What You Need to Know to Start Flexibility & Mobility Training
March 21, 202312 min read
Flexibility and mobility training are often the first things to go when you are short on time in a workout but there are a multitude of reasons why you shouldn’t skip this type of training! As we age, our bodies become less flexible and mobile, and our joints and connective tissues become stiffer. This can cause issues like less functional mobility, a higher risk of injury, a reduction in functionality, and a decrease in quality of life ("Benefits of Flexibility Training," 2017; Pfeifer, Ross, Weber, Sui, & Blair, 2022). Mobility and flexibility training can help reduce these effects by maintaining or even improving our flexibility and range of motion.
Mobility vs. flexibility
First, let's look at the differences between flexibility and mobility. It is not uncommon to use these terms interchangeably, but they are not the same. Mobility refers to the ability of a joint or a series of joints to move freely and easily through a full range of motion (Schultz, 2018). It is a combination of flexibility, strength, and control and is important for everyday movements as well as athletic performance ("Benefits of Flexibility Training," 2017). Specific exercises and techniques aimed at enhancing neuromuscular control, increasing joint range of motion, and reducing restrictions or imbalances in the body can improve mobility. Joint structure, muscle length and strength, and neural control are some of the factors that influence mobility.
Flexibility is the ability of a muscle or group of muscles to lengthen, increasing your range of motion without experiencing discomfort ("Benefits of Flexibility Training," 2017). It is an important part of being physically fit and is needed to keep joints healthy, reduce your risk of injury, and improve posture and balance (LaMarco, 2022). Flexibility is influenced by several factors, including joint structure, muscle elasticity, tendon health and neural control, and can be improved through regular stretching and activities that promote full range of motion. Therefore, flexibility is a contributing factor to mobility, and mobility is key to functionality.
Flexibility and mobility training and the body
When we think about flexibility and mobility training, we often think of the muscles and tendons; however, the brain and the nervous system also play an important role. When we get more flexible and move around more, the brain changes by making new neural pathways and making it easier for the brain and muscles to communicate (Guissard & Duchateau, 2006). As a result, it becomes easier to control and coordinate your movements, and it can also help prevent injury by making it easier for your body to respond to changes in movement and position (Guissard & Duchateau, 2006). There are several neural mechanisms involved in flexibility, including:
Muscle spindle reflex: This reflex involves the activation of muscle spindles, which are sensory receptors that sense changes in muscle length and tension. The muscle spindle reflex makes a muscle contract when it is stretched. This keeps the muscle from being overstretched and keeps it from getting hurt (Guissard & Duchateau, 2006).
Golgi tendon reflex: In this reflex, the Golgi tendon organs, which are sensory receptors in the tendons that connect muscles to bones, are turned on. When a muscle is stretched too far, the Golgi tendon reflex causes the muscle to relax to prevent injury to the muscle or tendon (Guissard & Duchateau, 2006).
Adaptation of the central nervous system: When you stretch regularly, your central nervous system can get used to the new range of motion and make you more flexible. This change happens when the connections between neurons and the way the brain and muscles talk to each other change over time.
Motor unit recruitment: Groups of muscle fibers that are under the control of a single motor neuron are known as motor units, and stretching can help with their recruitment. This can make the targeted muscle group stronger and easier to control, giving you more freedom of movement.
Overall, the neural processes that make a person flexible are complex and involve multiple sensory and motor pathways. Stretching consistently can help these systems work efficiently and increase flexibility and range of motion thus mobility.
What is mobility training?
Mobility training is the practice of moving joints through their full range of motion to improve joint mobility and flexibility (Schultz, 2018). This type of training can be done through a variety of exercises, including dynamic stretching, mobility drills, and yoga. The goal of mobility training is to increase the range of motion in your joints, making it easier to perform activities of daily living such as walking, reaching, and bending (Schultz, 2018).
What is flexibility training?
Flexibility training involves stretching muscles to increase their range of motion and flexibility (LaMarco, 2022). This type of training can be done through a variety of different styles of stretching including static, dynamic, PNF, active isolated and microstretching. The goal of flexibility training is to create adaptations where your range of motion increases due to muscle length and as such your flexibility improves.
Types of stretches
Stretching is a great way to enhance your mobility and flexibility, and there are many different kinds of stretches that you can practice.
Static stretching is a type of stretching that involves holding a position in a stretched position for a specific duration, typically 30 to 45 seconds or longer (Afonso et al., 2021). It is used to improve flexibility by slowly lengthening the muscle fibers and reducing muscle tension. People often use static stretching as a way to cool down after exercise or as a way to improve their overall flexibility and range of motion. It can be done in different ways, like sitting, standing, or lying down, and it can focus on different parts of the body. It's important to note that static stretching should be done with proper technique and form to avoid injury and may not be appropriate for all individuals or situations.
