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Flexibility is how much a MUSCLE CAN STRETCH. Like how far your leg moves as someone stretches your hamstring when you’re lying on the ground. The length of your hamstring determines how far you can stretch.

Mobility is how much a JOINT CAN MOVE. This would be how high you can swing your leg in front of you; it still involves hamstring flexibility but also requires control of the muscles around your hip joints to achieve the movement. How your muscles interact with your hip joint determines how high you can swing your leg.

So is one more important than the other? Both mobility and flexibility are important to us because they complement one another… you can’t have one without the other. Many of us just don’t know when the best time is or how to train for mobility versus flexibility.

Classic stretching can help to lengthen muscles and helps to improve flexibility. Holding a long deep stretch allows a muscle to lengthen after being repeatedly contracted during exercise. Stretching can aid with blood flow for better recovery and also helps to calm the nervous system so you can relax. However, during exercise your body performs optimally when the nervous system is excited and your muscles are relatively short. Stretching could actually inhibit performance if done before exercise, so the best time train for flexibility is AFTER EXERCISE.

While classic stretching, holding a stretch for 30 seconds or more, can certainly lengthen a muscle, the effect will most likely temporary (unless you can hold the stretch for a few hours). If you want an even better way try Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation or PNF for short. To perform PNF begin by bringing the target muscle into a full stretch position, then contract the stretched muscle without moving it (i.e. pushing/pulling against a wall or a strap) for about 10 seconds and then relax fully, repeat this a few times before moving onto another area.

TOP 3 MUSCLES TO THAT NEED MORE FLEXIBILITY: Pectorals (chest), Psoas (hip flexors), and Glutes (butt). Most of us sit for extended periods of time and as a result these muscles become shortened and overactive. Spending time releasing built up tension in these muscles by stretching will help you to avoid some of the aches and pains that come from sitting so much.

The best time for mobility training is BEFORE EXERCISE. Mobility training can effectively warm up the muscles as well as lubricate the joints in our body helping to increase your range of motion so you can get the most out of your training session. In contrast to flexibility, mobility exercises stimulate the nervous system. If your muscles are warm, your joints are lubricated, and your nervous system is firing, your performance will improve.

Training for mobility comes in many different forms; ranging from simple active stretching to using foam rollers, bands, balls, or other tools. The idea of mobility training is to improve range of motion while maintaining control of your muscles during the movement. Unlike stretching there is no “hanging out” in an over stretched position, just continual movement. An effective way to turn just about any classic stretch into a mobility drill is to perform the stretch with constant movement, breathing, and good body position. Perform 10 to 20 repetitions with a small pause at the end of your range of motion, to apply some extra pressure.

TOP 3 JOINTS THAT NEED MORE MOBILITY: Hips, Thoracic Spine, Ankles. Just like the muscles that need more flexibility, these joints see less or restricted use because of a sedentary lifestyle or lack of multi directional movement. The mobility of these joints affect how you move on a day to day basis so making sure you can get the most from them can help you feel and move better.

In summary, being flexible is great when you want to show off by pulling your leg behind your head, but you don’t often put our leg behind our head in the middle of game of pick up basketball. The biggest advantage to improving mobility over flexibility is being able to control your muscles as your joint moves through its entire range of motion. You need muscles that can lengthen (flexibility) so you can maximize how far your joints can move (mobility), but without good control through the entire range of motion you can potentially be sacrificing performance or putting yourself at risk for injury.

Moving better involves making smart choices about your body.

Improve your movement by knowing when and how to mobilize or stretch. 

** A quick note: Mobility exercises can also be used after training or on their own as a form of soft tissue therapy to help alleviate tight muscles or to correct dysfunctional movement patterns. However, don’t start smashing your IT band with a foam roller because it’s what everyone else is doing. Take the time to find out what is affecting you, and address your specific needs. **

Paul Bradshaw l Kinesiologist