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  • Nathanael Littauer, CSCS

Flexibility and Mobility: Know the Difference to Increase Effectiveness


I've recently had the opportunity to help someone come up with a plan to attack their mobility limitations while they are taking time off of intense training due to an injury. It started by watching this athlete go through tons of different foam rolling movements and banded stretches. It was obvious that he was doing his best to "Become A Supple Leopard" (a fantastic book on movement and mobility by Dr. Kelly Starrett). While his mentality and vigor into clearing his mobility limitations was great, we started talking about how long the process of mobilizing was taking him. The issue was that all of the mobility knowledge he knew came from one source, as does much of the fitness industry's knowledge.

The mentality that I see regarding mobility is that the foam roller, lacrosse ball, and stretching band is a cure all for every mobility issue you have. While they definitely have benefits, we need to understand what gaining mobility means, and how to truly attain it.

Mobility is often misconstrued as flexibility, which by definition are two different abilities. I have seen individuals with astonishing flexibility have very poor mobility. Mobility isn't the ability to reach a certain Range Of Motion (ROM), but the ability to move into and out of that range with a noticeable level of stability. This is where mobility work needs to expand.

Foam rolling and lacrosse balls have been shown to decrease pain, and increase ROM without having any diminishing effects on strength and power output. This is great for athletes, as gaining flexibility can be achieved without losing muscle potential, which can occur during static stretching movements. However, it doesn't provide the stability required to consider the new ROM as gained mobility.

Mobility requires muscle activation. If muscles don't activate and do their jobs, they will not contribute to increasing stability in a ROM. This is why you can have great flexibility and still have poor mobility.

In the aforementioned athlete's case, he was gaining flexibility, but was not activating and moving into the new ROM to gain the respective mobility he was desiring. We can foam roll all day long, but the effects are temporary (limited to 30-60 minutes) if you don't use that range of motion. In consulting with this athlete, we changed up his routine to include both foam rolling and banded distractions, but also included movements that would activate the muscles necessary to claim the newfound ROM as mobility.

If you start to move into those ranges of motion once you've gotten them, you'll end up achieving a higher level of mobility. The great thing about this, is that your warmups no longer have to take eons of time to get you prepped for your training session. A quick roll out followed by a bit of dynamic movement and you'll be set to go. Even better is that these movements compound over time to allow you to maintain that mobility even longer throughout your life.

So if you're someone like the aforementioned athlete whose mobility work and warmup routine is taking too much time, then start moving. Move frequently and move under varying loads in order to reap the effects of good mobility.


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