Mobility is important for absolutely every body. It’s not as sexy sounding as strength or even flexibility, not as exciting sounding as HIIT or Tabata, and perhaps has a few too many mobility scooter connotations, but it’s universally essential to our physical wellbeing… So what is it and what is it not?
Mobility is not the same as flexibility but it is often paired with, or compared to, flexibility. Flexibility is your ability to stretch passively – often using external assistance like gravity, other body parts, props (e.g. straps) or the floor. Mobility is your ability to stretch actively using your strength. Usually mobility will therefore have a smaller (but more active) range of motion whereas using flexibility we can stretch further because we’re passive.
How do you know which kind of stretching you’re doing? Try this test (you can do it lying down, sitting on a chair or standing). Draw your knee towards your chest without using your arms – that’s your range of mobility. The active range you can move a joint using your strength. Now do the same action but use your hands to pull your knee towards you – that’s your flexibility. Your passive range of motion using external factors.
Now I’m not saying one is necessarily better than the other – but we definitely need both, and stretching that incorporates strength and stability, is definitely less like to cause an injury. Often more bendy people are drawn to flexibiliity and classes which incorporate this because it feels more natural in their bodies. But usually these are the very people who would benefit from more mobility to help stabilise and strengthen. But whatever your level of flexibility, mobility can help your body, and may actually feel more accessible as there are far few extreme stretches (you won’t be touching your big toe to the back of your head in many mobility exercises).
It’s about balance… like everything. Mobility will help you practice longer and move more safely. For yogis it’s a really beneficial inclusion to your practise (I love to add some in each class). It can help you avoid injuries cause by overstitching, which many of us can be susceptible to. Believe me I know… You might not have heard of yogi butt (not as sexy as it might sounds) but it’s a common injury from over-stretching hamstrings – thing of all those forward folds in a sun salutation. It’s also the perfect practice for hyper mobile participants who have much less joint stability and strength to support the range of motion their body has, often able to stretch beyond the safe range for a particular joint.
Some classes, such as restorative and yin yoga, purposefully focus on more passive stretching – which has its own sets of benefits. You definitely don’t need to avoid flexibility altogether but now and again come back to your why… is your practice functional? Do your stretches improve your body’s ease of movement, form, fitness or strength? Do those extreme stretches serve your body or your ego? Maybe it’s time to add a bit of mobility to your practice.
So whilst I’m not totally averse to the odd passive stretch at the end of the class, and I’ve still been known to dig out my splits at a party, you’ll find my mobility – my active range of motion – is more of a priority, and exercise forms like Pilates, dynamic yoga, and barre are where you’ll find me working on those.
And although it can be a cool party trick, how useful is being able to do the splits anyway?