Take It From the Pros: Successful Stretching Routines Contain Two Key Components

Photo: Getty/RyanJLane
On Monday you bootcamp, on Tuesday you clip-on your Beyoncé-glam cycling shoes, and on Wednesday you hit the latest HIIT class that’s made its way onto Classowerass. Your fitness routine definitely falls under the “full-throttle” category, and you’ve got the heaps of sweaty laundry to prove it.

But couple the rise of boutique fitness and the gym-getter generation with how much everyone is sitting or hunched-over texting, and here we are with a real epidemic of muscle-tightness, muscle pain, and injury, says Grayson Wickham, DPT, a physical therapist and certified strength and conditioning coach. So when simple stretching fails you (or it's simply not enough) Wickham says that the answer could be adding in some mobility training. More on that, right this way.

Keep scrolling to find out more about mobility and what it can do for your workout.

what is mobility
Photo: Stocksy/ Danny Pellissier

What is mobility exactly?

By it's most straightforward definition, mobility means having the ability to move well. "That sounds simple, but moving well encompasses many elements: agility, flexibility, and strength,” says yoga and mobility instructor, Gabrielle Morbitzer. And not just that, but it's "the ability of a joint to move freely and smoothly through its full range of motion with control and without compensation,” adds Wickham.

To visualize it, think about the way a toddler moves, crawls, and plays. “The way a young kid moves is mobility: pure, free, and uninhibited movement,” says Wickham. However, over time, you slowly lose that freedom of motion (thanks, desk job!). This matters because it begins to inhibit the motions that you can make. Take your hip joint, which is a ball-and-socket fit: Good mobility, explains yoga instructor and mobility coach Alexandra Sheppard, would allow you to move backward-and-forward, side-to-side, and in-circles. “If things like lateral shuffling, the couch stretch, or pigeon pose are painful or you simply can’t do them, it’s a sign of poor hip mobility,” she says.

“If you don’t have the hip mobility to perform movements like the squat, or lunge, your body will compensate," says Grayson Wickham.

The problem with this? If you can’t move freely, your body will look for power in other muscles, says master trainer at CorePower Yoga Amy Opielowski. “If you don’t have the hip mobility to perform movements like the squat, or lunge, your body will compensate by tugging on the lower back, knees, and ankles, which can ultimately cause injury and pain,” says Wickham.

While mobility has its roots in CrossFit (Doctor of Physical Therapy and owner of San Francisco CrossFit Kelly Starrett realized back in 2005 that many athletes' injuries could be preventable with a little pre-hab mobility training), everyone from yogis to HIIT fans can benefit from it. "Mobility is one of the most important aspects of both a successful training plan, and being well in the body over time (longevity),” says Morbitzer.

But isn't this the same as flexibility?

Walk by the stretching section of any gym and you’ll likely hear people use the terms flexibility and mobility interchangeably. It may seem like it’s just another tomato-tomahto conundrum, but they're not totally the same thing. “‘Mobility' and 'flexibility' may be connected, but they are different and they have different implications for your performance and health,” says Wickham. And when you actively work on either discipline, you’ll discover they can feel pretty different, too.

“The biggest difference is that flexibility is the ability of a muscle to stretch, but mobility is the ability of a muscle to move within a joint,” says Morbitzer.

Flexibility is passive range of motion.  Try grabbing your leg with your hand and seeing how high you can lift it. That’s flexibility. “It refers to a connective tissue’s (muscles, ligaments, tendons) ability to elongate, even if it’s with the help of your hand, a prop, or a physical therapist,” explains Wickham.

So, yeah: There's some overlap here, but also one big distinguisher to keep in mind. “The biggest difference, put simply, is that flexibility is the ability of a muscle to stretch, but mobility is the ability of a muscle to move within a joint,” says Morbitzer.  “Both mobility and flexibility are important because, without one, the other will suffer." If your hammies are tight (lack of flexibility), you won’t be able to take your hip joint through its full range of motion (lack of mobility).

On the other hand, you can have amazing flexibility, but poor mobility. “Being hyper-flexible, or too flexible, is a real issue if you have poor mobility. Sometimes with yogis or dancers, there is a heightened risk of injury to the joints, as there is not quite enough strength to protect them,” says Morbitzer. “A mobility practice can help address this dilemma because it encourages strength where there is already flexibility."

Okay, so how do I improve my mobility?

Good news, if you’ve caught onto how important recovery is, you probably already use some props that can boost your mobility.  “Things like foam rollers, plexus wheels, and lacrosse balls, can all be used as part of a mobility program,” says Shepard. These tools help your body recovery by improving circulation, but they can also increase your range of motion by breaking up scar tissue and rolling out the lactic acid,” she says.

And you don't have to pen in time for a mobility workout on top of your workout: "A few minutes each day is enough because consistency is what’s key here,” says Morbitzer. “No need to make a massive shift, the practice is about sustained effort.” There's your stretch goal, plain and simple.

More smart fitness advice: How to breathe properly during all different workouts and stock 9 natural products to stock up to add some *spice* to your rest days. 

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