Flexibility and Mobility: Practical Principles and Guidelines
If you come from a classical strength sports background or physique, mobility and flexibility can be a whole new world.
Powerlifting, CrossFit, and Weightlifting all have serious mobility requirements for the best performance. This keeps you healthy, helps you get into the best positions, and reduces overall inhibition of movement.
Today, we’re going to demystify the process and provide some significant, useful, real-world advice for improving your mobility without wasting time or buying into the culture.
What is the Difference Between Mobility and Flexibility?
Despite being discussed like they’re the same thing, mobility and flexibility are overlapping concepts – not identical.
Flexibility is the gross range of motion present in a joint or tissue. Mobility, on the other hand, is the range of motion over which you can exert active control – it’s a more holistic concept measuring your active range. The difference between the two shows up in how you develop them.
Mobility has a much higher standard. Being flexible alone doesn’t apply t your training, as increased range of motion without control doesn’t actually reduce injury risk – and may often be related to poor joint health.
Thus, the process is a simple one: acquire flexibility and build mobility. These may be a two-step process (gaining flexibility and then building control in that range) or a single mobility-moulding process where range and control develop together.
Flexibility: The Myth of Better Training Through Joint Range
Every elite athlete has a flexibility routine, and so do many recreational fitness enthusiasts. Often, these are misguided or are done out of convention. Stretching is good, but the science is still very mixed with limited – and specific – applications.
Traditional stretching and the notion of flexibility as a significant predictor of injury risk are tied together. They’re also misunderstood since this relationship between flexibility and injury risk has a bunch of complications: training habits, posture, lifestyle, and the loading/technique used in your training.
Being able to hit a rock bottom, ass to grass back squat isn’t enough to keep your knees healthy if it comes from a loss of tightness. This is a good example of how flexibility is step one in the journey – true injury-resilience comes from handling the complicating factors in a responsible way.
Flexibility is essential, but not enough. What you need is a better understanding of injuries and how you stop them.
Preventing Injury: Why Exerting Control is Key
Control is the difference between flexibility and mobility. In the real world, it’s often the difference between injury and health, as well as a key player in performance before injury risks even occur.
Better mobility in strength and fitness is key because it often reflects your ability to perform a movement at maximal efficiency. A lack of tightness and control is usually the fastest way to transfer force inefficiently, which reduces strength in compound movements.
A poorly-controlled hip is a good example. This increases the risk of injury in the lower back, knee, and the hip joint itself, but it will also be noticeable in the efficiency and strength of a back squat or deadlift. Getting strong and fit means controlling your body better when dealing with larger weights.
The balance of a joint – the strength and demand of muscles on both sides – is key to its longevity and performance. The shoulder and knee are good examples: misalignment and imbalance increase injury risk and reduce performance.
How Does Control and Strength Improve Mobility and Joint Health?
Control here comes from strength and fine-control. This means improving the strength of muscles and the specific, relevant ways in which you use them.
Strength is control, and control is mobility.
Often, weakness and poor control around a joint is the original problem that causes reduced flexibility. Your body will attempt to protect you from moving through dangerous ranges by simply not allowing it.
Neural change is the key difference between a flexible and inflexible muscle. Control is a key process for acquiring flexibility and improved joint-range, as well as an essential process once it’s been achieved.
If you’re struggling with touching your toes, it’s often the case that your hamstrings aren’t safe at longer ranges, which is why you’re not able to move through those ranges actively.
A good test for this is if you can get into a position with a little bit of weight. If you can achieve a full toe-touch with a plate, but not without any loading, it’s a neural and not a structural problem. The problem is active control – not muscle length!
A Simple Guide to Better Mobility
- Add range
Increasing the range of your exercises is the crucial first step. Moving through the maximum range possible is the crucial step to maintaining and developing your movement capabilities.
Getting familiar with these positions comes from spending time in them, whether this is through adding a deficit to your Bulgarian split squats or practising paused full-depth squats wherever possible.
Adding range is how you build better range and ensure that you have every opportunity to develop specific, end-range control.
- Add resistance
Resistance at reasonable levels is key to getting the most from your mobility work. Being forced to actively hold position against weight improves the control-response and allows for better active control during the lengthening (or “lowering”) portion, as well as the “raising” or shortening period.
Improving the strength and control you can exert over muscles in both ranges is key to controlling your flexibility. Slowing down the eccentric portion of exercises like Romanian Deadlifts, or pausing at the bottom, can improve mobility gains by forcing a longer, stronger approach to muscle-lengthening.
- Hold position actively
When you’re holding position, you should be doing so actively. Never spend time in any position being “passive” – this is a key way to lose out on mobility.
This is true in your stretches, where the end-range should be an active movement in itself. When you find the limit of your stretching, tensing the opposite and stretched muscles in an alternating pattern.
Building control, familiarity, and strength-in-stretch is key to better performance. You can also look into partner-assisted stretches like PNF, which are directly demonstrated as an effective way of building mobility and joint control/safety. This is why banded or resisted stretches are so effective, including Pilates.
- Get Strong in Compromising Positions
On top of better general strength, control, and active stretching processes, it’s useful to get strong in weird positions.
Spending time in otherwise-dangerous positions can significantly help your injury resilience. If you’re familiar with a position (such as internal rotation of the hip), you’ll develop control and comfort so that – if you fall into bad positions – you’re not weak and compromised.
This is often seen in NFL players and their static/isometric training for the ankles, which has started to reduce significant ankle-rolling injuries. For you, this likely just means finding less-comfortable positions and developing comfort and strength in them.
- Work Both Sides!
It’s never a good idea to skip training one side of a joint. Poor control in both directions is a risk factor.
This is really common in the hips and shoulders. You might have spent some time developing your external rotation, which is important, but the internal rotation is also key. A joint is controlled by muscles on both sides contracting together and often against each other.
Strengthening both sides and working active control, such as in the hip internal and external rotation, reduces inhibition and improves active control in both directions. Your joints are designed to move freely in both directions under conscious control – you need to train this for the best results!
These simple principles can make a significant difference in the way that your muscles respond, reduce your overall time spent stretching, and ensure strength-in-mobility. There’s no point developing positions if it leaves you open to injury – bulletproof your body.
Here’s a simple way of improving your mobility that we’ve found can be performed quickly and effectively:
- Weighted shoulder dislocates
- Elbow rotation from the rear rack
- Band pull-aparts with slow-eccentric
- Weighted straddle hang and weighted straddle stretch
- Deficit Bulgarian split squat with slow-eccentric
- Lunging co-contraction
- Shin box
- Reverse Nordic curl
- Paused Russian Twist
this guide has been helpful and would love to hear your thoughts/results!
About the Auther: Liam Rodgers:
Good coaching and good writing rely on attention to detail, forward planning, and deep knowledge of the technical aspects. As an Olympic weightlifting coach and the director of Apex sport and fitness content, Liam lives these out: he has huge enthusiasm for sports performance, nutrition, narrative and immersive, engaging writing.