Muscle, strength, endurance and fat loss are the things often thought of when thinking about fitness. Another important component to fitness, that is often overlooked, is mobility. Athletes often drop it down on their priority list, of course, it’s not as cool as a muscle up or a 200kg deadlift, but mobility is a good indication on how efficiently we move and can make a huge difference when it comes to progress in the gym.
While they are often used interchangeably, flexibility and mobility are not synonymous, they are different concepts with important impacts on your fitness and health. Knowing the difference between the two, and how to apply them, can help you move better and reduce the likelihood of injuries. In the past, trainers would generally just instruct their clients to do a few stretches to loosen off any tight muscles and increase flexibility. These days, especially in CrossFit circles, we tend to focus on mobility or mobilisation techniques.
So what’s the difference?
Flexibility generally refers to the ability of connective tissue (muscles, tendons, and ligaments) to temporarily elongate when placed in certain positions. Mobility, on the other hand, is an umbrella term for many factors that may affect the range of motion around a joint, which also includes flexibility. A person with great mobility is able to perform functional movement patterns without a restricted range of motion in those movements. A flexible person may not necessarily have the strength, balance, or coordination to perform those same functional movements. If the ankle is restricted due to a mobility issue, then just stretching the calves won’t fix the problem, movement or mobilisation is needed to fix a mobility issue.
Traditional flexibility techniques, such as static stretching, focus on lengthening the soft tissue of your body that is pliable enough to stretch, primarily the muscles. While stretching muscles can be beneficial and may be conducive to a greater range of movement around a joint, it’s basically useless if your mobility is constricted by other factors. The muscle will never be able to lengthen to its full extent if the joint won’t allow it to move far enough. Mobilisation is more effective than traditional stretching alone because it is based on movement and motor control. That being said, both mobility and flexibility are important. You need to have the strength and motor control to support your movements, and muscle elasticity which allows you to move freely. By incorporating some stretching and mobility work into your routine you can help to reduce your risk of injury, correct muscle imbalances, decrease pain in your joints and release tension in your body.
So what is mobility or mobilisation?
Kelly Starrett, Author and mobility guru, describes mobilisation as
“a movement-based, integrated, full-body approach that addresses all the elements that limit movement and performance including short and tight muscles, soft tissue restriction, joint capsule restriction, motor control problems, joint range of motion dysfunction, and neural dynamic issues. In short, mobilisation is a tool to globally address movement and performance problems”.
Mobility is not only essential to our fitness but also our overall quality of life, especially as we get older. The ability to move without restriction or pain means that we can comfortably perform our activities of daily living as well as any strength or fitness training that we make part of our routine. If you have mobility issues that affect how you move, your body won’t be functioning the way it’s supposed to and over time you will experience more wear and tear and general discomfort. When you exercise you will essentially be performing faulty movements under higher intensity, causing greater stress on your body, which can lead to injuries over time. This can be prevented with some focused mobility work
Mobilisation can be separated into three primary categories: soft tissue work, mobility drills and stretching, which are explained a little bit more here.
Soft Tissue Work
This mostly refers to Self-myofascial release (SMR) but also incorporates work done by a practitioner such as a massage therapist. SMR techniques are a form of self-massage, usually involving the use of mobility tools such as a lacrosse ball, foam roller, massage stick or floss band. These techniques can sometimes be tortuous but can be very effective at freeing up tight muscles and improving circulation. Sometimes SMR alone isn’t enough and an athlete will have to seek out a physiotherapist, osteopath or massage therapist who is trained to deal with issues outside the scope of a trainer or coach.
The primary focus of mobility drills is to improve positions and they are geared towards increasing the functional range of motion around joints by breaking up adhesions in and/or stretching the joint capsule itself. These drills sometimes require the use of bands and other pieces of equipment used in SMR, like balls and rollers. Websites such as mobilitywod.com and romwod.com are excellent resources for mobility drills, as is Kelly Starrett’s book “Becoming a Supple Leopard”. You can find different movements to mobilise specific parts of the body depending on your needs.
Traditional “static” stretching normally involves holding a muscle in a lengthened position for a short period of time (normally around 30 seconds). Stretching after workouts can help with flexibility, although this type of stretching isn’t always necessary, especially if you’re already naturally flexible. But if you’ve always been fairly stiff, and it’s stopping you from performing exercises correctly, some short duration stretches can be beneficial as part of your warmup routine, and save longer stretches for after your workout.
To get the maximum benefit from your mobility work, you will need to do it often, ideally every day! It is better to move gently and regularly rather than go full-force every now and then. It should be a proactive approach rather than a reactive one. Don’t wait until problems arise before you address them. This doesn’t mean you need to spend an extra hour in the gym every day limbering up all your joints, focus your work to make it more effective, even five minutes can be beneficial.
So where should you start?
Incorporating some focused mobility into your warmup can help to improve your positions, thereby improving power output and performance. Mobility work prior to training also allows you to strengthen your body in your new and improved range of motion, solidifying the effects. Warmups are generally designed to prepare the body for movements in the coming workout so it is important to add in additional mobility work to help correct any positional issues you may have. While addressing all areas of mobility is important, you should focus on specific areas that you know are tight and have a history of limited movement. Common problem areas include the hips, shoulders, knees and upper back, but every body is different so you should try to tailor your mobility work to your own needs as best you can.
When you are trying to determine your mobility needs, it’s useful to make honest assessments of your movements and abilities. Are you comfortable in the starting position? Are you comfortable in the end position? Can you move with control and stability throughout the movement? If not, try to ascertain what is limiting you. Instead of overthinking which muscles are tight, what needs to be strengthened and what needs to be stretched or mobilised, ask yourself what you are trying to accomplish during specific tasks or movements and how you can improve those positions.
Focus on your joints first, joint movement is king, it helps to lubricate the joints allowing you to achieve greater ranges of motion more easily. Gradually and consistently work on the elements of the shape you are trying to make. Slowing things down and paying attention to your position can be extremely helpful for building usable strength and motor control.
Use the Range of Motion you have. You may only have a few inches to work with at first, which is fine. The more you work on your mobility, the better it will get over time. Try to get comfortable in the positions you are trying to mobilise, don’t force it. Your body needs to know that this is a safe position to be in for it to become a natural movement, get your mind used to getting into it.
Move regularly, if you don’t use it, you lose it. At the end of the day, simply moving more in a variety of ways helps to increase mobility; however, specific athletic goals require more flexibility and mobility than others. Adding some yoga into your routine can be very beneficial, because not only are you increasing your flexibility by holding stretches and poses, you are also creating body awareness and motor control by working with your breath.
Make the foam roller your friend. While this alone won’t make you more mobile it can certainly help and is easy to do after a workout or even at home in front of the TV. Ask a coach for some advice on what to work on or some specific movements to add to your routine, or check out one of the resources above. The more tools you have in your mobility toolkit, the better you’ll be able to keep your body running like a well-oiled machine.
Like all aspects of fitness, there is no magic pill, but a little bit of work and a lot of patience can go a long way.