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Flexibility VS Mobility: A Comprehensive Comparison

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  • Post last modified:September 26, 2023

Even if you’re devoted to your after-workout stretch and you can comfortably reach your arms overhead during chair pose, you might not be completely clear on the distinctions between suppleness vs mobility. “Individuals have been using suppleness and mobility interchangeably forever, but recently there has been a push to segregate the two concepts,” states Grayson Wickham, C.S.C.S., physical therapist and founder of Movement Vault, a mobility and movement company. That’s because while both forms are typically associated with recuperation, durability, and injury prevention, they adopt different approaches to joint health and sustaining healthy, pain-free movement; as a result, they have distinct implications for your fitness, he says.

Here, discover more about the distinctions between mobility vs. suppleness, and comprehend why each one deserves a place in your movement routine.

What Is Suppleness?

Suppleness refers to your connective tissues’ ability to temporarily lengthen, says Wickham. For instance, if your connective tissues resemble a Chinese finger trap, the quantity of material doesn’t actually change with movement. You can’t make your connective tissues grow, but you can contract them, says Gabrielle Morbitzer, a mobility instructor. In fact, it’s physically impossible to elongate a muscle, because the ends are attached to the bones at a joint, says Wickham.

While suppleness might be most associated with yogis performing the splits or skilled dancers executing their high kicks with accuracy, being supple is advantageous regardless of where you are in your movement journey. Here are just a few of the benefits of incorporating suppleness exercises into your daily routine.

Prevents Injury

Being supple — meaning, possessing the ability to lengthen your connective tissues — is one way to avert injury, as Shape previously reported. “If you’re not supple, you’re more susceptible to injury,” Lindsay Monal, R.Y.T., a yoga teacher at YogaRenew Teacher Training, told Shape. “If someone goes to lift something heavy and they’re not bending their knees or not supple in their spine, they [might] strain their back.” Translation: Having supple tissue gives you more freedom to move safely with proper technique.

Corrects Muscle Imbalances

Suppleness exercises also help rectify muscular imbalances.

Keep in mind, muscular asymmetry happens when one aspect of your physique is more powerful than the other — and though that’s typical to a specific extent, this asymmetry can also result in the dominant side compensating excessively for the weaker side, possibly resulting in harm. Nevertheless, by incorporating flexibility exercises into your regimen, you possess the capacity to avert and rectify muscle imbalances. For instance, if you are aware that your right hip consistently lacks flexibility compared to the left side, incorporating supplementary stretches specifically for the right side aids in reestablishing equilibrium.

Similarly, if your training schedule includes regular potency and cardiovascular work, your muscles are already regularly contracting (that is, shortening) in order to complete those concentric exercises (think: biceps curls, incline walking, or deadlifts). Since suppleness exercises lengthen the muscles, adding them in helps complement your concentric movements and assist your muscles maintain optimal tension. “Your muscles will end up imbalanced” if you skip suppleness exercises, Jess Fallick, an NASM-certified personal trainer and SLT master instructor previously told Shape. “[Inflexibility] can cause other joints and muscles to overcompensate for the ones that are too tight or too short and never have the opportunity to lengthen, which ultimately leads to strains, discomfort, and injury.”

Enhances Daily Functioning

Beyond preventing injuries and rectifying muscle imbalances, suppleness also makes it simpler to move through your everyday life. Being supple can decrease pain from taut muscles and make it easier to pick up grocery bags off the ground or bend over to tie your shoes. Since suppleness helps rectify muscle imbalances, you’ll likely notice an advancement in your posture (thanks to proper alignment), and you might even have an easier time sitting or standing for long periods. Basically, suppleness has a domino effect of benefits, all of which circle back to pain-free, efficient movement whether you’re at the gym or at home.

What Is Mobility?

Mobility is your ability to move a muscle or muscle group through a range of motion in the joint socket with control, says Wickham. “Mobility is an indication of how well and efficiently we move,” says Morbitzer. “Flexibility is one part of mobility, but strength, coordination, and body awareness are also elements of mobility.” And while being flexible is helpful in certain scenarios, having great mobility usually has more application and use in your everyday life, says Tim Cohen, C.S.C.S., KINSTRETCH® Certified, Functional Range Conditioning Mobility Specialist, the co-owner and co-founder of Ethos Training Systems in Chicago.

The simplest way to understand the difference is to think of suppleness as passive and mobility as active. A passive hip flexor stretch, for example, may help increase flexibility. Butt kicks or high knees will increase the mobility in those muscles and joints. Here’s more about the specific benefits of mobility.

