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Stretching And Mobility Are Not The Same.

It’s mid January and I can feel it. The weather has cooled down and the sweatshirt rotation is in full swing. If you’re a CrossFitter, like me, you also know this comes with cold morning gym workout where you’re struggling to get your body loosened up enough to sling a barbell.

I figured this cold weather would be a perfect time to talk about a HOT topic.

That topic is MOBILITY. What is it? Why does it matter?

Before you can deep dive into a subject you have to have a basic foundational understanding. So what the heck is mobility and why do you hear that buzz word all over Instagram and your local gym?

Mobility is simple. I define mobility as having the range of motion, strength, AND motor control to get IN AND OUT of positions. That’s it. Can your body get in and out of whatever positions you need it to so you can accomplish the task at hand.

However, that’s not what people think mobility is. People use the word mobility interchangeably with flexibility. These two things share some similarities but are very different at their core.

The google machine defines flexibility as “the ability to change easily”. In regards to our body this often means that our muscles are able to stretch and change lengths easily. Remember that this is different than mobility, which is the getting in and out of positions.

Because of this, the idea that stretching is the solution to better mobility is rampant in the fitness, social media, and even the workplace. That thinking is grossly flawed.

Let’s take a deeper dive.

There are 3 primary areas that impact mobility as mentioned earlier (Range of motion, strength, and motor control). We’ll look at each individually but remember that these area EQUALLY important. If you are missing any of these critical aspects of movement, your mobility will suffer.

1. Range of motion (ROM)

This is medical term that simply refers to how much tissue motion is available to use. Do you have enough hip rotation to squat or shoulder flexion to reach overhead?

This is easily measurable and ties in to more of the traditional thinking toward the idea of mobility and stretching. .

Range of motion can be restricted by tight muscles, joints that don’t move well, or neurological influences that we’ll talk about later.

There are two types of range of motion to consider.

1. Passive: If somebody or something moves your body for you can you achieve the motion

2. Active: Can you use muscle contraction to achieve the motion yourself.

Static stretching targets passive range of motion only. That’s a good thing! However, if you’re focusing on stretching alone for mobility realize that you’re only targeting half of this equation.

2. Strength

If you take nothing away from this blog, tune in here for just a second. Muscular strength is often the missing link in the mobility puzzle. I realize this sounds counterintuitive, but clinically I find this to consistently hold true. A weak muscle is often a muscle that feels very tight.

I explain it to patients like this:

Our brains are smarter than we are. We constantly gather information from our body and synthesize it into meaningful data and then react. Often if our brain senses a significant muscular weakness it will compensate by increasing neural drive to that muscle.

Think of this as your brains way of saying “tighten up and do your job”.

Even though this muscle feels very tight and stiff, the flexibility of the muscle is normal. By strengthening the muscle we can get rid of that nagging feeling of chronic tightness. This is so often overlooked and often the last thing people think will help them improve mobility.

3. Motor control

The last piece of the mobility trifecta is motor control. What I mean by this is having the awareness and stability to control your body as you move. When I was in PT school, one of my favorite professors said the phrase “proximal stability leads to distal mobility”. Basically what that means is that having good awareness and stability of muscles close to your trunk (hips, core, scapular complex) allows us to have the foundation to express lots of movement with our limbs. This can also manifest with our feet/ankles as our feet are a primary interaction point with the ground.

I want you to think of it like this. An old tree with a really deep root system has the freedom to sway significantly in the wind without fear of falling. It’s no different for your body. Having good core stability, balance, and dynamic control allows freedom of movement.

One way I see this clinically is with patients with chronic ankle sprains or old ankle sprain injuries. One of the consistent complaints is that their ankle “always feels tight”. This is interesting considering the hallmark finding of ankle sprain injuries is ligament laxity (or looseness). The overwhelming feeling of tightness is simply due to the patient lack of stability and dynamic control of their ankle. They’re functioning with a weak root system and the result is mobility loss.

I hope this blog helps you better understand that mobility is a complex issue. Simply stretching to improve it is likely not enough to make the change that you’re looking for. If you are really struggling with mobility then try to take a multi faceted approach.

1.Do some isolated strength work for the tight region.

2. Stretch and spend time in challenging positions.

3. Work on dynamic control such as isometric holds, plank variations with movement, single limb balance, etc.

If you need a little help along the way reach out to your friendly neighborhood performance PT.

Stay Kinetic Friends.


Dr. Levi Kerby is a physical therapist, orthopedic certified specialist, and owner of Kinetic Performance and Rehab in Winston-Salem, NC. He enjoys fly fishing, guitar, various forms of fitness, and treating active and motivated individuals.

If you're dealing with an injury or pain, you can contact Kinetic Performance and Rehab directly below.


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