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Mobility & Flexibility - Which Comes First & Why?

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 25 January 2017
Hits: 24432

Many of you will think that mobility and flexibility are the same thing. I know I did, before I became more educated and truly understood the difference between stretching and mobilizing, and how certain parts of the body are more suited to one or the other. We all know the benefits to being more flexible for preventing injury, improving performance and also in rehabilitation when there is a problem or pain, the first thing we do is often to release the tightness surrounding the joint. But this is our instincts trick us and where we a mistake by missing treating where the problem really lies. We are a complex system of systems stacked upon each other with each system relying on the other in order to produce great health. And in the musculo-skeletal system each joint in the body is bound by the joint above or below. (A great concept developed by Gray Cook and Mike Boyle you can read in the book "Movement"). What often happens is someone develops back pain and complains of how stiff their back is and seeks treatment for their back. They do not complain of having restricted hip flexibility or stiffness, for the hips are not in pain. But it is commonly the tight hips that are the cause of the back pain for when we move the hips need great movement in all directions, in order to prevent the back from flexing and extending. The lower back (lumbar spine) must remain stable, while the hips must be the exact opposite, flexible and mobile. But what is the difference between flexible and mobile? In this article I will explain exactly what the difference is and provide plenty of videos and links with more detail and information relating to each joint so you have the full list of what to do! Enjoy.

The Difference Between Flexibility & Mobility

In simple terms flexibility is the capacity of a single joint or muscle to move through its full range of motion. Stretching is specific to a particular movement or joints and is often held for long periods of time or used as a PNF contract relax method.

Whereas mobility is freedom of movement. It is not limited to a single joint but a combination of joints and is more movement based as opposed to holding one particular muscle with increased length for a period of time. This is quite confusing to explain at times for this is not limited to just one area but how a combination of several work together. An example would be someone has optimal flexibility at the hip, knee and ankle yet when they squat they lack freedom of movement. This is not a flexibility problem but a mobility and stability problem affecting how they move.

Using a combination of the two methods, and more importantly knowing which joints need the right approach is a massive step towards getting out of pain or improving how you move. Every time you improve flexibility and mobility new opportunities are created to alter and change movement patterns, and increase strength in weak and lazy muscles. For if there is a tight muscle, there is also an opposite, a weak lazy muscle. The big mistake people make in rehab is trying to strengthen the weak muscle first. Sure it needs to be strengthened, but it can never achieve it's potential while it lacks range of motion, timing and freedom of movement that can only be restored using flexibility and mobility methods. Tight and dominating muscles, also known as Tonic muscles inhibit weak lazy muscles, known as Phasic muscles from firing. You can read about that in great detail Vladimir Janda's book "Assessment & Treatment Of Muscle Imbalance".

You MUST ALWAYS identify tight areas and use the corrective strategies first, before you do anything else! Read our article Four Steps To Success for examples. To help you grasp this concept let's look at these two methods separately.

Flexibility

In terms of flexibility this is reasonably easy to do and know where to start. You can use a series of stretches across all joints and anything that is tight, or hard to do, means it needs a corrective stretching program adopted. Also look for variance between left and right and anything that is lacking range of motion needs to be improved to match the other side. You must strive to be symetrical across all joints otherwise compensation takes over and faulty patterns emerge. Experienced trainers, or health therapists can use measurements to determine if it is lacking in range of motion but if you are testing yourself you can use the simple feeling of it is hard to do, or it obviously lacks range.

Watch the video below where I explain this in detail and give you some examples of how to do this.

Common areas to look at for flexibility imbalances are:

  1. Neck
  2. Chest
  3. Internal Rotators of Shoulder
  4. Lats
  5. Hips
  6. Glutes
  7. Quads
  8. Hamstrings
  9. Calves

There are a lot more you need to investigate but this gives you a basic idea of what you to look for.

A quick word on stretching and trying to improve flexibility too much. Some people fall into the category of hypermobility, and should be very careful about stretching, Yoga and exercises that take joints to a full range. These people, which I am seeing more and more these days will develop joint problems over time as their problem is they have TOO MUCH flexibility. The people I am more concerned with are the ones who love stretching, spend a lot of time with stretching, and always looking to become more flexible. These people have no method for selecting stretches, they believe everything should be more flexible, but like I already discussed some joints need to be kept quite stiff. When you loosen a joint that needs stiffness, you now open the floodgates for potential injuries and pain.

