Improving Mobility and Flexibility

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Having started an exercise program, most people focus on strength...or maybe speed. Often people overlook the importance of mobility and flexibility. They don’t have the same flashy reputation as strength and speed. However, even if you’re focused on strength or speed, you won’t be able to keep advancing your goals if you don’t also work to improve your mobility and flexibility. Why? Because you likely can’t lift to your full range of motion if your mobility is limited. You won’t be able to improve your stride if your flexibility is limited. So that’s all to say, focusing on flexibility and mobility is also important.

Now, mobility and flexibility might sound similar or even the same, but they are pretty different. Mobility is your joints’ range of motion. Flexibility is the ability of your muscles to lengthen or stretch as needed.

Mobility: how a joint moves

Flexibility: length of a muscle

Essentially, think of mobility as an umbrella covering a range of factors that may affect the range of motion around a joint. One of these components is flexibility – it’s difficult to move a joint if the connected muscles around it don’t stretch far enough to allow it. But there are other considerations that come into play as well, like not having the strength to perform the exercises, soft tissue damage (e.g. inflamed tendons), and even problems with other joints in the same chain of movement. So while an adequately stretched muscle may, in theory, be conducive to a greater range of movement around a joint, it’s basically useless if your mobility is constricted by other factors.

So why should you care? Beyond just working out in the gym, both mobility and flexibility affect your joint health in everyday life as well. Think about it this way: if you have a general mobility problem that affects how you move, your body isn’t going to be functioning in the way it’s supposed to. Over time you can suffer more wear-and-tear, as well as general discomfort, than if the area around the joint could move as normal. Also, when you’re exercising you’re essentially performing these training these faulty movements under higher intensity and greater stress, so painful injuries can accumulate over time. Tony gives the example of basketball players, many of whom limit their ankle mobility with high-top sneakers. In doing so, this limits the capacity for the ankle to work, balance, and absorb shock like it’s supposed to, frequently leading to knee problems later on.

So mobility is important, and flexibility is a part of that, but that doesn’t mean you need to spend an extra hour in the gym every day limbering up all your joints. Matthew Ibrahim, strength and conditioning coach, recommends working on areas that you know are tight and have a history of limited movement. Everything else is superfluous.

Common problem areas are the hips, shoulders, knees and upper back. If you’ve experienced trouble in these areas, or others, here are three key steps to help loosen the areas up:

  • Foam Rolling: Sometimes excruciating but usually effective, foam rolling is essentially a self-massage technique to help you release tight spots in your muscles. If you’re unsure how to begin, Eric Cressey has a great video to help you get started.
  • Mobility Drills: These are exercises that are specifically geared towards training your range of motion around joints. MobilityWOD is probably the most comprehensive source of drills on the internet – just search up the relevant body part on the site and an appropriate set of exercises should come up.
  • Stretch: This isn’t always necessary, especially if you’re a naturally bendy person stretching can make your joints more vulnerable to injury than if you just left it out. But if you’ve always been fairly stiff, and it’s stopping you from performing exercises correctly, you may benefit from a few short stretches as part of your warm up, and longer stretches for after your workout.