Release (SMR)

Foam rolling or other types of SMR are a great way to reduce tension in the muscle and support greater flexibility. It is believed that when you apply pressure on part of the muscle for a period of time (using the foam roller, trigger point ball, or something similar), receptors in the body respond by inhibiting the muscle spindle (helping the muscle relax).

Static Stretching

This form of stretching is what most people think of when they hear the word stretching. Static stretching can be incredibly effective at helping improve flexibility. During a static stretch, a person stands (or sits) in one position while holding a stationary stretch for several seconds (i.e., hamstring stretch, quad stretch, etc.). Although there has been some variance, it's generally accepted that static stretching should be done slowly and consistently, and should be held for 15-30 seconds. This helps train the muscle and connective tissue to adjust to the new length instead of trying to contract (via the stretch reflex).

While shorter stretches can still be beneficial, there are specific advantages to holding a stretch for 2 minutes or longer. The longer you hold a stretch, the more you can lengthen the muscle fibers. This leads to a deeper and more effective stretch. Activities such as yin yoga or restorative yoga are excellent for this!

Dynamic Stretching

This type of mobility exercise is different from what most people think of when they hear the word stretch. Ultimately, dynamic stretches are active movements that allow the muscle tissue to warm up, stretch, and take the joints through the full range of motion.

Ideally, a dynamic stretch should mimic the movement(s) you plan to perform or engage the muscles and joints that will be used. A few examples of mobility exercises include the walking lunge, high knees, and hip circles.

Dynamic warm ups are a fantastic way to incorporate flexibility and mobility work while crunched for time. You can also participate in activities such as yoga and pilates to work on improving both your flexibility and mobility.

Tracking Your Progress

Now that you’ve started on the path to greater mobility, flexibility and better overall fitness, there are some things you’ll want to keep in mind.

  • Patience is key. Like any type of effort, mobility and flexibility training takes time and consistency. The more regularly you do it, the better the results.

  • Slow and steady wins the race. Don’t be in a hurry to get to be the most flexible or mobile person at your gym. Make sure you master the basics before moving on. Your body will thank you. 

  • Prioritize proper form and control. It’s far better to engage in a small range of motion, but to perform the exercise correctly, than to do it incorrectly while engaging a larger range of motion. 

  • Integrate it into everything else you do. The best way to be sure you get the most out of your mobility training is to continue with your usual workout regimen and add mobility exercises wherever it works best for you: as stretches first thing in the morning, part of a cool-down routine at night, or wherever and whenever possible. Just 10 minutes at a time can build up and make a big difference. 

  • Listen to your body. It’s normal to feel mild discomfort during a stretch, but sharp or intense pain is not. Stop if you feel pain. 

All content of this blog is intended for general information purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please consult a medical professional before adopting any of the suggestions on this page. You must never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking medical treatment based upon any content of this blog.

Kelly Sherman, licensed nutritionist, owner Provision Nutrition

Kelly Sherman, MS, NC, CGP, CPT, is a licensed nutritionist specializing in empowering women to reclaim their health by cutting through misinformation and ditching the diet culture. She has a master’s degree in nutrition and is degreed in exercise science as well as a certified personal trainer. With over 20 years of experience in the field, she combines the best of both nutrition and exercise sciences to best help her clients reach their potential. To nourish is to flourish!


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