What's More Important: Flexibility or Mobility?

Do you even know the difference? Three experts weigh in on how flexibility vs mobility affect your health and fitness.

Flexibility Versus Mobility
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Even if you're dedicated to your post-workout stretch and you can comfortably reach your arms overhead during chair pose, you might not be totally clear on the differences between flexibility vs mobility. "People have been using flexibility and mobility interchangeably forever, but recently there's been a push to separate the two concepts," says Grayson Wickham, C.S.C.S., physical therapist and founder of Movement Vault, a mobility and movement company. That's because while both modalities are typically associated with recovery, longevity, and injury prevention, they take different approaches to joint health and maintaining healthy, pain-free movement; therefore, they have different implications for your fitness, he says.

Here, learn more about the differences between mobility vs. flexibility, and understand why each one deserves a place in your movement routine.

What Is Flexibility?

Flexibility refers to your connective tissues' ability to temporarily elongate, says Wickham. For example, if your connective tissues are like a Chinese finger trap, the amount 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 lengthen a muscle, because the ends are attached to the bones at a joint, says Wickham.

While flexibility might be most associated with yogis doing the splits or professional dancers hitting their high kicks with precision, being flexible is beneficial no matter where you are in your movement journey. Here are just a few of the benefits of adding flexibility exercises to your daily routine.

Prevents Injury

Being flexible — that is, having the ability to lengthen your connective tissues — is one way to prevent injury, as Shape previously reported. “If you're not flexible, you're more prone to injury,” Lindsay Monal, R.Y.T., a yoga teacher at YogaRenew Teacher Training, told Shape. “If someone goes to pick something heavy up and they're not bending their knees or not flexible in their spine, they [might] throw out their back.” Translation: Having flexible tissue gives you more freedom to move safely with proper form.

Corrects Muscle Imbalances

Flexibility exercises also help correct muscular imbalances. Remember, muscular imbalance occurs when one side of your body is stronger than the other — and while that's normal to a certain degree, this imbalance can also cause the strong side to overcompensate for the weaker side, potentially leading to injury. By introducing flexibility exercises into your routine, however, you have the ability to prevent and correct muscle imbalances. For example, if you know that your right hip is always tighter than your left, adding extra stretches for that right side helps balance you out.

Similarly, if your training schedule includes regular strength and cardio 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 flexibility exercises lengthen the muscles, adding them in helps complement your concentric movements and help your muscles maintain optimal tension. “Your muscles will end up imbalanced” if you skip flexibility 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.”

Improves Daily Functioning

Outside of preventing injuries and correcting muscle imbalances, flexibility also makes it easier to move through your everyday life. Being flexible can reduce pain from tight muscles and make it easier to pick up grocery bags off the ground or bend over to tie your shoes. Since flexibility helps correct muscle imbalances, you'll likely notice an improvement in your posture (thanks to proper alignment), and you might even have an easier time sitting or standing for long periods. Basically, flexibility 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 easiest way to understand the difference is to think of flexibility 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.

Improves Joint Health

Reminder: Joints are primarily made up of cartilage, meaning they don't get as much blood flow as muscular tissue. "By moving the joint, you increase blood flow to that joint, increasing the amount of oxygen and nutrients that help nourish your joint," says Cohen. Plus, if your joints are inflamed, moving them through controlled ranges of motion helps reduce that inflammation by flushing out old fluids and bringing in new synovial fluid, which is what carries those nutrients and keeps joints healthy.

On the flip side, poor mobility can lead to unhealthy joints and ultimately injuries. "Your body will naturally compensate for poor mobility, which typically manifests as poor form that will not just limit performance but could lead to injury, says Morbitzer.

Improves Athletic Performance

If you want to see some gains in the gym, improving mobility is just as important as picking up heavier weights. "If you can improve your mobility, you'll be able to train more ranges of motion in the gym, which produces more muscular results," says Cohen. Think of your stereotypical gym bro cranking out biceps curls over and over, he suggests. He's likely only hitting that top range of the curl (that is, from a 90-degree bend to shoulder), and in doing so, he's missing out on the benefits of working a wider range of motion. "Science has given us research that shows if you actually go to the full stretch position and the full contraction position, you're going to produce more tissue breakdown, which is going to give you better muscular development," says Cohen.

Reduces Pain

Most people spend their days sitting down in a middle-range position in lumbar and thoracic flexion, Cohen points out. But if you're always stuck in this position, you'll develop pain over time as you're constantly recruiting and overusing the same muscles — or worse, overusing incorrect musculature due to overcompensation from muscle imbalances. "When we come to the gym and do controlled articular rotations, we’re taking those joints into their fullest expression of motion, which is supremely important for reducing pain" and expanding your movement beyond the same old, same old positions.

In addition, having poor mobility in one joint is sure to have a domino effect and cause pain in adjacent areas of the body. For example, a tight chest can cause your shoulders to overcompensate and eventually lead to shoulder pain. Or poor ankle mobility can lead to pain in your knees or hips, which can ladder up to the rest of your body, as Bethany Cook, P.T., D.P.T., S.C.S., C.S.C.S., previously told 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 Choose Between Flexibility vs Mobility

First, know that there's no one prescription for choosing between flexibility vs. mobility. Your needs will depend on your individual body, your movement patterns, your muscular imbalances, and your goals, says Cohen. And in most cases, you'll need a blend of both flexibility and mobility to be able to move efficiently and without pain. "You need both sides of the coin," he argues. "Being flexible doesn’t mean you’re mobile, but being mobile likely initiates you becoming more flexible."

Flexibility can help with mobility, but extreme flexibility isn't going to boost your performance outright, says Cohen. "When yogis and dancers come to see me, they're flexible, but not mobile," he points out. "Some people with a long history in dance come to me with pain you'd see from someone who sits in a chair all day, but they're almost hyperflexible — so when they're moving, they're not moving from the right places." TL;DR: Hyperflexible people can stretch into certain positions, but not necessarily with control. For example, a yogi may be able to squat down almost to the ground, but when weight is added, they might feel back pain coming out of the squat because they're not activating the right muscles and creating stability in their body.

Amy Opielowski, master trainer at CorePower Yoga, says that it's this connection between mobility and flexibility, plus the fact that mobility is important for injury prevention and workout performance, that makes it best to focus on overall mobility as opposed to just flexibility. And yes, that even goes for yogis who want to be able to bend into pretzels, she adds.

One major note: There is a lack of scientific research to support the notion that simple flexibility decreases your risk of injury, says Wickham. A review of five studies published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine found that static stretching in that way had no correlation to injury reduction. A second review published in The British Medical Journal found that stretching also doesn't reduce muscle soreness in the days following exercise. So again, the best movement routine doesn't choose between flexibility vs. mobility — it incorporates both regularly.

Ready to improve your flexibility and your mobility? Try adding these mobility exercises to your day, or take on this at-home stretching routine from Vanessa Chu, co-founder of Stretch*d.

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