Mobility training: How to increase your joint health

PHOTO: iStock

Most people think that mobility and flexibility are the same, when in fact they are very different.

Understanding the difference between the two will help you figure out what you should be doing more of, so let’s start with the definitions.

When you look up “flexibility” in the dictionary, the definition is: “The quality of bending easily without breaking.”

Which, in a way, makes sense but we are also not plastic rulers that snap when bent too far. So, to make it simpler, let’s go by this definition: “Flexibility is the ability to extensively lengthen your muscles.” Whereas: “Mobility is the ability to move your joints through a wide range of motion.”

Which is important
Flexibility and mobility work hand in hand but the difference is flexibility isn’t going to boost your performance. It’s somehow become “common knowledge” that flexibility is better because it decreases your risk of injury.

When actually, there is so much research saying the exact opposite. A review of five studies found that static stretching in that way had no correlation to injury reduction. A second review found that stretching also doesn’t reduce muscle soreness in the days following exercise. It’s actually mobility that decreases injury, increases joint health, and reduces joint pain.

Mobility exercises increase and strengthen your range of motion. Whether you’re in a downward dog or a heavy squat, you need to be able to control the range of motion of your joints to avoid injury.

Picture: iStock

1. Muscles won’t lengthen if the joint doesn’t allow them to
The main reason why so many people think that flexibility and mobility are the same thing is because they often rely on each other. For example, if you are doing toe touches every day to get flexible hamstrings but your hip flexor mobility is restricted, you are wasting your time. (Sorry to be the one to break it to you).

The muscle will never be able to lengthen to its full extent as the joint won’t allow it to move far enough. Simple as that.

2. Mobility helps prevent injuries whereas flexibility might cause injuries
Flexibility will weaken your muscles when your muscles are in their full range of motion. For example, Jill and Jane are working on getting a wider stance while doing a sumo squat. Jill works on her flexibility by doing her middle splits every day so she’s got a wider range of motion for her deadlift.

Jane does the same, but she also does mobility drills like sitting upright with a kettlebell on each leg, lifting and holding. When the two do their deadlift, they both have a wider stance but Jill gets injured. Why?

At this new range of motion, Jill’s muscles are weak and prone to injury. Whereas Jane worked on stabilising and strengthening her muscles. In the end, the got a heavier lift injury free.


PHOTO: iStock

3. Flexibility is short term and mobility is long term

The benefits of stretching can’t be maintained long-term. Unless you have the time to sit and stretch for five hours a day, your flexibility is only temporary. Muscles require strength and stability in order to maintain this newfound range of motion. That’s where mobility comes in.

Mobility training is based on motor control rather than just passive stretching, which is why it’s easier to maintain long-term. It becomes something that’s engraved in us, unlike flexibility, which you lose if you don’t use. So next time you go and sit in the stretch area for 20 minutes, consider what we’ve just shared.

Letshego Zulu/The Citizen