Dynamic stretching is a type of stretching that involves moving the joints through their full range of motion in a controlled and deliberate manner (Wittstrom, 2022). It is often done as part of a warm-up before more intense physical activity. Dynamic stretching helps improve flexibility, mobility, and range of motion and reduces injury risk (Zhang & Bai, 2022). It also gets the muscles and joints ready for physical activity by improving blood flow. Dynamic stretching is different from static stretching as it does not involve staying in one position for a long time (Wittstrom, 2022). Some examples of dynamic stretches include walking lunges, high knees, and leg swings. It's important to note that dynamic stretching should be done with proper technique and form to avoid injury and may not be appropriate for all individuals or situations.
Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation stretching, or PNF stretching, is a type of stretching in which the group of muscles is stretched while its antagonistic muscle is being alternately contracted and relaxed. It is often done with a partner, who gives resistance. PNF stretching is used to improve flexibility and range of motion (Guissard & Duchateau, 2006). It is often used in rehabilitation settings to help people recover from injuries. It can be done in different ways and can focus on different muscle groups. PNF stretching should be performed with caution and under the guidance of a qualified professional to ensure proper technique and avoid injury.
Active Isolated Stretching
Active, isolated stretching aims to improve the flexibility of the muscle and the fascia. Stretches are held for a short amount of time (1-2 seconds) and then released, cycles are performed with the aim not to activate the protective stretch reflex ("Active Isolated Stretching - Stretching USA," 2023). It is done without any outside help or resistance, and the muscle group being stretched is actively contracted during the move. Active, isolated stretching is used to improve flexibility, range of motion, and overall mobility. It can be performed in a variety of positions and can target specific muscle groups. It's important to note that active, isolated stretching should be performed with proper technique and form to avoid injury and may not be appropriate for all individuals or situations.
Microstretching is a type of stretching that involves a smaller range of motion (30-40% perceived stretch) with slow movements (Apostolopoulos, 2010). It involves holding each stretch for around a minute for a total of three repetitions (Apostolopoulos, 2010). Instead of forcing the muscles into an uncomfortable position, the focus is on slow, controlled movements with deliberate breathing that assists the muscles to relax and lengthen. Microstretching can be done before or after exercise as a way to warm up or cool down, or it can be done on its own to improve overall flexibility and mobility, reduce muscle soreness and tension, and target specific areas of the body that may be tight or stiff (Apostolopoulos, 2010). The aim of microstretching is to improve overall athletic performance, in a way that is gentle and promotes quick recovery of the tissues.
Mobility training types
Mobility training can be broken down into several types of exercises, including:
Joint circles: moving joints through their full range of motion, such as shoulder circles or hip circles
Yoga: Practicing a series of poses to improve flexibility and mobility
Pilates: using controlled movements to improve strength, flexibility, and mobility
Strength Training: performing exercises like a squat within the full available range of motion with control
Strength training at the end of range to aid in injury prevention
Gaining strength at the limit of your range of motion can help you avoid getting hurt ("Benefits of Flexibility Training," 2017). This is especially true for gymnasts, yogis, dancers, and athletes, who require a larger range of motion, and are often hypermobile, when compared to the general public, and do things that require a lot of movement and flexibility. Gaining strength at the limit of your range of motion can help you avoid getting hurt (Sinicki, 2020).
When we move our bodies, we use a range of motion that is determined by the flexibility and mobility of our joints and muscles. If our muscles are not strong enough to support us at the end of this range of motion, there is an increased risk of injury (Sinicki, 2020). For example, if a gymnast is not able to maintain control and stability at the end of a split jump, she may land with too much force which can result in injury.
To avoid this risk, you should do exercises that help you get stronger at the end of your range of motion. These exercises can help you improve your balance, stability, and control, as well as make your muscles stronger and help support your joints.
Some examples of exercises that can help improve strength at the end of range of motion include the following:
Eccentric contractions: Eccentric contractions involve lengthening the muscle under tension. These types of contractions can be particularly effective at improving strength at the end of a range of motion. For example, performing eccentric squats can help improve strength at the bottom of a squat.
Isometric holds: isometric holds involve holding a position without moving. These types of exercises can help to improve stability and control at the end of a range of motion. For example, holding a split position can help to improve strength and control in the hips and legs.
Plyometrics: Plyometric exercises involve explosive movements that can help improve power and strength. These types of exercises can be particularly effective at improving strength at the end of a range of motion. For example, performing plyometric jumps can help to improve strength and control in the lower body.
By adding these kinds of exercises to a regular strength training program, you can improve your overall fitness and lower your risk of getting hurt. Work with a qualified fitness professional to make a program that fits your needs and goals.
Why is it important to work on mobility and flexibility?
Working on mobility and flexibility can help improve your overall health and well-being. By increasing your range of motion and flexibility, you can reduce your risk of injury, improve your posture, and enhance your athletic performance ("Benefits of Flexibility Training," 2017). Additionally, improving your mobility and flexibility can help to alleviate pain and stiffness in your joints, making it easier to perform everyday activities (Wittstrom, 2022).
