Mobility | The beautiful hybrid of flexibility and stability

Mobility – What is it? Why have I dedicated the Move Better Mobility program to it? And why does it matter so much? This article will answer these questions and start to build up your understanding of what mobility is and how we use it at gem.fit!

Mobility is this beautiful hybrid of flexibility and stability (all the ‘bilities’!). In achieving better mobility, you improve your functional movements in sport and everyday life. Or put another way, moving better helps you to live better.

So, to deepen our understanding of mobility as a concept, let’s break it down…

FLEXIBILITY

Flexibility can be defined as your PASSIVE range of motion. But what exactly does this mean?

Think of all those medical shows where the patient is under anaesthetic. Even somebody with limited physical activity and flexibility training could be pulled into impressive passive positions because the unconscious body doesn’t resist with what we call the ‘stretch reflex’. Therefore, (if they wanted to!) the doctors could find the patient’s ‘passive range of motion’ very easily.

An easier example for you to try at home (😉) is to lie down on the floor (please do so with a warmed up body!). Fully lie down with your hands and feet on the ground. Then kick one leg up and grab it with your hands. As you breathe out, slowly pull it towards your chest and feel that hamstring stretch. This is your (rough) passive range of motion. Although obviously now you are awake so your stretch reflex will be switching on.

Hamstring stretch: Passive range of motion

Put simply, your passive ranges of motion (flexibility) can be found by pressing, pushing or pulling of your body into various hold positions. Relaxing your body allows you to go further, hence we call this ‘passive’.  

Let’s now look at the splits. Some people can do front or side splits by lowering themselves down and using the ground and gravity to help force the legs apart. This is the passive way of doing the splits!

Splits: Passive range of motion

However, could they do it standing up when they physically have to use their own joint stability for support? This is a common striking pose you see ballet dancers/gymnastics do and it’s even more impressive when they hold this position. So not only do you need to have the flexibility to get the leg up, you also need something extra… you need strength and stability to hold it there.

STABILITY

Stability is best defined as your ability to maintain control of your joint motion or position by using your tissues and muscle systems around the required joint.

Stability has numerous factors linked to it, for example how YOUR body is designed in that specific joint and then the surrounding ligaments and strength/functionality of the surrounding muscles.

One of my most common phrases is that everybody’s body is different.

Check out these ‘correct’ and bow legs.

Example of ‘correct’ and bow legs

One pair of legs has some bowing, the result being that the leg joints have some instability especially around the outer edge of the knees, ankles and some increased risk of injuries in the hips. For the bow legged individual, it’s their biomechanics and therefore they should definitely be doing regular stability work to try and prevent injuries, especially for sports such as basketball and football which have rapid changes of direction and the potential for contact.

Even if they do heaps of stability training, their joints will probably never be as stable as the other (‘correct’) person’s legs because the biomechanics is just simply better. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just the fact that everybody’s body is different! It also doesn’t mean the other person shouldn’t do the stability work! A balanced program of stability, strength and stretching will still help for sure. Both these individuals therefore should not be training their lower limbs in the same way to achieve similar positive results!

Different joints have different focuses! Some are designed to be very sturdy and stable, some joints are designed to have higher ranges of motion and therefore how you challenge these joints in your training differs depending on how you would like to use them.

For example, we all have two ‘ball and socket’ joints, the hip socket and the shoulder socket. The shoulder socket is designed to have high ranges of motion, however dislocations of a shoulder are more common (especially in sporting injuries) than hip dislocations. Why? Because hips are designed to be more stable and sturdier, surrounded by some of the biggest muscles of the body and heaps of smaller muscles, tendons and ligaments around too. We can do lots of movements through the hips but with less range and often bringing in movement from our lumbar spine (lower back).

So how could we train these joints for a specific sport? If you are into rugby, stabilising your shoulders to prevent dislocations could be a great course of action. On the other hand, those hips are probably getting overworked and overloaded and instead may need some release through some flexibility work. The same ‘ball and socket’ type joint but with different demands, requires a different focus in each area.

Let’s now think about swimming, where we need fantastic active range of motion in that shoulder joint. Too much stability work may reduce the range of motion, but too little stability will mean that those rotator cuffs and other ligaments and tendons around the shoulders become weak, over-stretched and an injury risk. Here, the Goldilocks mentality of ‘just right’ really comes into play in finding balance and knowing your body, your needs and how to choose the training regime best for your lifestyle.

Wait! There can be downsides to stability and flexibility

Being overly flexible gives you potential to make some great Instagram shots or pull yourself into impressive party trick positions, but it is not a key factor in how healthy your body is. To be honest, an excessive amount of flexibility results in a reduction in stability around the joint which can lead to heaps of issues and injuries. It should also be noted that the precious ligaments in our body are not designed to be stretched, so once you overstretch them, they aren’t bouncing back like an elastic band, but staying that new length and can cause lots of instability issues around your joints and, you guessed it, injury.

Some people do have goals and aims to be very flexible because its needed for their hobbies and interests – that’s awesome, crack on with safety and care! But sometimes being very flexible is for your own ego. My philosophy is that in everyday life, for the vast majority of people, you don’t need that extreme level of flexibility. You don’t pick up something from the floor by doing the splits, you don’t lie down in bed by doing the Full Wheel. Therefore, don’t compromise your stability in your body which gives you great everyday functioning and protects against limiting injuries for the sake of a fancy pose that strokes your ego.

The downside of excessive stability is that you essentially feel stiffer or that joint motion can feel ‘clunky’. Your joints are surrounded by a super support network and if we are going heavy into our workouts, what often happens is that the muscles supporting that joint simply tightens up. This can result in a decrease in your range or motion or the tightening of the muscles then leads to your body finding other ways of doing the movement that isn’t through your active range of motion around that joint (for example, loading the lower back in a squat because your hips aren’t letting you drop into the ideal depth).

As always in life, finding the balance is key. Enter mobility…

MOBILITY

Mobility as a very simple definition is your ACTIVE range of motion, which combines flexibility and stability.

Let us look at the example I talked about earlier, the lying hamstring stretch. You are lying on your back and pulling the leg towards you and testing your flexibility/passive range of motion. What happens if you take those hands away but still want to pull that leg up towards your chest? The range will be less! Because you have to be really active in your muscles and support your key joints to hold it in position. Basically it makes you work much much harder.

Passive versus active range of motion (lying down)

Do the same exercise standing up. Stand straight, kick that leg up, grab it with your hands and pull it up. Now (carefully!) let go of your leg, bring your hands away and try to keep that leg just as high. Not only is your leg noticeably lower, you are suddenly working hard to keep it there! Since you are also standing up, you have to hold that leg up against a higher force of gravity. Again, if you think of a dancer doing their ‘barre’ work, most of a ballet dancer’s training is about training their active range of motion so they can strike those poses and hold them there with control.

Passive versus active range of motion (standing up)

SUMMARY

In conclusion, you need the beautiful hybrid of flexibility and stability to have great mobility, rather than just using them in isolation. This allows you to perform your chosen movements without restrictions. We strengthen AND lengthen!

A person with only good flexibility will not have the strength and stability to maintain the same motion. A person with only good stability will have strength but not will not be able to reach their optimal range of motion in the targeted area.

And remember that when it comes to flexibility and stability you should focus on understanding your own body and individual training needs, because everybody’s body is different! I have created the Move Better Mobility program to help you with your own journey. I believe that mobility –  regardless of your background and activity level – can be used by everybody to bring heaps of positive benefits to your life and help you to move better.

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