A great article to read more about this is - Hypermobile Joints & Why Stretching Too Much Can Cause More Harm Than Good


Mobility

As we already discussed this type of training is not limited to one joint or muscle but several. As a result coordination and timing is very important in getting this right. I have also found that this modality to be more successful than just stretching with many of the severe and chronic conditions for it changes movements very quickly and without pain! In my early days as a rehabilitation specialist I was confused as to why a person would not be able to move better after we had spent a great deal of time lengthening tight muscles and stiff joints. Their movement pattern never changed even though they had new and improve flexibility. I could not understand why this happened. An example would be someone with no obvious tight muscles on assessment with hips, glutes, hamstrings, quads or calves yet when they squat they are barely able to achieve parallel or maintain optimal form.

In the book Vital Glutes a good quote that summed this up is "When you are standing, the weak muscles show themselves; when you are lying the tight muscles show themselves."

So while the squat looked very stiff and the first instinct is they need stretching, the answer really was they needed more stability and mobility to move correctly. If the body cannot stabilize itself correctly it will find another way, and that other way is known as stiffness. This is where stretching will have little to no effect on changing the way the body has taught itself to move. Even if you improve your range of motion through the joints, the body will just return to the old method of "stiffness" the minute you stand up and begin to move. What the body needs is to be taught new improved ways on how to move using this newfound flexibility. These methods need to be designed in a way that minimal stability is required, for if too much stability is required at this stage, stiffness will return.

So What Should You Do First?

Well I find that often mobility drills work best when completed before stretching. The reason is very simple. If the joints are restricted especially at the thoracic spine, there is no way you will be able to improve or get anything out of your stretching routine. The joint simply cannot do anymore. This is where Chirorpactic work and massage can be very effective at releasing these sticking points. However if you do not straight away follow up with the right mobility and stretching routines you will fall right back into where you were and have to go back for another treatment. Some people stay forever on this merry go round as they are looking for the therapist to "fix them" when they really need to spend some time learning to use the drills I am about to show you and also develop skills in stability and strength.

The order we work in our rehabilitation programs is as follows:

  1. Warm up
  2. Mobility Drills
  3. Stretch tight areas only
  4. Apply stability and movement skills exercises
  5. Apply strength if all areas above completed competently

Make sure you DO NOT stretch before you workout. Always warm up first and stretch later. Read this article to see more on this - When Is It The Best Time To Stretch, Before Or After Exercise?

Where Do You Look To Improve Mobility?

If stretching looks more at individual muscles then mobility looks at more at joints. But which joints? Again using the joint by joint approach by Gray Cook and Mike Boyle gives you a great place to look and many clues. What you will see is that every second joint needs mobility, and the other joints need the exact opposite being stability and strength. Here is how it works.

  1. Feet - Stability
  2. Ankle - Mobility
  3. Knee - Stability
  4. Hip - Mobility
  5. Lumbar Spine - Stability
  6. Thoracic Spine - Mobility
  7. Scapula - Stability
  8. Gleno-Humeral - Mobility

From this list the areas we need to target are the ankle, hip, thoracic spine and gleno humeral joints. The ankle can often become very stiff and rigid and massage can greatly assist in breaking up scar tissue but you will still need to adopt some mobility drills to teach the joint how to work again. The hip and the thoracic spine joints are covered with many thick muscles that are called fascia and often look like tight bands. They are very difficult to stretch and again use of massage in combination with drills to re-educate the system how to work is the only way to free it of it's stiffness. Chiropractic work for the thoracic spine is often very successful in unlocking the stiff joint, but any good Chiropractor will also tell you, that you need to stabilize and strengthen the weak areas in order to hold the adjustment, more on that later.

Let's take a look at some good mobility drills to use for each of the mobility joints.

Ankle

I have started with the ankle as this is often where many of the problems begin, although I can argue it is actually more a lack of FOOT STABILITY that is the real problem but more on this later. The key with these working is to do them standing up and to keep this moving. Very similar to dynamic stretching yet with the purpose of trying to improve the range of motion at the joint instead of just warming up the area.

