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Flexibility vs Mobility

Updated: Aug 31, 2021

And why is the difference important?

Flexibility is the ability of a muscle to lengthen passively (without muscle engagement).

Mobility refers to the ability of a joint to move actively (with muscle engagement) through a full range of motion.


What does that mean?


Imagine (or do this with me!), standing on one leg and lifting your knee to the sky. How high you can lift your knee is your mobility. Your muscles are engaged to lift your knee.

Now imagine putting your hands onto your shin (this allows for the muscles to disengage) and drawing your knee into your chest. You’re likely to be able to draw the knee in closer, and this is your flexibility for that specific move. It’s determined by how much your relaxed muscles can lengthen.


Why should you care?


Most people focus on flexibility when it comes to their health and fitness goals. I often hear ‘I would like to be more flexible’.


For health, I’d advocate instead ‘I’d like to be more mobile – and stable.’ Flexibility does contribute to mobility, but flexibility without mobility can decrease the stability of the joint. For healthy joints and movement, there is an element of strength. Working through a squat pattern regularly, for example, could increase both your mobility and flexibility over time.


Decreased mobility (a shortened range of movement) has been linked with increased injury risk. As you move through your life, there are often quick or unpredictable movement patterns required, and if this is outside the normal range of motion of a joint, injury is more likely.


When increasing mobility, strength and stretch aren’t the only factors. Your nervous system is responsible for telling your muscle to contract, and therefore joints to move. Increased mobility and strength are often quickest at the start of an exercise programme, or a beginner, as the body learns how to tell its limbs what to do! Coordination and proprioception (an awareness of where your joints are in space) also therefore play a role in mobility.


As with most of my advice, there’s not one size fits all. I don’t just advocate stretching or squats. I suggest doing a lot of different things. Stretch, squat, warm up, do dynamic stretches, lift weights, practice yoga, run, do long passive stretches, twist, dance and play (and in all of that – do what you enjoy!). Battering one movement pattern is unlikely to help (unless you have a specific reason or goal to be very good at that one thing!). But most of us move in order to better enjoy our lives.


So focus on mobility. Moving with strength and stability, however that looks for you, feels great!

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