Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness and nutrition courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
With the rise of social media, functional training and creative exercises, the distinction between the terms “flexibility” and “mobility” have become blurred. So which are you training, and more importantly, does the type of training you’re doing support your goals?
Let’s look at the differences and how to train for each. Then, you can decide whether flexibility or mobility training (or both!) supports your fitness goals best.
When you’re flexible, that means your muscles and fascia are able to fully lengthen. Fascia is like a cobweb that ties everything in the body together, and this lengthening ability is governed by your nervous system. Think of your nervous system as an orchestra conductor here. It’s in charge of coordinating the “stop” and “go” and fine tuning of everything in between.
Stretches are easy to identify because they often have familiar names like “hamstring stretch,” or “calf stretch.” When you perform them, you feel a gentle line of pull. While we often think of stretching as the only way to increase flexibility, this is not true. Instead, we can combine stretching with additional techniques that signal your nervous system to say, “Go! Yes! Muscles and fascia, you can lengthen more!”
Next time you work on your flexibility, instead of just stretching, follow these 5 steps to see how much further you can get:
1. Warm up.
Have you ever tried to stretch cold taffy or another stretchy candy? It’s so stiff and brittle that it will break before it fully lengthens. Your muscles and fascia are no different. If you want them to ease into new lengthened configurations, you need a 5- to 10-minute warm up first.
2. Use a ball, roller or vibration device.
Use a ball, roller or vibration device to find tender spots/trigger points in the muscle you’re about to stretch. Try to find two to three spots and then hold gentle pressure directly on those spots for 30 seconds. Gentle pressure means an intensity of three to five out of 10. More is not better. When you use these prolonged gentle holds, parts of the nervous system start to relax. This allows your muscles to lengthen more.
3. Perform stretches in sets and reps.
If you have strength and physique goals, would you stop all of your lifts at one set? No! You know you need more sets if you want to see actual improvement. The same goes for stretching.
Hold each of your stretches for three or 4 sets of 30 seconds. These repetitions and holds give your nervous system time to learn that you want something different for them. Like the trigger point release, aim for an intensity of 3-5 out of 10; more will only signal the body to tighten up and stop your efforts.
Many of us hold our breath when we work out or stretch, but breath holding tells the nervous system to go into “fight or flight” mode. In this mode, the muscles cannot relax and lengthen.
Instead, back the intensity of your trigger point release or stretch down a few notches until you can exhale comfortably at least two to three times during each exercise.
5. Use it or lose it.
How many days per week do you stretch? Flexibility declines faster than strength or endurance. You really do have to use your newfound flexibility every day. You can use it by including stretching in your daily routine, or by finding ways to incorporate your new motion into your everyday activities or workouts.
- Combining breathing, trigger point release and low-intensity 30- to 60- second gentle stretches in specific positions that lengthen muscles will improve flexibility.
- Stretches feel like lines being lengthened or gently pulled.
- Dedicated daily flexibility work is best after a warm-up, or at the end of a workout.
Instead of focusing on lengthening specific muscles and fascia, mobility focuses on how well your joints move. Think of your shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, knees, ankles and spine. These are all joints, and most mobility exercises use positions that do not fully stretch muscles.
For example, think of a deep squat. A deep squat focuses on how much motion you can get from your hips, knees and ankles; this is an example of a mobility drill. Mobility drills feel more like movements that challenge the ends of your motion, as opposed to the gentle line of pull associated with stretches.
Individual mobility exercises generally have more creative names than stretches, making them a bit trickier to identify. If you are searching the Internet for mobility exercises, the fancy names will often be accompanied by a mobility hashtag.
To get the most of your mobility drills, follow these steps:
1. Perform drills that you can actually do.
While the Internet tempts us with fancy choreography, we are all individual. Using heavy loads to pull on your body or jam your joints into painful positions will get you injured. Instead, pick drills you can do, or scale advanced drills into smaller pain-free motions.
2. Include mobility drills in your dynamic warm up.
The goal is to gradually increase your ease of joint motion. Warm ups are the perfect spot in your workout for mobility.
3. Start small.
Start with small joints by performing wrist, ankle and neck rotation, then work toward bigger joints like your hips and shoulders. For each joint, start with a small version of the motion and work toward a bigger version. For example, start with shoulder circles before doing big full arm circles.
4. Work from slow to fast.
In both life and our workouts, we move at variable speeds. Your mobility warm up should reflect this too! Start each new motion slowly, then make it faster.
5. Include multiple motions.
Sometimes we forget to move sideways and rotate. Unless you have injuries that prevent side bends and rotation, include them as part of your mobility drill selection, too. Common examples include shuffling sideways, Carioca and spine rotations.
6. If you feel “stuck” or “pinching” sensations, back away.
Many factors can limit how joints move. Your individual bone shape, cartilage, ligaments, joint capsules, nerves, discs and scar tissue all influence joint mobility. Attempting to budge a stuck barrier with force seldom leads to more useful motion.
- Mobility drills are generally part of a dynamic warm up to increase ease of joint motion.
- Mobility drills generally do not fully lengthen muscles across all of their joints, since the goal is increasing ease of movement at the joint surfaces.
- Numerous factors (such as bone shape, cartilage integrity and ligament health) influence joint motion.
- Safety is a priority, so avoid forcing joints past sticking points.
Flexibility or Mobility: Which Is Better?
In conclusion, neither flexibility nor mobility are necessarily better. It all depends on your goals.
Flexibility focuses on your ability to elongate your muscles. If you have goals like counteracting muscle shortening from desk work, improving posture, being able to do the splits or work deeper into your yoga poses, flexibility is likely a primary focus for you.
Mobility increases the ease of your joint motion. If you have goals like being able to do a deeper squat, jump higher or open your shoulder angle for sports, mobility drills are for you.
Many of us want to both ease muscle lengthening and get our joints moving — in which case, the combination of dynamic mobility warm ups coupled with flexibility training after working out wins.