What is the Difference Between Flexibility and Mobility?

Welcome back to the final step (3) in our series to becoming Limber! Read the previous article about how to stretch (step 2).

In this article we discuss the different types of stretches and how they can be used to build mobility.

Before we can get limber, we need to understand the difference between flexibility and mobility. Even though the definitions are simple, they are quite different in nature.

Flexibility : the quality of bending easily without breaking.

If we break down the definition of flexibility, it is simply being able to bend. no reference to the movement.

Mobility : able to move or be moved freely or easily.

When we look at the definition for mobility, we can clearly see the reference to movement.

That’s basically it. Flexibility is the ability to bend into a position, hopefully without breaking. How the bend happens does not matter. So if you are forced into a position without control, it is still flexibility.

When it comes to mobility, we are talking about the ability to be moving or moved into a position freely or easily. There is a specific focus on the movement aspect. What it takes to express the position.

Even though flexibility and mobility are different, they are reliant on each other. You can’t have one without the other. Flexibility is the foundational work needed to communicate with the nervous system and asses basic movements. Mobility is then built on top of this foundation by incorporating more complex stretching techniques and eventually load bearing movements.

How to turn Flexibility into Mobility?

The Trinity of Mobility was created to show the relationship between the different stretching methods and how they are interconnected for mobility.

The Sacred Trinity of Mobility

In order to progress from a flexibility practice into a mobility practice, one needs to learn the three (3) different stretching methods. Passive, Active, and Dynamic or Kinetic Stretching.

What is Passive Stretching?

Passive stretching or static-passive flexibility (also called passive or relaxed flexibility) is the ability to assume positions at end range and then maintain them using only your weight, gravity, the support of your joints/limbs, or some other apparatus (such as a chair, block or a barre).

This is the foundational layer of stretching and what most people think of when the term stretching is used. Passive stretching takes time and patience. It is not about “going deeper” into range, but deeper into relaxation within a safe range. For this reason specifically, it is commonly misunderstood and used incorrectly.

The mistake made with passive stretching is that people tend to use to much effort. Without going into detail here, we can simply say that passive stretching needs to be passive and relaxed. Using a maximum of tension (leverage) of 30% or less would be considered passive. Anything more pushes the barrier of effort while using leverage. You don’t want to overleverage joints while stretching.

What is Active Stretching?

Static-active flexibility (also called active flexibility) is the ability to assume and maintain extended positions using only the tension of the agonists and synergists while the muscles are being stretched.

An example would be lifting the leg and keeping it high without any external support (other than from your own leg muscles). Active stretching increases flexibility and strengthens the muscles. Note that the ability to maintain the position comes solely from the muscles, as opposed to static passive flexibility using external efforts and leverage.

The use of active stretching requires a clear understanding of passive stretching, how to achieve passive end range (the “edge”) and also how to remove the passive aspect. Learning how to turn a passive stretch into an active one demands effort that comes solely from the muscles. Active stretches are difficult to maintain and only need to be held for periods of five to fifteen seconds to be effective.

When the concepts behind passive and active stretching are understood, the third step to becoming limber and achieving mobility is explored with dynamic stretching.

What is Kinetic or Dynamic Stretching?

Dynamic flexibility (also called kinetic flexibility) is the ability to perform dynamic (or kinetic) movements in the muscles to bring one or more joints through an end range of motion.

Dynamic stretching does not have the static aspect we are used to seeing in a stretch. It is dynamic which means it is in constant change or progression. The movement (dynamic stretch) involves moving one or more joints through their available end ranges. Controlling and articulating this movement pattern to the best of ones ability constitutes the dynamic stretch. Dynamic stretching also activates the dynamic aspect of the “stretch reflex”, which handles quick increases to the muscle length.


Mobility Infographic

Stretch-ometer Infographic displays the relationship of stretching to joint strength.

A Musical Analogy

Most of the stretching you do is passive, this is like having music on in the background while doing something else. You’re listening but not to focused, getting familiar with the overall song.

Active stretching is like you are listening more intently to the music. Trying to figure out the words being said, or notes being played in the song. More concentration, and a purpose.

Dynamic (or Kinetic) stretching would be learning how to sing the song or play it on an instrument. You have to already be familiar with the song, know the words or notes, and then be able to execute them into the pattern of music.

Each step is required to move onto the next. One method acts as a foundation, as the other is built on top. Then the process is repeated.

Once an individual has a solid mobility practice, isometrics and load bearing movement patterns can be introduced. This is where things get really interesting!

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