Stretching and Mobility: What’s the Difference?
Written by Mark Teahan Director of Education Programs for The Spencer Institute
When it comes to stretching vs mobility, it’s understandable if you have some uncertainty about which means what. One factor each has in common: flexibility.
Both terms are often used interchangeably as if they are meant as the same. They are both clearly different…let us explore just how much so.
We could simply describe the differences. But that may not be enough to clarify the distinctions between both terms. What are the individual benefits? And how should stretching and mobility be incorporated into your program designs?
Stretching: Cleaning up the Definitions
Even the basic definition of stretching can evoke confusion. To search for the definition of stretching online renders this result: to straighten or extend one’s body or a part of one’s body to its full length, typically so as to tighten one’s muscles or in order to reach something. Is that accurate? It can easily be argued that this is not correct because it implies muscle contraction (albeit statically) as a part of stretching, but we all know that a muscle must be relaxed to stretch. Let us then use a more usable definition, in a simpler form: stretching is a training method that is used to improve flexibility; it is more precisely defined as the ability to either passively or actively achieve extended ranges of motion. There are different stretching techniques, the most familiar being static and dynamic stretching.
What can stretching do for an active person?
In the short term, the body benefits more in terms of range of motion (ROM) than usual immediately after a stretch session, as it alters the elastic properties of the muscles. However, this is only temporary.
In the long term, regular stretching routines can support an extended range of motion – meaning that the benefits become more permanent. But this does not happen because muscles have been elongated as is commonly thought. It more likely occurs because of an increase in the ‘stretch tolerance’ of the muscles being stretched. Remember, the body works as a system, never in isolation; this means that the skeletal system, tendons and ligaments all facilitate stretching, flexibility and mobility.
Have you ever wondered why you can only stretch so far before your body refuses to let you go further? This happens because of the safety system in place for our bodies, the stretch reflex. This safety mechanism kicks in when you stretch a muscle up to a certain point. It’s there to protect you from potential injury. NESTA graduates know that muscle spindles and golgi tendon organs act as stretch receptors, providing vital feedback to keep us operating in safe range of motion.
After a lot of regular stretching, the stretch reflex is delayed, allowing movement into a deeper range of motion before it kicks in. The result of this: the stretch tolerance is increased. Therefore, stretching works by eventually convincing your nervous system to allow you access to an increased range of motion.
The Benefits of Stretching
To move and function well through life, especially during physical activities, we need a reasonable amount of flexibility and mobility. Stretching is one training method that can help us to achieve that.
However, flexibility that is more passive in nature may not be enough to provide benefits that translate to functionality; it may also fall shy of our goals for what is required with physical activity goals. If we don’t have strength and control over our ROM, then it’s pretty useless. Consider the different stretching requirements for a long-distance runner versus a powerlifter. The differences are extreme, but you can see the point.
Stretching, alone, does not decrease the risk of injury or improve performance – this is where mobility becomes more of a consideration.
What Do You Need to Know About Mobility?
Mobility is yet one more attribute of fitness. Along with other fitness attributes, (including flexibility, strength, power, and aerobic fitness), it is both evaluated and assessed by the trainer in the earliest stages of interaction. It is important for us to get this correct. Typically this is accomplished by performing movement screens and noting observations.
Mobility is very close to flexibility in its definition. As such, we can describe it aptly as the ability to actively achieve extended ranges of motion. Think of mobility as a combination of flexibility and strength – the sum of which makes up your total movement capacity.
The Benefits of Mobility
Mobility is a desirable fitness attribute. We could argue its place as a prerequisite fitness attribute for other fitness attributes that are either dependent upon it being a program design variable – or result from it being an emphasis of a solid program design; this is solely due to the fact that, above all else, we first have to move well!
The benefits include the following factors:
- Greater movement capacity
- Joint health and longevity
- Improved performance
- Lower risk of injury
Mobility can be improved through a variety of training methods. Remember that mobility is largely a combination of flexibility and strength. So the following methods are aimed to improve both components.
As we’ve mentioned, stretching is a training method that can improve flexibility, a key component of mobility). Flexibility is directly addressed with stretching, as is mobility.
Stretching – Should it be Dynamic or Static?
Dynamic stretching will always be popular due to being a great way to prepare for physical activity, such as going for a run or strength training. But to make a real dent in your flexibility, static stretching may be more appropriate. A position or holds of up to two minutes or more are the recommended times to get an effective training effect with stretching.
There are more stretching methods, but these two are the most widely researched and used.
Strength training is an excellent way to improve mobility. As long as you are selecting exercises that move your joints through a full range of motion, then strength training could be viewed as ‘loaded stretching’ which improves both flexibility and strength (and thus, mobility).
This is a big reason why it’s best to design a strength training routine around the fundamental human movement patterns (squat and hinge for the lower body, push and pull for the upper body) and the end outcome goals of your client. Clients who follow a well-planned program design can gradually expand their range of motion over time and will have strength and control over the foundations of human movement. This may seem very basic for advanced clients or exercisers, but the list of movements is simple; it includes squatting down, bending at the hips and reaching your arms overhead. Your ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, and back will all need to work in parallel to support the movements, as well.
There are several different methods developed in an effort to improve movement. Functional training is one type of training that demonstrates the need to be able to perform movements efficiently and seamlessly. There is a strong chance that you will need to design program designs that either address or improve mobility and thus, function. Some forms of yoga, Pilates, and movement practices like those used in Tai Chi can also be used to influence movement patterns under control.
As a cornerstone and foundation of fitness and health, flexibility is vital to understand yet it is fairly easy to implement into a client’s program design. There are as many options for stretching as there are benefits for doing it regularly. Make sure you’re not overlooking this important fitness component.
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