The Great Flexibility Versus Mobility Dilemma – and Why You Should Never Live Above or Below Your Means
The body’s relationship between flexibility and mobility is inter-connected.
Whether you are a seasoned athlete or an exercise newbie, you may often
incorrectly assume mobility and flexibility is one and the the same thing. You may
also be one of the people that presume that being very flexible is synonymous with health or positive performance outcomes. A distinction must be understood between flexibility and mobility.
A person with good quality mobility can perform functional movement patterns without restriction to their range of motion. We define mobility as the ability to move, WITH STRENGTH and CONTROL within a joint FULL RANGE OF MOTION. Flexibility on the other hand refer to your soft tissue’s (muscle, fascia, connective tissue) ability to stretch.
When you begin to appreciate that your needs determine your objectives, because you
are a human being, not a textbook subject! Being a highly flexible
person will not always serve your functional or anatomical objectives. And
when you consider this from a clinical and/or athletic standpoint, stretching alone
will not serve you.
This two part series aims to provide a basic physiological understanding of
mobility and flexibility and highlight to you why posture, motor control, stability,
endurance and relative strength are
fundamental, synergistic components to your health and performance outcomes, no matter your goals.
As you read this article or any article you read that relates to the human body, keep this quote by Dr James Andrews in mind: “In medicine. There’s no such thing as always and never.”
Perceived muscle tightness, does not necessarily mean it should be stretched!
A good example of stretching (where mobility is rather needed): if you experience perceived lateral hip tightness and pain, often caused by compression; stretching into this area and over stretching the illiotibial band (ITB) over the greater trochanter exacerbates the problem further.
Similar issues arise in almost all compression-based tendinopathies or even simply when you perceive pain and/or tightness in your muscles and joints following high intensity training blocks. Your first reaction may be to stretch the area, only to generate larger levels of frictional resistance or compression between tissues, irritate and aggravate painful sites resulting in increased tendon inflammation. This stimulates larger levels of muscle tone and hence further perceived muscle tightness.
Everyday movement patterns and habits (tying your shoe laces, for example) require a certain degree of flexibility which is useful. On the contrary, a cyclist requires adequate (but NOT excessive) low back and lower limb joint mobility and muscle flexibility to ensure that their muscles are at the optimal length tension relationship to generate maximum force over extended periods of time at the lowest levels of energy consumption. You might assume that the mobility and flexibility demands of a gymnast are much greater than those of a cyclist or runner, however, in order to achieve long-term injury prevention and not generalize performance requirements across different sports, people should work to build an ever-growing base of mobility and joint support, so matter what your sport or exercise of choice is. HOW you apply these stretching and mobility drills is the key to success within your sport- you don’t see figure skaters apply mobility routines in the same way quarter back would..Recreational exerciser (weekend warriors) are the people who often suffer the most. Due to a lack of time spent cross training and creating a solid base of mobility, injury can be rife (acute and chronic).
Live, stretch and mobilize within your means.
If you over-stretch you aren’t able to control movement both statically and dynamically. This is when you will encounter losses and injuries over time. Example: If you cannot statically control the lumbar extensors to position your spine and pelvis within a range of motion that places the least stress on passive tissues (ligaments, cartilage, vertebrae and disks) you will begin to cause cumulative damage that mounts over time. For this reason, creating a situation in your body where you can control movement patterns and statically support your joints for extended periods of time, is the ultimate goal for injury prevention and a happy healthy, well-performing body.
As Thomas Myers, Anatomy Trains Guru puts it. You don’t see a dog have a quick stretch before he leaps out the door to chase the cat, do we? Similarly, you don’t observe disastrous results when the builder across the way doesn’t stretch before he performs his work, nor when Olympic lifters leave out a stretching routine prior to lifting. However, if you intend on performing any sort of endurance sport or activity (and this includes sitting in front of your computer for hours on end), a daily mobility cross-training routine will be essential.
Low fat is good, no low fat is bad. Stretching is good, stretching is bad etc. WHAT AM I ACTUALLY MEANT TO DO?!
Thoughtless stretching will have very little benefit. Your routines should be targeted and should consider the specific needs of your anatomy and connective tissue versus muscle adaptation. It will also be vital to factor in the periodization of your training. The more you train, and the higher the intensity, the longer you should be spending on mobility drills and soft tissue work (foam rolling, static stretches, weighted stretches). Dont be overwhelmed. Educate yourself, become more aware of your body and talk to your coach. Find your balance 🙂
Part 2… coming soon.
(Please note that this information should not be construed as medical advice and should only be considered as educational material. Consult with your doctor or physical therapy practitioner if you have suffered injury or pain).
Author: Greg Schwartz
Editor: C Schwartz