What’s the Difference between Mobility and Flexibility – and does it even matter?

People often use mobility and flexibility interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing.  If you understand the difference you could be preventing injury down the road. Do I have your attention now?

What’s the difference? Flexibility is a muscle’s ability to lengthen on its own.  It’s a passive movement. In other words, how bendy you are. Can you touch your toes.….or put your nose on your knee? Mobility is the ability to control movement in BOTH your joints and muscles through a range of motion.  Think of lifting your leg in front of you until its parallel to the ground and bringing it back down again without holding on to it with your hands or bending your knee.

What’s the big deal? It may be a great party trick when you bend into a pretzel, but without strength and control, flexibility could actually hurt you in the real world of life: work, play, exercise or sports. If you try to stretch a muscle beyond its maximum it can put undue stress on the tendons and ligaments, causing injury. On the other hand,  repeating movements that do not employ a full range of motion in the joints (like cycling) can cause of shortening of the muscles surrounding the joints. Flexibility is key here. Finally, if you don’t have control over your movements, big or small, you are asking for trouble.

What are examples of mobility exercises? One exercise may not have all three elements, but making sure you get them all in your overall exercise regimen in critical.  Below is a picture of Single Leg Stretch, a Pilates exercise, that incorporates all three elements of a good mobility exercise. In this exercise, you bring one leg in and give it a little pulse in for a small stretch and then a deeper second pulse in to further stretch the muscles in the back of your leg. This part gives you stretch and control and then challenges that control when you switch legs and bring the other one in. To add strength to this exercise, I have added ankle weights.   

What the bottom line? Flexibility, strength AND control are all critical elements of mobility . “Everyone should be including mobility work in their training to ensure they’re performing at their best and decreasing their risk for injury,” says Grayson Wickham, D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a New York-based physical therapist. Doesn’t everything come down to enjoying a better quality of life, avoiding injury and being active for as long as possible? Mobility is the key to living well and independently as long as possible.  Get out there and live your best life!

Single Leg Stretch with Leg Weights Incorporates Flexibility, Control and Strength
in One Exercise . Shot on location at Core Value Pilates, LLC in Ridgewood, NJ