How to safely improve your flexibility and mobility
Increasing and maintaining your flexibility and mobility provides numerous health benefits, including improvement to our capacity for injury and pain-free functional movement. It is for this reason that physiotherapists and exercise physiologists often recommend flexibility training, mobility training or functional movement training to clients – particularly after they have sustained an injury.
What is flexibility?
Despite being interlinked, flexibility and mobility are not the same thing. In fact, there are crucial differences between the two. In this article we set out the differences between flexibility and mobility and look at ways in which you can safely improve both.
Flexibility can be defined as the ability of a singular musculotendinous unit to lengthen and then return to its original length after movement, which, in turn, improves the capacity of a singular joint to move through a full range of motion.
Flexibility refers to passive movement, meaning that we do not actively engage the muscle. Rather, we typically rely on an external force such as limb support or body weight to assist us to flex a joint and/or lengthen a muscle, or group of muscles, and stretch it beyond the range of motion that is accustomed to.
How do you improve flexibility?
When we push our muscles to elongate and stretch further than what they are accustomed to, the muscle spindle signals our central nervous system (CNS) and it responds by contracting the muscle, as a means of protecting it from potential injury.
When we engage the muscles in prolonged stretching – for example, holding a static stretch for 30 to 60 seconds – the muscle relaxes and, over time, the muscle spindle becomes accustomed to the new length, sending fewer signals to the CNS and reducing that automatic urge to contract, and our flexibility improves.
What is mobility?
Mobility can be defined as the ability for a joint, or a combination of joints, muscles, tendons, and ligaments, to move actively through a complete range of motion, without resistance, restriction, or pain.
Mobility refers to dynamic or active movement, where we consciously engage the muscles around a joint to move, such as bending your arm at the elbow and then straightening it again.
How do you improve mobility?
The best way to improve mobility is to incorporate dynamic stretches into range of motion exercises or your physical training regimen. Simple!
How are flexibility and mobility linked?
It is possible to have good flexibility without having good mobility, however good mobility is the product of a combination of good flexibility, stability, and muscular strength, which enables your body to actively mobilise the joints and move correctly.
Uneven muscle development, resulting from our tendency to move some muscles and joints more frequently than others as we complete our daily routine, causes some muscles to lengthen and slacken and others to shorten and tighten, which impedes flexibility. Muscles that have become disproportionately short and tight can pull our joints out of proper alignment, causing uneven joint wear and dysfunctional movement.
Abnormalities of functional movement, and incorrect movement techniques that we may adopt to compensate for these abnormalities, have the potential to cause issues such as anterior pelvic tilt (an abnormal pelvis position that can affect posture and cause pain), lower back pain, and arthritis – all of which significantly impact our mobility.
Which is more important – flexibility or mobility?
Although flexibility is important, evidence has shown that flexibility alone isn’t necessarily crucial to achieving better physical fitness, correcting movement techniques, or improving your overall health. While stretching can be a great way to start the day and get your blood flowing, or to cool down after exercise, stretching alone will not improve your range of motion or dynamic functional movement.
For optimal health benefits, we need to be able to undertake movement using proper muscle and joint function and, for that to occur, flexibility must be accompanied by strong, stable, and mobile joints.
Having good mobility means that we are better able to perform the muscle and joint movements required by the normal activities of daily life (functional movements) and improving our capacity for good dynamic functional movement enables us to mobilise without effort, decreases the risk of injury, and can help to reduce muscle and joint pain.
This is where mobility training comes into play. Mobility training, also known as functional training, is a training program designed to increase and maintain flexibility and mobility, to enable easier and more efficient functional movement.
Mobility training: The best way to improve flexibility and mobility
Lack of flexibility and joint mobility can significantly impact your body’s ability to move. Research indicates that the best way to improve flexibility and mobility is through a mobility training program that actively retrains our bodies to use the correct pattern of movement and helps to build muscle strength and increase range of motion.
Mobility training programs typically consist of a range of stretches, deliberate movements and full-body exercises that are designed to increase a person’s core strength, core endurance, stability, and range of motion (ROM).
Full-body exercises help to improve mobility by directly improving our capacity for functional movement. Depending on a person’s current level of fitness or mobility, these exercises often include a range of muscle-strengthening exercises that require us to engage a variety of muscle groups at one time, such as stair-climbing, squats, burpees, lunges, and push-ups.
Activities such as weight training, cross-training, circuit training, or mixing up your regular workouts to include all muscle groups over the course of the week, are excellent ways of engaging in full-body exercise.
As we mentioned earlier, stretching is integral to flexibility – but not all stretches are created equally. A good mobility training program should include a mix of static stretching, dynamic stretching (stretching while moving), and stretching against resistance. This is because incorporating different kinds of stretches will help to increase muscle pliability and improve joint mobility.
While the benefits of mobility training for improving flexibility and mobility can’t be underemphasized, any new exercise or training program should be formulated under the direction and supervision of a physiotherapist or exercise physiologist, to ensure the right mix of exercises for each individual and to avoid any possible injury.
Improve your flexibility and mobility with a personalised mobility training program from Transcend Health
Transcend Health offers a range of services to help you improve your mobility, including small group movement classes, exercise physiology classes, and one-on-one sessions with our highly-qualified physiotherapists and accredited exercise physiologists.
We even offer online appointments, if you’re unable to make it to the practice, or you’d prefer to conduct your session from the comfort of your own home. Contact Transcend Health on (02) 4961 3399 or click here to fill out our online form to have one of our friendly staff contact you. Alternatively, use our online booking system (click here) to make an appointment today!