How often, for how long, and at what intensity should I do mobility and flexibility training?
Your fitness level and the goals you have set for yourself will determine how often, for how long, and with what level of intensity you should work on improving your mobility and flexibility.
As a general rule, it's recommended to do mobility and flexibility exercises at least 5-7 times per week for 5–10 minutes per muscle group per week (Afonso et al., 2021). When performing stretches, aim to hold each stretch for 30 to 45 seconds and repeat as needed to reach your total per week (Afonso et al., 2021). This will vary depending on how many total weekly sessions you complete. The intensity of your stretches should be comfortable but still challenging enough to feel a stretch. The literature suggests that there is a cap; doing more than what is suggested above hasn't shown to create any marked improvements in developing and sustaining flexibility.
Exercises that improve both mobility and flexibility are important parts of a healthy lifestyle. Work on getting more mobile and flexible to increase your range of motion, lower your risk of getting hurt, and improve your overall health. If you include flexibility and mobility training in your workout routine on a regular basis, you can improve your overall mobility and flexibility and be able to perform functional activities without restriction and pain. Consistently partaking in some form of mobility and flexibility training can help you sustain an active and functional lifestyle.
Static stretching routine ideas
1. Shoulder stretch: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and reach your left arm across your chest. Use your right arm to pull your left arm closer to your chest, holding the stretch for 30-45 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
2. Triceps stretch: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and lift your left arm straight up. Bend your left elbow, reaching your left hand behind your head. Use your right hand to gently pull your left elbow towards your head, holding the stretch for 30-45 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
3. Chest stretch: Stand facing a wall or doorway, and place your right arm on the wall or doorway at shoulder height. Turn your body away from the wall, feeling a stretch in your chest. Hold the stretch for 30 to 45 seconds, and then repeat on the other side.
4. Neck stretch: Sit or stand with your shoulders relaxed. Slowly tilt your head to the right, bringing your right ear towards your right shoulder. Use your right hand to gently pull your head closer to your shoulder, holding the stretch for 30-45 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
5. Wrist stretch: Stand with your arms extended in front of you, palms facing up. Use your right hand to gently pull your left fingers towards your wrist, feeling a stretch in your forearm. Hold the stretch for 30 to 45 seconds, and then repeat on the other side.
6. Back stretch: Sit cross-legged on the floor and reach your left arm across your body. Use your right hand to gently push your left elbow towards your right knee, feeling a stretch in your back. Hold the stretch for 30 to 45 seconds, and then repeat on the other side.
7. Quad stretch: Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Bend your left knee and lift your left foot towards your buttocks, holding onto your left ankle with your left hand. Hold the stretch for 30 to 45 seconds, and then repeat on the other side.
8. Hamstring stretch: Sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. Reach towards your toes, feeling a stretch in the back of your legs. Hold the stretch for 30 to 45 seconds.
9. Calf stretch: Stand facing a wall with your feet hip-width apart. Place your hands on the wall and step your left foot back, keeping your left heel on the ground. Lean forward, feeling a stretch in your left calf. Hold the stretch for 30 to 45 seconds, and then repeat on the other side.
10. Hip flexor stretch: Kneel on your left knee with your right foot forward. Shift your weight forward, feeling a stretch in your left hip. Hold the stretch for 30-45 seconds, and repeat on the other side.
11. Glute stretch: Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Cross your left ankle over your right knee and use your hands to pull your right knee towards your chest, feeling a stretch in your left glute. Hold the stretch for 30 to 45 seconds, and then repeat on the other side.
It's important to perform these stretches with proper form and technique, and remember to breathe. Always consult with a healthcare professional before starting any new exercise or training routine.
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Apostolopoulos, C. (2010). Microstretching-A practical approach for recovery and regeneration. New Studies in Athletics, 81–97. https://doi.org/281097991
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Pfeifer, C. E., Ross, L. M., Weber, S. R., Sui, X., & Blair, S. N. (2022). Are flexibility and muscle-strengthening activities associated with functional limitations? Sports Medicine and Health Science, 4(2), 95–100.https://doi.org/10.1016/j.smhs.2022.03.001
Schultz. (2018, May 21). How to Start Mobility Training. Retrieved March 17, 2023, from https://www.mensjournal.com/health-fitness/how-to-mobility-flexibility-strength-mens-fitness
Sinicki, A. (2020, September 1). Training Weak Points and End Range Strength - the Bioneer. Retrieved March 15, 2023, from https://www.thebioneer.com/end-range-strength/
Wittstrom. (2022, October 27). The Science Behind Better Warmups (Reap Profound Benefits) - Strength Resurgence. Retrieved March 15, 2023, from https://www.strengthresurgence.com/dynamic-warm-up-exercise-benefits/