There is stacks of various methods you can use here to improve ankle mobility. Below is two videos of some of my favorite drills to use. These work well between sets of stability exercises.

Hip Mobility

As we have already discussed hip problems causing back and knee pain is massive. You will need multiple ways of trying to achieve better mobility. I have provided a few videos below to explain how damage is caused by stiff hips and also one of my favorite drills we try to improve this. A lot of stretching of the hips, quads in combination with foam rolling is vital here. Most people are very familiar with the foam roller these days and all you need to do is roll over the ITB and TFL muscles on the side of the hip. Anyone with weak glutes will find these muscles very tight and restricting your ability to rotate your hips.

A great article with more tips and drills is - Are Your Stiff Hips Causing Your Back & Knee Pain?

Thoracic Mobility

This area is very difficult to mobilize and like the hips, sitting is the big problem. Anyone with a tight thoracic spine will develop shoulder and neck problems, guaranteed! And most people with severe low back injuries end up with tight thoracic spines. Avoid any planks, crunches and abdominal work that attempts to tighten your abdominal muscles as these will cause huge problems for you later on. Anyone who plays Golf, Tennis, Hockey or any sports that require rotation needs to work on this, for without good mobility the chance of lower back problems are increased as well as poor performance.

To help you with this I have provided a video explaining how thoracic stiffness is created and what damage it causes to other joints and the second video of our most effective and unique thoracic drills.

A great article with more tips and drills is - Why Lack Of Thoracic Mobility Is The Hidden Cause Of Pain

Glenohumeral & Scapula Need Mobility & Stability!

This can be very tricky to work with and I often seek the assistance of physiotherapists and chiropractors for this joint. The shoulder is a very unstable joint and you can do a lot of harm if you apply too much pressure or try to force things. Use of stick exercises and trying to use exercises that encourage full range of motion work best. You have to be very careful here of being too aggressive with stretching and massage as you may have done with the hips and even the ankles. Muscles around the neck are very sensitive and pushing too much will do more damage. You will also find a lot more trigger points around the shoulders than anywhere else so using self massage tools can work really well.

As mentioned earlier this area is much different to the others as it needs both mobility and stability at the same time. This is a full article all on it's own as it can get very complex but below is two videos giving you an example of exercises we might use for this area. You will find a stack of information all over our website about shoulders and you can get the special report on Shoulder Pain by visiting our online shop.

There is also some great articles to read with more detail on this area below.

Don't Forget You Need Stability

Before I finish this article I must stress that you MUST address stability problems almost straight away after you have implemented your flexibility and mobility program. Remember we said earlier that stability and weakness is exposed when you stand up. Ignorance to the damage that weak feet or rigid feet cause to all joints in the kinetic chain is where we see many mobility problems created. If you do not have a program in place to correct these weaknesses you will straight away go back to the way you were. This is a big mistake many make and where many of the health professionals fail to meet the needs of their patients for they focus mainly on the first phase. And while this is great and what they need it will not be anywhere near enough to correct the long term problem. Many of the people I see these days have more stability problems than mobility and flexibility, and this deficit can only be changed by using exercises and not treatments. The treatment can assist in getting you to the start line but it is not enough on it's own.

Stability training is not holding planks, external rotation with therabands or simply doing endless abdominal work either. It is a lot more complex than that and requires reflex skills and timing. Some good videos on this are below.

I also encourage you to read two great articles below that contribute greatly to many of the mobility problems we see.

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this article and now have a better understanding of mobility and flexibility. By using a combination of the two methods it greatly improves your chances of moving better, becoming stronger and fitter for every muscle and every joint is working as it was originally designed to function. Not only can you get rid of pain, but you can prevent it by using these methods and be able to build a strong body capable of almost anything. Try to follow our 5 step process of warming up, mobility, stretch, stability and lastly strength.

If you currently have knee pain, back pain or shoulder/neck pain I suggest getting a copy of our detailed online download video programs by clicking here or on the image below of the one you need. If you are someone who just wants to get the best program design and more ideas on how to structure stability and strength programs then you need to get the Little Black Book Of Training Secrets by clicking here or on the image below.


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