What’s the Difference Between Mobility and Flexibility?

Lauren Bedosky
by Lauren Bedosky
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What’s the Difference Between Mobility and Flexibility?

The terms “mobility” and “flexibility” get thrown around a lot these days, but they’re definitely not interchangeable. So, what, exactly, do they mean?

In a nutshell: Flexibility refers to the ability of a muscle to lengthen, whereas mobility refers to the ability of a joint to move through its full range of motion without restriction or discomfort. “So flexibility relates to muscles, mobility relates to joints,” says Dan McDonogh, senior manager of performance training and sports marketing at Under Armour. “They’re two completely different things, and, as such, need to be addressed differently.”

Flexibility relates to muscles, mobility relates to joints.

Typically, you work on mobility immediately before your workout and address flexibility after your workout.

MOBILITY

To increase mobility, you’ll want to perform a series of bodyweight exercises that take you through a large range of motion in four key areas: ankles, hips, thoracic spine (the longest section of your spine that also connects to your ribcage) and shoulders. And unlike static stretching, mobility exercises are meant to flow. “Make it very big and very fluid,” McDonogh says.

His favorite bang-for-your-buck mobility move is known as “The World’s Greatest Stretch.” This exercise, which you should do before your workout, hits multiple joints and gets you moving through a variety of large, fluid motions.

“THE WORLD’S GREATEST STRETCH”

The move: Begin standing. Step your left foot forward and lower into a lunge, keeping your rear knee off the floor. As you lunge, set your right palm on the ground beneath your right shoulder. Then, bring your left elbow to the inside of your left foot and shift your hips so they point toward the floor. Finally, twist at the torso to lift your left arm, reaching your fingers toward the ceiling. Reverse the movement to return to standing, making sure to keep your motions fluid. Alternate for 5 reps per side and remember to breathe.

Big mobility drills like “The World’s Greatest Stretch” help move fluid to your joints to keep them lubricated during loaded and high-impact exercises (like squats, shoulder presses and running), and wake up your body to let it know to get ready for whatever movements you have planned.

“I relate mobility to taking the parking brake off of your car, or putting more air in the tires,” McDonogh says. “If I’ve got a flat tire, the car will move, but it won’t move very efficiently.” For example, if you lack ankle mobility, you’ll likely still be able to squat, but you may not be able to squat deeply or with proper form. To compensate for poor ankle mobility, your feet may turn out and your torso may lean forward, which places extra stress on the knees. But if you can get in the habit of moving your joints through their full range of motion without added weight, you’ll improve your ability to move those joints during weighted and high-impact exercise.

FLEXIBILITY

Flexibility work, meanwhile, is best left for after your workout. “Static stretching before activity can actually lead to injury, because you’re taking a cold muscle and trying to lengthen it,” McDonogh explains. “You really want to stretch afterwards when the muscle is warm and limber.”

Stretching after exercise relieves the muscle tension you generated during your workout, which can help reduce post-exercise soreness — especially when you foam roll first. “If a muscle is sore, that’s when the muscle is restricted, or you’re not getting proper blood flow, you’re not getting transportation of nutrients or removal of waste products,” McDonogh says. Foam rolling (aim to roll for 30 seconds per area) relaxes worked muscles, allowing you to better lengthen those muscles via static stretches (hold those for up to 30 seconds at a time) and ultimately maximize blood flow.

What’s more, stretching signals to your body that it’s time to relax, which helps calm your nervous system after a hard effort.

Again, “The World’s Greatest Stretch” offers a bounty of benefits in a single move. This time, hold each portion for a few breaths or long enough to feel a good stretch. If you feel tightness in any of your worked muscles, target them with specific stretches like the hamstring stretch, calf stretch, chest opener or half-kneeling hip flexor stretch.

THE BOTTOM LINE

But while mobility and flexibility differ, they do impact one another to some extent. For example, if your shoulder muscles are tight, you may have trouble moving those joints through their full range of motion. So be sure to address both mobility and flexibility in your training.

About the Author

Lauren Bedosky
Lauren Bedosky

Lauren is a freelance fitness writer who specializes in covering running and strength training topics. She writes for a variety of national publications, including Men’s HealthRunner’s WorldSHAPE and Women’s Running. She lives in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, with her husband and their three dogs.

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