Flexibility and mobility are fairly common terms in today’s fitness world–and I’m sure a good majority of you have heard these words in relation to your own workouts. While both have a very important place in fitness (especially when you are first starting out on a fitness program) people often mistake flexibility and mobility as being one in the same. This couldn’t be further from the truth as they are very different concepts. Let’s take a quick look at the difference between flexibility and mobility to better understand.
Flexibility relates more to the length of a muscle (bending easily without breaking)
Mobility is how a joint moves, its range of motion (the ability to move freely and easily)
While they may seem somewhat similar, they are in fact very different. There is much debate as to which is more important, but I feel in any well-rounded fitness program that flexibility and mobility should complement each other. The key (in my opinion) is how and when you incorporate each into your fitness routine.
When Should We Perform Flexibility Training?
Remember when we were taught to “stretch” before a workout? Whether it was in gym class, before a game or practice or took off for a run, we bent down to touch the toes or pulled the heel into the rear end to stretch those quads. Seems like it made sense, right? But what really happens when you stretch prior to a workout is that you are actually relaxing the muscles being stretched. In addition, this also relaxes the nervous system. Still doesn’t sound too bad until you consider that when you relax your muscles and nervous system you’re actually inhibiting their ability to produce strength and power by weakening the signal between the two. That doesn’t sound too ideal for those who want to get the most out of their workout!
Now when you consider the things that make stretching a bad choice prior to your workout, those are the exact things that make it ideal for a post-workout activity. Following a workout, your muscles and nervous system are fired-up, so stretching will help relax them and begin the all-important recovery process. Plus your muscles should be warm from your chosen activity which will make them more conducive to flexibility training, and also get you better results!
When performing post-workout flexibility training, focus more so on static stretches (holding for 15-30 seconds) that target not only the muscles you used in your workout, but the entire body. We often work our way up the body when stretching by starting with the achilles/calf and then moving up to the hamstrings, quads, groin, glutes, hip flexors and then into the upper body.
When Should We Perform Mobility Training?
While the focus on mobility training is fairly new to the fitness industry, it has been a big part of the physical therapy field for many years. Unfortunately, many people are introduced to the concept of mobility as a reactive approach instead of a proactive approach. In other words, people are incorporating mobility drills and exercises only after problems/injuries arise. So it only makes sense that many trainers and coaches are now utilizing mobility training as a warm-up tool. When comparing mobility training to stretching, it has the opposite effect on your body. It enhances your nervous system, warms-up the muscles more efficiently and prepares the joints for exercise.
By moving your muscles and joints through a range of motion actively, the nervous system to muscle connection is better established. This connection between the two can then lead to increased power and strength output, greater range of motion through the joints, and a more efficient workout/performance.
The mobility warm-ups that we use with clients usually consist of 10-15 minutes of specific movements that target the major joints of the body. The mobility exercises used will vary from workout to workout, but we always utilize a progressive approach that starts with basic mobility-based drills (foam rolling, wall slides, leg swings, marches, skips, etc.) and then advance to more demanding mobility drills (crawling, rocking, bodyweight lunge/squat variations, etc.). By the time you’re done with a mobility based warm-up, you should definitely notice a change in how you feel and a readiness to get after your planned workout!
Mobility exercises can also be a workout of their own. I’ll often prescribe mobility-based drills as an “active recovery” day for clients that could benefit from giving their body a little rest and focusing on quality movement. I find they tend to come back to their regular workouts feeling stronger and well-rested.
As you can see, flexibility and mobility are very different in how they can affect your body’s workout performance and recovery. As we get older we often tend to lose both flexibility and mobility, so it’s important to incorporate both into your regular workout routine.
By using mobility-based exercise as your warm-up and flexibility work after your workout as part of the cool-down, you’ll see better results that should have you feeling stronger, less achy and more confident in how your body moves!
Ken Grall a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength & Conditioning Association, as well as a Youth Fitness Specialist (YFS) through the International Youth Conditioning Association.