Imagine the freedom of movement: effortlessly turning your neck from side to side as you soak in the sights on panoramic hill, or feeling the powerful push off from the ground as your ankle flexes, propelling you forward into a pain-free run. Imagine how different your lifts will feel when you squat deeper in the gym, thanks to your supple hips, or the deep relaxation of effortlessly sinking into a backbend, every vertebra articulating beautifully. This isn't just about touching your toes; it's about cherishing those tiny, yet monumental, moments of movement that color our lives.
I remember when I first began on my journey to unlock the splits, an endeavor I thought was purely focused on increasing my soft tissue flexibility. Yes, success came, but the true epiphany followed when I aimed for deeper backbends. To my surprise, I wasn't just nudging flexibility; I was courting mobility. The layers of muscles, the fascia, the very bones of my spine and ribs were all part of this intricate dance.
"The deeper I dove, the more I realized that flexibility and mobility weren’t just terms; they were layers of self-awareness, windows into understanding my body better." —Lili
Visions of my future keep me going. I dream of walking the Camino at 70, the ancient pilgrim route echoing with my steady steps. I dream of swimming through azure Carribean waters, my shoulders rotating with an effortless freestyle stroke when I hit 80. It’s not just a dream; it’s a pledge to my future self.
If I long for that fluidity and vigor decades down the line, shouldn’t I lay the bricks of habit now? After all, what’s more plausible? Magically adopting beneficial habits when age challenges me or fortifying my joints and muscles with consistent, small actions today?
The journey of understanding our bodies is endless, and I'm still on this path of discovery. But to expedite our joint voyage to a more mobile and flexible future, I’ve teamed up with Nevin Kong of @movewithnevin, a mobility training coach.
"Together, we’re here to ensure that you don't just move but thrive in your body, today, tomorrow, and for the many vibrant decades to come." —Lili
1. Mobility in the spotlight
Lili: Nevin, I would love for you to introduce yourself and your background. Why this topic is so important to you?
Nevin: Hi Lili, and thank you. I’ve been doing sports at the age of 13— running cross country and track. I had some injuries from shin splints to osgoode schlatters (which is a painful bump in my knee). I raced on and off throughout middle and highschool because I experienced recurring injuries to my groin. I was frustrated and confused about knowing how to recover. I didn't want 40 year old me to experience these body limitations, I wanted a painless life doing all the things I enjoy! My sister actually introduced me too the concept of mobility, and I've been pursuing it ever since.
Lili: I resonate with your story. Running was also my gateway into fitness and I experienced injuries that interupted my seasons as well. I am excited to hear you share how you solved these problems... Nevin: What I learned is that I needed more strengthening rather than stretching. I also love doing gymnastics, but it is so demanding and highly likely to have injuries. I need to work to stay injury free to keep doing what I love. Today I do gymnastics 1x a week alongside my weight training and I feel great.
"Now I plan on paying it forward and help you stay injury free." —Nevin
2. What is the difference between mobility and flexibility?
Nevin: The simplest way I can describe it is flexibility is being able to stretch the muscles without limitations. Mobility is the ability to move our joints through its full range of motion.
Lili: It's easy to see why there's confusion. After all, both mobility and flexibility deal with movement and stretching to some extent. But while flexibility is more about the length of the muscle, mobility is more about how well and freely a joint can move.
In our daily lives and movement practices, both play crucial roles. While flexibility might allow a dancer to extend her leg straight up toward the sky, mobility ensures that a martial artist can throw a powerful and fluid roundhouse kick. It's like two sides of the same coin. But there are exceptions, like in the case of my mom, who suffered cartilage degredation in both knees, her mobility issues were not directly caused by soft tissue flexiblity restrictions.
Your turn: If you can bend over and touch your toes without bending your knees, is that thanks to the flexibility or mobility?
Your turn: Think about a door hinge. If it's rusty and stiff, the door just won't swing open very far. But if the hinge is well-oiled and in good shape, the door can move freely. Is this example describing flexibility or mobility?
3. How can improved mobility and flexibility benefit someone in their daily life?
Nevin: Improved flexibility and mobility allows for freedom of movement, less injuries, body awareness and balance. I don't want the 30 year old version of myself to be using a cane or twisting my back. Lili: Use it or loose it! We are both hyper aware that as we age (and due to inactivity), our tissues become less elastic, and thus the reducing flexibility restricts the range of motion of our joints (mobility). 1,2 We refuse to accept this as inevitable.
4. How can improved mobility and flexibility benefit someone in their sports performance or physical activity?
Lili: I feel really empowered by this bit of information: increased mobililty can enhance your strength, especially in weight lifting. By increasing your range of motion, you gain greater access to your muscle tissue. This increased access allows you to strengthen and engage more muscle during lifts.
Additionally, mobility training uniquely fortifies the joints and connective tissues more effectively than other training modalities. With strengthened joints and tissues, you can manage heavier loads and execute movements with reduced risk of injury or pain.
Dedicating time to mobility training ensures a more comprehensive strengthening of your anatomy, translating to benefits in various physical activities—be it delivering stronger kicks, running with more efficient strides, or achieving higher jumps. 3 Nevin: I agree. Sports performance can be improved with less injuries, faster recovery time, increased strength in new ranges of motion we rarely use in our day to day life.
