A female instructor helps another female to adjust a balance position during a barre class.

What is the difference between flexibility and mobility?

21 December 2022

What is the difference between mobility and flexibility?

Mobility has become one of those buzzwords in fitness, where we have become aware that being mobile is something to aspire to and it is something we should be working on, but do you know the difference between being flexible and being mobile?

Our social media is constantly filled with yogis, dancers and fitness professionals contorting their bodies into positions, with seemingly relative ease and comfort, each one lifting their leg higher than before, and finding more drastic ways or performing the splits. All of this can make for a great photo and seem like a necessary part of being considered fit, but did you know that flexibility does not improve function or human movement? At all. Mobility, on the other hand, can drastically improve the quality of our movement as well as reduce any joint-related aches and pains.

Flexibility is passive. It can be defined as the amount of passive movement available across a joint and is unable to be achieved without the help of an externally induced force.

Mobility is active. Mobility = the ability to move freely and easily. Functional mobility = flexibility + strength + control and is defined as the ability to be able to actively take a joint through a range of motion with control and without restriction.

What are the benefits of increased mobility?

In simple terms, increased mobility enables us to move better and with ease, it decreases our risk of injury and enhances our performance within fitness.

For example: if we improve the mobility of our hips and ankles, we are able to squat deeper and build strength within the muscles and other connective tissues surrounding the joints, in this newly acquired position. If we then go to pick a heavy object off the floor from this deep squat position, our improved mobility enables us to safely lift the object, without having to compensate through another body part, potentially causing injury.

How does increased mobility benefit my Barrecore workout?

From the start to finish of class your body is asked to move through varying ranges of movement, work different muscles and muscle fibres, and find multiple motions through various joints.

Improving the range of motion available in any given joint will allow you to target muscles on a deeper level, and safely, to enhance your performance and results.

Take the shoulders for example. The shoulder joint can move through internal and external rotation, flexion and extension, abduction and adduction as well as circumduction. If your shoulder can move freely and easily through these motions, without causing any additional movement through the body (particularly the spine) as a bi-product, then when we add weights, such as in your Warm Up, you are able to strengthen the muscles of the shoulder, back, chest, bicep and tricep effectively.

If we improve the mobility of the hips and ankles, certain positions and movements in thighs and seat become easier to achieve. If we work on our wrists, then planks and push-ups become stronger and improving spinal mobility overall (each vertebra is a joint in itself!) will improve posture and make core and abdominal work more achievable.

How can I test my mobility?

You can test the mobility of any joint (wrists, elbows, shoulders, neck, spine, hips, knees and ankles) but for the ease of you trying at home, we will keep it basic with just shoulders, hips and ankles for now!

When testing your mobility, it is recommended to film or photograph yourself doing these tests as you'll get a more accurate result.

Shoulders: Stand with your feet under your hips, squeeze your glutes and stack your shoulders, hips and heels in one line. Keep the rib cage relaxed and the spine neutral. One arm at a time, extend the arm forward, leading with the thumb. Keep lifting the arm as high as you can, maintaining extension the whole time. Stop when you can take your arm not further. Take note of whether your arm has stopped in front, in line with or behind your ear. All of this should be executed without any rotation or extension of the spine to assist the movement - have your ribs flared? Has your torso twisted towards the direction of the arm?

Repeat on the second side. You might notice a difference between the sides, which is totally normal!

Your bicep should ideally be able to line up with your bicep as the bare minimum.

Hips and ankles: Stand with your feet just wider than your hips, with natural turn out (about 3 degrees of rotation). Lower your hips down, maintaining length in your spine. How low down can you go? Are your hips above, in line with, or below your knees? Has your lower spine gone into flexion (curved under you) to achieve a deeper range of motion? Have your knees rotated inwards, or your torso collapsed forwards to enable more depth?

Your hips should drop in line with your knees as a basic requirement.

How do I improve my mobility?

First, let's think about maintaining what mobility we have. Every day (or as often as you can!) try to take each of your joints through its full range of motion, without allowing additional movement through the spine. Stand tall, squeeze your bum, lengthen the spine, and one joint at a time, as slowly as possible, explore your range. Circle the neck. Circle the wrists and shoulders (watch for any unnecessary forearm movements with your wrist!). Rotate through the elbow. Try to move each vertebrae separately (cat & cow is a great one for this). Move your hips through inversion, flexion, external rotation, and extension. Circle the ankles.

You might feel a nice stretch on the lengthened side during a movement, but any pain on the shortened side (the closing angle side) needs to be avoided and addressed by a physiotherapist first.

To increase mobility we then have to go through a pattern of stretching, isometrically contracting under force in both the progressive (shortened side) and regressive (longer side) positions, and then stretch again. We will use the shoulders and ankles examples.

Shoulders: Stand with your arm pressed against a wall, extended high in your available range. You should feel a gentle stretch at the front of the shoulder and chest. Hold for 1-2 minutes. Begin to push your arm into the wall, building up to 100% effort (it should feel tough and you might even shake) and then hold for 10 seconds. Without adjusting your body, pull the arm away from the wall (it will barely move) and hold for another 10 seconds. This will give you some newly acquired range. Find this new range and hold the stretch for up to a minute. Repeat this 3x each arm.

Ankles: Kneel on the floor with one leg stepped in front. Push your weight forward to the knees reaches forward of the toes, keeping your heel attached firmly to the ground. Hold this stretch for 1-2 minutes. Begin to push your toes down to the floor (keep the heel down!), building up to 100% effort, and hold for 10 seconds. Keep everything still, but attempt to pull your toes away from the floor (this will feel peculiar!) and hold for another 10 seconds. Gently push forward into your newly acquired range. Hold a stretch in your new range for up to a minute. Repeat this 3x each ankle.

Give it a go at home and reap the benefits of a freely moving body!