So you’ve heard of mobility and flexibility, but what do these words mean? Are they the same thing? And why are they important as a student? Let’s break things down…
Flexibility is the ability of a muscle or muscle group to passively and temporarily lengthen through a range of motion. When we are holding a stretch, we are challenging the flexibility of a muscle group.
Mobility is the ability of a joint to move actively through a range of motion before a point of restriction is reached. This point of restriction is the one at which we would likely be holding that passive stretch that challenges our flexibility. The key difference here with mobility is the active movement. Mobility is not just flexibility, but also having the strength and motor control to move through a range of motion.
The central nervous system limits joint mobility based on how much control the body has to get into that range of motion. That feeling of restriction is a protective mechanism to keep the joint from moving into a position in which the structures supporting the joint (muscles, tendons, ligaments) being unable to meet the demands of that position. With that in mind, we want to make sure that we’re not just working on our flexibility, because it doesn’t really do us any good to have an increased range of motion if we don’t have the strength to control movement through it safely.
So why is mobility important? Let say you have a car with a flat tire. You can still drive the car, but it won’t move as fast or efficiently. Similarly, if we have a lack of mobility at a joint, the quality of our movement may be negatively affected. The demand that that joint is unable to meet will instead be transferred to another area of the body, and this increase in stress could potentially lead to injury.
For example, if someone has restricted mobility in their hips and performs a squat, they might only be able to squat to a certain depth before their lower back rounds in compensation to get lower. In a squat, we want the lower back to avoid this flexion so that stability of the spine is maintained, especially when weight is added. If this person works a job where they have to repeatedly squat low to lift up heavy objects, this continual loading of the spine in an unstable position could potentially lead to the development of lower back pain.
While it is important to address mobility restrictions that we currently have, we should also be proactive with mobility work so that we can maintain healthy and strong joints and perform activities of daily living with ease. Take the hamstrings for example. We don’t need an extreme amount of hamstring mobility to perform most exercises and you can get by just fine if you can’t touch your toes. As we age, and if we spend more time being sedentary, our hamstrings can continue to get tighter until the point where it affects our ability to walk. If an elderly individual is walking with their knees bent, this can be due to the hamstrings being unable to lengthen to allow for full knee extension. This shortens the length of each step, which makes it harder to walk around. And if it’s harder to walk around, the individual might be more reluctant to get active and then start to live a more sedentary lifestyle, which can lead to other health problems.
Now the goal with providing this information isn’t to scare you, but rather to stress the value of staying active to preserve joint mobility and allow for life-long health and maintain quality of life and independence with aging. Set the stage for this by creating healthy habits for yourself now, and your future self will thank you.
For some practical ways to incorporate a mobility focus into your fitness routine, student members can check out the Total Body Mobility Flow and Combatting Sitting videos by logging in to uofa.myvivaplan.com. Keep an eye out for our upcoming video: Addressing Common Mobility Restrictions with Strength Training.
Guest blog by
Corbin Cammidge, B.Kin, CSEP-CPT, AFLCA
Personal Trainer and Group Fitness Instructor
Hanson Fitness and Lifestyle Centre & Saville Fitness Centre