5. How do you become more flexible and mobile?
Lili: I am excited to nerd-out for just a moment. You can skim past this and still get so much out of this discussion! Proceed for more science!
Flexibility encompasses two intertwined processes. Initially, it involves tapping into the inherent "extensibility" of our muscles. Every muscle has a built-in stretchability. When we begin to stretch, what we're initially accessing is this natural length. However, our body's protective mechanisms, specifically the stretch reflex, can act as a barrier. Muscle spindles, the nerve endings within our muscles, monitor the rate and extent of stretches. If they sense potential overstretching, they trigger the stretch reflex, causing the muscle to contract as a safeguard against injury. So, the first phase of flexibility is about gradually and gently pushing this barrier to fully utilize the innate stretchability we already possess.
The second phase is about progression. As we consistently and safely stretch over time, we can train the nervous system to be more accommodating, allowing us to delve deeper into stretches, thereby increasing our muscle length beyond its initial capacity. This elongation, paired with a blend of neural adaptations and muscular repair mechanisms, allows us to achieve and maintain a more extensive range of flexibility.
In contrast, mobility is about ensuring our joints move freely and efficiently. It emphasizes eccentric contraction, where muscles lengthen while under tension, akin to controlling a weight's descent or the downward motion of a squat. This type of contraction is paramount for joint health. It not only strengthens the surrounding muscles but also enhances the range of motion and fortifies the joint against potential injuries. Thus, while flexibility zeroes in on muscle length, mobility provides a comprehensive approach, focusing on joint function and the supporting muscular structures.
How long should you focus on lengthening? Whats the best protocol to follow?
Nevin: Feel the stretch for 2 minutes and apply eccentrics with at that specific stretch starting at a low intensity then working up to more intensity the more your mobility improves then going deeper in the stretch.
6. Busting Myths
Yogis have better mobility than weightlifters
Lili: It seems there is a common misconception in this community – many believe that yogis have the better mobility weightlifters. Let's set the record straight: both yogis and weightlifters can exhibit exceptional mobility! While yogis often have superior spinal mobility thanks to our twisting asana, weightlifters too can have impressive mobility credentials. Those deep squats? They're evidence of weightlifters' commendable ankle and hip mobility. So, whether you're on the mat or at the gym, mobility is a game where both parties can be winners!
Yoga flows and mobility exercises are the same
While a significant portion of our community resonates deeply with yoga's holistic tapestry, there's a nuance to mobility exercises that's worth delving into. While there's an overlap, each brings unique elements to the table. Yoga may not always delve deep into joint functions, and mobility exercises might not touch upon the ethos yoga offers. And for those curious souls eager to experience this distinction, Nevin has crafted a 10-minute guided mobility routine. Engage, explore, and let the rhythm of this routine empower your movement journey.
Follow Move With Nevin on Youtube for more long form mobility content
7. Rate your flexibility and mobility with this checklist
You can run a quick diagnostic check on yourself easily at home! Here is my checklist to help you identify where your body is moving smoothly and where you are getting a little stuck.
9. Unlocking your full movement potential
Understanding the distinctions between flexibility and mobility is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a vast world of movement and the human body is intricate, often requiring tailored approaches to truly harness its power. While there are undoubtedly countless resources and techniques out there to explore independently, the transformative power of personalized coaching cannot be overstated.
Imagine having a guide, someone who intimately understands your body's nuances, strengths, and areas of improvement. Someone who can detect those minute adjustments and tweaks that make a world of difference in how you move. That's the beauty of working with a mobility coach. They can offer insights, corrections, and specialized exercises that you might not discover on your own.
Nevin, our mobility expert, is not just any coach. His depth of knowledge and unique approach ensures that you're not just improving but evolving in your movement journey. The changes you'll experience? They're not just about better squats or deeper stretches; it's about enhanced daily living, a reduced risk of injuries, and a newfound appreciation for what your body is genuinely capable of achieving.
For those serious about making a leap in their movement journey, Nevin is currently opening spots for his signature coaching program. Dive deep, discover the potential you never knew you had, and transform not just how you move, but how you live. Ready to take the next step? Your journey towards unparalleled mobility begins with Nevin.
Did you get these questions right? Example 1 describes flexibility in the muscles of the back of your leg. Example 2 describes a similar situation for how a well-mobilized hip joint will allow you to squat deeply and comfortably, while stiffness can hinder that motion.
Narici, M. V., & Maffulli, N. (2010). Sarcopenia: characteristics, mechanisms and functional significance. British Medical Bulletin, 95(1), 139-159. This study examines the decline in muscle mass, strength, and function with aging. The paper dives deep into the physiological reasons for muscle deterioration due to aging and the subsequent impacts on mobility and daily life. Link to the paper
Booth, F. W., Roberts, C. K., & Laye, M. J. (2012). Lack of exercise is a major cause of chronic diseases. Comprehensive Physiology. Chronic diseases are major killers in the modern era. Physical inactivity is a primary cause of most chronic diseases. The initial third of the article considers how several major chronic diseases result from lack of exercise. Specifically, the authors discuss how a sedentary lifestyle, contributes to a decline in tissue function, which leads to a decline in elasticity and flexibility. Link to the paper
"Becoming a Supple Leopard" by Dr. Kelly Starrett Dr. Starrett's work is well-respected in the field of mobility and movement mechanics. His book provides a comprehensive overview of mobility's role in athletic performance and injury prevention.