At first glance, mobility and flexibility might sound like the same thing for your clients. You, as their personal trainer, however, know that the two terms are quite distinct. Mobility is the ability to move into normative end range positions and actively engage the surrounding muscles to stabilise and generate force throughout the desired motion. Flexibility is the ability of a muscle or muscle group to lengthen passively through a range of motion.
What Do We Know About Flexibility?Flexibility is probably the most debated topic among fitness and sports scientists, and research results don't point to one single stream of advice when it comes to stretching.
The lack of evidence and consensus has led to a general recommendation as part of the Level 3 PT qualifications in the UK, that stretching as part of a warm-up should be dynamic. As part of the cool down at the end of the workout, they should be static holds for 30-60 seconds.
If you open a discussion in any fit pro forum about flexibility and stretching, you'll have different opinions from the community, generally based on the field of the respondents.
Dancers and yoga instructors will rave about the benefits of being as flexible as possible and will recommend that stretching is crucial. At the same time, most Olympic and Powerlifters will bring up research that can't prove any benefits at all, so they recommend warming-up with lighter loads going through the full range of movement. Personal trainers are divided depending on what protocols they follow and also their target market.
A review article in 2012 listed numerous studies and how each of them responded to different aspects of flexibility and stretching research. It concluded that the benefits of stretching seem to be individual to the population studied. Hence, the attention coaches and trainers need to pay for flexibility will come down to each client.
Three years later, a systematic review was published by David G. Behm, PhD and University Research Professor at the School of Human Kinetics and Recreation, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada. His purpose was to scour the available research on the acute effects of the different types of muscle stretching on several factors in fitness, including physical performance, range of motion and injuries. Conclusions of the review suggest that the studies vary considerably in their standardisation and encourages exercise professionals to evaluate the appropriateness of the warm-up holistically. In 2018 he published his book The Science and Physiology of Flexibility and Stretching: Implications and Applications in Sport Performance and Health to summarise all his findings and provide professionals with methods and recommendations.
Why Is Mobility Important?Mobility is active while flexibility is passive. Mobility can be affected by many factors; not only the muscles stretching over the joint but the ability of the joint to move in the joint capsule too. The active element of mobility relates to the motor control within the nervous system and the strength in that end range of motion.
Mobility training helps to maintain healthy joints. Staying active throughout the range, including the end ranges of motion, allows the joint to stabilise and generate force through these positions. In sports such as weightlifting or Brazilian jiu-jitsu, this is essential.
Making sure your clients are moving well through these end ranges make them less prone to injury. By working on mobility strength, it can help to avoid pain and injuries in the future.
Improving mobility can improve the efficiency with which your client's body moves. Being limited in their training by tightness or a lack of range of motion is frustrating and can impair progress with their training goals.
Mobility in General And Special PopulationsThe difficulty with diminished mobility is that it can have additional health complications that negatively impact the quality of life of the person who has them. These, in turn, can further limit mobility, and it becomes a negative health spiral. Research has recognised that optimal mobility, defined as relative ease and freedom of movement in all of its forms, is central to healthy ageing.
With more people in the general population working sedentary jobs, mobility is an issue for most population types, not just those over 65 yrs old. There are many health-related problems linked with poor mobility, such as obesity, diabetes, arthritis and other chronic pain conditions.
With severe limitations, older adults could anticipate increased frequency of falls and more severe consequences of those falls. As people are living longer, a larger percentage of the population could have mobility issues impacting their quality of life.
Whether you train professionals in their 30s and 40s, young 17+ adults or people well in their 60s or 70s, mobility training that involves strength development at the end ranges of movement will be a crucial element of their workouts. May that be to improve their athletic performance, prevent future injuries or improve quality of life and graceful ageing.
Recommendations for Mobility TrainingWorking the joints and muscles through an active range of motion through short, specific mobility drills is essential if your client's sport requires that they can produce force at those end ranges. If sport-based mobility is the goal, spending time in these end ranges and developing stability first and then strength in those ranges will be critical.
Even if sport considerations aren't an issue, mobility is vital in extending the health and longevity of an ageing and increasingly sedentary population. Like everything in the gym, there's what's optimal, and then there's what's practical. A good routine that can be managed in the context of the rest of your client's day is better than a perfect mobility routine that never gets done.
In his book Deskbound: Standing Up to a Sitting World, Dr. Kelly Starrett identifies five opportunities throughout the day to prioritise mobility.
- First thing upon waking: sitting in deep squats, hip hinging and reaching arms overhead can help mobility after a
long period asleep.
- Throughout the day: especially important for clients working while sitting for extended periods. He recommends
keeping a mobility tool visible on the desk as a reminder.
- Before a workout: dynamic exercises such as air squats, skipping, or push-ups to increase mobility pre-workout -
depending on the movements required from the training session.
- After the workout: this is the optimal time to do quality mobility work, as the body is hot and primed for quality
- Before bed: this can be a pleasant way to relax and prepare the body for sleep.
Strength coach Dan John suggests that mobility is more easily completed when it's done in between sets of another exercise when you'd otherwise be just sitting around. The logic is that it's more likely that the uncomfortable and possibly boring tasks like mobility work are put alongside exercises that feel comfortable and enjoyable.
ConclusionGeneral recommendations for flexibility and mobility work before exercise is to remain dynamic, with specific considerations of the demands of the workout in mind.
Stretching and mobility training for general relief and releasing soft tissues can be highly personal and directed to the needs of the moment.
Like so much of exercising effectively, finding something manageable for the client's current level of mobility that can fit into their lifestyle will be more important than finding "the perfect stimulus".