Flexibility is a muscle allowing a joint to move through a full range of movement and mobility is how a joint moves. But why do we need to keep mobile AND flexible?
Flexibility is the term used in relation to a muscle allowing a joint to move through a full range of movement. If the client cannot move through a complete range appropriate to that joint, then it could be that the flexibility of their muscles surrounding the joint are not optimum. Without optimum flexibility, the body adjusts other joint positioning to achieve the desired outcome. If, for example, you are doing a seated hamstring stretch your aim is to move the origins and insertions further away from each other (ischial tuberosity or sitting bones and below the knee on the tibia and fibula). A straight leg, neutral spine and slight hip flexion will achieve this. Your instructions will no doubt be clear but when you observe your participants there will more than likely be someone with poor hamstring flexibility who is sitting with a posterior pelvic tilt, a large kyphosis through their spine and perhaps even slightly bent knees.
The consequences of this are obvious. Spinal disk pressure is increased and fluid in the centre of the disks is pushed backwards towards the posterior surface, the weakest part. Spine stability is decreased, contributing to muscle imbalances which can lead to unnecessary pain. As well as these risks, the client will not increase their flexibility in their hamstrings as their technique is so poor. So the stretch geared towards helping them could actually cause them pain if done incorrectly.
Keep current clients stretching with good technique. Educate, educate, educate at every opportunity. Use the tools of today’s era to show your client what you mean (such as photos and videos of them on their own phones to show them visually their technique errors). If you have a client with poor flexibility, then developmental stretching with good technique will begin to increase flexibility and decrease their chances of injury and pain related to muscle imbalance.
Mobility is how a joint moves. An example of the effects of decreased mobility would be an older person struggling to put their shopping away at home. This is a functional task they will need to achieve every week, yet over time, joints such as the shoulder lose mobility, meaning unless they make a particular effort to maintain their joint mobility, they can no longer reach up to their cupboard shelves with items of shopping. The only way they can reach is to lean their body either backwards or sideways. This will then add pressure to spinal disks and challenge the balance of an individual perhaps not equipped to deal with this. This decrease in shoulder mobility will impact other areas of their life too (such as getting their clothes out of the wardrobe or putting on a dressing gown), but is not due to inflexible latissimus dorsi. It is the mobility of the joint that is compromised, not the flexibility.
In order to keep joints mobile they need to be frequently moved through their full range of movement. This is not the same as the static stretching you would do for muscles. If you think of the seated hamstring stretch example and picture the joint angle at the hip, the hamstring is the limiting factor (because it is a flexibility exercise). If you wanted to mobilise the hip joint you would bend the knee and draw the leg closer to the torso.
Flexibility and mobility are different. We need to keep both or we will wake up one day thinking “Why does everything hurt?” The consequences of poor mobility and flexibility are dire. It means being unable to complete simple daily tasks, pain, likelihood of injury increasing, postural imbalances leading to even more pain and general discomfort. These could all be eliminated by considering a small amount of flexibility and mobility training for your clients.
In order to fix mobility we need to move a lot. In order to fix flexibility, we need to stay still with the origin and insertion of the muscle we are stretching as far away as we can comfortably achieve with good technique.
A thorough mobility programme for clients should only take a few minutes and it is recommended that they do that several times per day if they are trying to increase joint mobility and once a day to maintain their joint mobility. A flexibility programme would involve stretches specific to that client and a safe warm-up component for them. This could take 10-15 minutes per day but if it reduces pain, limits injury and keeps your overall health in check, then most clients will think it’s a worthwhile use of their time.
Written by Heather Oakes