Enhances Joint Health

Reminder: Joints are primarily made up of cartilage, meaning they don’t get as much blood flow as muscular tissue.

By shifting the joint, you enhance bloodstream to that particular joint, amplifying the quantity of oxygen and nourishment that facilitate nourishing your joint,” states Cohen. Additionally, if your joints are swollen, mobilizing them through regulated extents of movement aids in diminishing that inflammation by purging out antiquated fluids and introducing fresh synovial fluid, which is what transports those nutrients and sustains joint well-being.

Enhances Athletic Performance

On the opposite side, insufficient mobility can result in unhealthy joints and ultimately injuries. “Your body will naturally compensate for inadequate mobility, which commonly manifests as substandard form that will not only restrict performance but could lead to injury,” says Morbitzer.

If you desire to witness some progress in the gym, enhancing mobility is just as crucial as lifting heavier weights. “If you can enhance your mobility, you’ll be able to train more ranges of motion in the gym, which yields more muscular outcomes,” says Cohen. Consider your typical gym enthusiast relentlessly performing repetitive biceps curls, he suggests. He’s likely only reaching the maximum range of the curl (that is, from a 90-degree bend to shoulder), and thereby missing out on the advantages of working a broader range of motion. “Science has provided us with research that demonstrates if you actually go to the full stretch position and the full contraction position, you’re going to generate more tissue breakdown, which will result in improved muscular development,” says Cohen.

Alleviates Discomfort

The majority of individuals spend their days seated in a middle-range position with flexed lumbar and thoracic areas, Cohen points out. However, if you’re constantly stuck in this position, discomfort will develop over time as you’re continuously engaging and overusing the same muscles — or even worse, overusing incorrect musculature due to compensation from muscle imbalances. “When we engage in controlled articular rotations at the gym, we’re taking those joints to their fullest expression of motion, which is extremely important for alleviating discomfort” and expanding your movement beyond the repetitive positions.

Furthermore, possessing poor mobility in one joint is bound to have a chain reaction and cause discomfort in adjacent areas of the body. For instance, a constricted chest can trigger your shoulders to compensate excessively and eventually lead to shoulder discomfort. Or inadequate ankle mobility can result in discomfort in your knees or hips, which can extend throughout your body, as Bethany Cook, P.T., D.P.T., S.C.S., C.S.C.S., previously reported to Shape. “Everything starts at the feet, so if you don’t have the mobility there, eventually it’s gonna catch up to you somewhere else in the kinetic chain,” she explained.

How to Select Between Flexibility vs. Mobility

Firstly, understand that there’s no single prescription for choosing between flexibility vs. mobility. Your requirements will rely on your specific physique, your patterns of movement, your muscular imbalances, and your objectives, says Cohen. And in most instances, you’ll require a combination of both flexibility and mobility in order to move effectively and without discomfort. “You need both aspects,” he argues. “Being adaptable doesn’t mean you’re mobile, but being mobile likely triggers you to become more adaptable.”

Flexibility can aid in mobility, but excessive flexibility won’t significantly enhance your performance, states Cohen. “When yogis and dancers come to see me, they’re adaptable, but not mobile,” he highlights. “Some individuals with an extensive dance background seek my help with pain commonly associated with sedentary individuals, but they’re nearly hyperflexible — so when they’re in motion, they’re not activating the correct areas.” TL;DR: Hyperflexible individuals can stretch into particular positions, but not essentially with control. For example, a yogi may be capable of squatting down nearly to the ground, but when bearing weight, they might experience back pain while coming out of the squat because they’re not engaging the appropriate muscles and establishing stability in their body.

Amy Opielowski, a master trainer at CorePower Yoga, suggests that it is this relationship between mobility and flexibility, in addition to the fact that mobility is crucial for preventing injuries and optimizing workout performance, that makes it better to focus on overall mobility rather than just flexibility. And yes, this applies even to yogis who desire to contort their bodies.

One significant observation: There is a lack of scientific research to support the idea that simple flexibility decreases your risk of injury, says Wickham. A summary of five studies published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine discovered that static stretching in that manner had no association with injury prevention. A second summary published in The British Medical Journal found that stretching also does not alleviate muscle soreness in the days after exercising. Thus, once again, the most effective movement routine incorporates both flexibility and mobility on a regular basis.

Are you prepared to enhance both your flexibility and your mobility? Consider incorporating these mobility exercises into your daily routine or follow this at-home stretching regimen from Vanessa Chu, co-founder of Stretch*d.