Flexibility VS Mobility: The Great Debate

The Yogi’s Curse

‘Oh my gosh you’re so flexible!’ I’d hear across the gym floor.

As a dedicated yoga student for 10 years, it’s easy to imagine why that would be the case.

And I’d always take it as a compliment – why, yes, I am flexible, thank you so much!

But moving from training for flexibility to training for mobility taught me that my ability to stretch didn’t necessarily translate into the important quality of functionality.

What’s the difference between Flexibility and Mobility anyway?

They sound similar so it’s no surprise so many think these two distinct terms refer to the same thing.

Flexibility is concerned with a muscle’s ability to relax and lengthen passively – with passively being the key word here.

Years of yoga practice had lengthened my hamstrings to a point where I could bend over and touch my toes with ease, folding my body in half like a piece of paper?

Mobility, on the other hand, refers to the joints and the quality of movement we have throughout a range of motion.

In the case of my hamstrings, my strength and functionality improved tenfold when, instead of focusing on how long I could make them with passive folds, I focused on how strong I could make them in the outer ranges (but not the end ranges!) of my mobility with exercises like straddle ups.

To put it even more simply:

  • Flexibility is how far you can stretch a muscle, statically
  • Mobility is how much control you have while you’re actively moving both joints and muscles together

Which one wins?

The ability to touch my toes doesn’t make me dysfunctional – far from it!

There’s nothing wrong with an ambition to become more flexible.

But alone, this goal will not lead to a more functional and capable body.

By chasing mobility as the overarching goal, with a focus on achieving an adequate (not maximal!) range of motion we allow for more freedom and better coordination of our overall structure.

Instead of dumping all our force into our area, passively trying to reach the furthest our body will go on that static plane (flexibility) we can instead aim to distribute forces throughout a chain of joints for overall function (mobility).

Why the great debate?

Flexibility has long been something that people have chased after.

And more than that, it has often been treated as a separate entity to strength training – you’d go stretching or yoga classes, then head back to your normal training of strength work, running or sport.
These tightly intertwined physical aspirations have long been kept in separate ‘boxes’.

For myself and for so many in the Aspen Coaching community, it has proven far more effective to chase mobility through creating power at our end ranges by understanding the coordination of our joints and slowly pushing to open ranges only as far as we can keep them strong.

What does this look like in practice?

If you want to bring this approach into your training, here’s a few things you can do;

Slow it down – A LOT

  • This is especially important when we work on our strength.
  • Don’t bounce in and out of ranges.
  • Instead ensure you have a slow tempo on your eccentric phase of motion (around 4 seconds), a pause (of 1-2 seconds), and a controlled concentric phase (2 seconds).

Introduce isometric holds

  • Start to play within a full range of motion, create more depth and begin to simply hold to build the strength.
  • For example – a tricep dip is an exercise where most people are only able to achieve 50% range of motion.
  • To address this with isometric holds, a solid approach would be to:
    • Hold the top position for 30 seconds.
    • Rest for 30 seconds.
    • Hold the bottom position for.30 seconds.
  • If this is easily achievable, start to add in super slow eccentrics, 30 sec transition from one position to the next, focusing on depth and muscular engagement in the end range.

Seek new positions that challenge your weak spots

  • For many this is all about going towards the stuff that makes you squirm – because the hard stuff will always be what needs your attention the most!
  • For a lot of people, active range through the hips is a major sore point – you can try these Loaded Straddle Good Mornings superset with Straddle Circles and Lifts.
  • Link to videos

Of course, depending on where you are starting from, you will almost always need to modify positions to suit your body – a runner will have a very different set of mobility challenges to myself as a yoga practitioner, and we’ll both have a totally different approach to a seasoned powerlifter!

Why not try out some of the mobility exercises we use in our classes and private coaching sessions?

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