Mobility and stretching are terms which are sometimes confused by our clients and class participants. If someone asked you to explain the difference between these two components of a class or session, would you know? If we do not understand the difference or cannot explain it in simple terms to our clients, it could have potential consequences on our ability to train clients effectively. In this article, we’re going to discuss the differences between mobility and stretching and when’s most appropriate to include them in training programs.
Stretching involves deliberately lengthening the muscle to achieve an extended range of motion and is typically performed to improve flexibility. There is a range of stretching techniques, with the most well-known being static and dynamic.
The effects of stretching can be broken down into acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) effects.
Acute stretching, as part of the warm-up, allows the muscles to move in a slightly greater range of motion than usual by altering the viscoelasticity of the muscles. Note that this is temporary.
Chronically, the effects of regular stretching give your muscles an increased stretch tolerance, and thus an extended range of motion becomes a regular feature. Contrary to popular belief, regular stretching doesn’t increase the length of the muscles, the effect is to make the muscles more tolerable to being lengthened.
What do we mean by an increased stretch tolerance? Essentially, our bodies have an in-built defence against injury known as the stretch reflex. When we lengthen a muscle too far, we trigger our stretch reflex which resists the change in muscle length and contracts the muscle to protect it. After consistently stretching over a period of time, our stretch reflex is delayed which allows us to lengthen the muscle further.
So, why do we need to be more flexible? In daily life and when exercising, we need to have some flexibility so we can move our joints through an acceptable range of motion. But the problem with stretching is it can be passive. If we can’t control our range of motion, being able to lengthen our muscles is irrelevant.
Stretching is good, but for injury prevention and improved performance, we also need to be mobile.
Mobility is the ability to actively achieve an extended range of motion. What do we mean by this? Essentially, do we have the flexibility to move a joint through a range of motion while having the strength to keep it controlled? If yes, then we have good mobility.
The more mobile we are, the lower our risk of injury, improved performance, improved movement capacity, and improved joint health and longevity.
Mobility is essentially a combination of strength and flexibility. Therefore, to become more mobile, we need to combine flexibility and strength training.
As previously mentioned, there are various types of stretching, two of the most common are dynamic and static stretching. Dynamic stretching involves moving a joint through its range of motion, whereas static stretching involves lengthening the muscle and holding for a period of time. Which one’s best? Well, they both have their place in an exercise programme or class. Dynamic stretching aids with preparation for exercise as it mobilises the joints and activates the muscles. To improve flexibility, static stretching should be included at the end of the session to return the muscles to their pre exercise length and improve the muscle’s resistance to the stretch reflex and thus mobility. Aim to hold static stretches for a minimum of 15 seconds to elicit an effective training effect. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends holding each stretch for 10 to 30 seconds.
Strength training is also required for improving mobility. Ideally, we want to focus on loading the joints through a range of motion. Loading the joint through a range of motion improves both flexibility and mobility, thus improving the strength and mobility of the joint. Strength training at least twice a week is a great starting point. Ideally, focus on the core movements involving squat, bend, push, pull, single-leg, and core.
Stretching and strength training are the two primary forms of exercise that can help improve mobility. There are other styles of training which can also assist with mobility. These include; Pilates, yoga, functional range conditioning, and others.
Mobility and Stretching for Special Populations
We’ve covered what mobility and stretching mean, and how they differ. To improve our mobility, we need to be practising resistance training and stretching. Overall, this guidance applies to the general population. What about other populations such as older clients and people with medical conditions? Do we need to do anything differently or make any other considerations?
In short, it depends on your client’s goals, movement capabilities, previous injuries and conditions. Generally speaking, increased mobility will benefit our older clients and you will need to focus on how we implement strength and stretching exercises.
The Chief medical officer guidelines for older adults, state that strength and flexibility training should be done at least twice a week but also that they should be active daily.
We need to consider the frequency, intensity, duration and type of exercises within our exercise prescription, this applies to the mobility component too. Individualise for each client and conclude what they need.
Some studies show older adults may need to stretch for a longer duration than the usual 15 – 30 seconds and that 60 second holds are more beneficial. Stretching the hip flexors and hamstrings can improve gait in older adults and stretching the trunk muscles will improve spinal mobility.
The terms mobility and stretching are often used interchangeably. Although they link, they are not the same. Stretching involves deliberately lengthening the muscle to achieve an extended range of motion. Whereas mobility is the ability to actively achieve an extended range of motion dynamically. Mobility is essentially stretching the muscle using strength to control the movement through a safe range.
When working with clients, we should treat them as individuals and assess their needs, goals, experience, and capabilities before prescribing stretching and mobility exercises. Everyone will be able to benefit from stretching and strengthening exercises to enhance their mobility. Whether that’s improving athletic performance, improving daily functioning, or reducing the risk of injury.
For ideas, inspiration and a recap on elements that make up a warm up, access our warm up training.