I bet you are on Instagram. If you are – and follow at least one athletic #influencer – the odds are high that you always see these impressive mobile folks, too. Or am I the only one having them on my feed?
Mobility training is a real hype. There are many workouts, concepts, and revolutionary ideas passed around about it.
Fortunately, focussed work can help to get these results. And even more – clever training, not only makes you more flexible, it helps you to use that flexibility actively, too.
Flexibility is no mysterium and well-researched. If you manage to look behind all the bullshit around and consistently put in some work – you will get bendy!1
First, we’ll have a look at what flexibility and mobility truly are by definition and how they are made up. Before addressing something you should at least know what it is.
After that, we will look more practically at the different kinds of flexibility and how to train them.
Sounds like a fun ride, right? At least, I love to write about that often mysterious, sometimes misunderstood topic, which is so much more than stretching calves and hamstrings halfheartedly after your session. Let’s dive into how that should work!
Alright, how are Mobility and Flexibility defined?
First, let’s look at Motorabilities!
There are 6 traits that make up human movement – these are called motor abilities. Each of them is equally important in creating functional movements.
The sum of them, the quality of your movement, is called mobility. But before walking down that path, let’s look at each of the 6 motor abilities:
First there is strength:
It is the ability to produce force against a load or some kind of resistance.
It is the ability commonly trained by lifting weights*, or ones own bodyweight. I think every one knows it well. To test it you look at the 1RM in different exercises compared to the body weight of the athlete.
Next on our list is the main topic of today’s post – flexibility:
It is defined as the range of motion a joint or series of joints can express.
Sounds quite obvious for a definition, isn’t it? That said – it is measured in a joints range of motion – or short ROM.
Plus, Flexibility can be active, as well as passive. It further divides itself into 4 different sub-kinds of flexibility. But we will get into that later on in this post!
Thirdly, there is Endurance:
It is the ability to withstand a stressor, physically as well as mentally, for a period of time. Finally, the stressor wins over the athlete by weakening him.
As well as previously, there are many sub-endurances. Would be too easy else way. And scientists have a fetish for fancy names – at least that’s what I think.
Speed one often gets mixed up with power or reaction time.
It is the ability to react to a stimulus as fast as possible.
Speed gets more important in sprinting disciplines, but also in weightlifting disciplines such as Olympic lifting. Power is the combination of strength and speed.
I always have to think of dogs when someone talks about agility. But training dogs to run a gauntlet is exactly what this ability is mainly about.
It is the ability to change direction and course while keeping the momentum you already have.
That’s what dogs mainly do while running through different obstacles, isn’t it?2 It also is the ability soccer or football players often train, because it is crucial for their success.
Last but not least, there is Motorcontrol or Coordination:
It is the synergistic working of all your senses, your nervous system and your muscles.
Only when they play well together one can stand on one leg, land a backflip or perform movements energy-saving. You can imagine being motorcontrol the conductor for the orchestra of effective movement.3 By improving coordination you always improve the whole system at once – if solely the machinery learns to work better together, while the parts remain at the same level, one improves.
Mobility – the sum of all
…the one to rule them all, and bind them. Ehm, wrong text I suppose. Read that on a shiny round object.
Therefore the saying, mobility training is in my opinion a great thing. But it often gets confused with active flexibility training and many on social media promote it as exactly that.
Unfortunately, that is not true. But, in love, as well as in marketing, nothing is holy and everything that can be done will be done – was that Murphy’s Law?
Mobility vs. Flexibility
Let the battle begin. Round One!
This will get an unfair battle. The sum of all against one sole ability. It’s like throwing a chess player and a free diver into the octagon to fight against each other.
They’re totally different things.
Mobility is the quality of your movements and not active flexibility as often supposed. Many other factors make up a move.
Vice versa flexibility is not only the passive range of motion. It is active, as well as passive.
Alright, now that we know that this fight can be won by either side – what to do with it? Wanting the money back? Yeah, this is a great idea.
Besides that, I would try to stop hating flexibility and hyping mobility training. Mobility vs. Flexibility can’t be won. Both are awesome and one part of the same puzzle – the puzzle to get more flexible, or more mobile, or how you would like to call it.
What does Mobility Training look like?
Specific kinds of flexibility:
First off, what I am referring here to as mobility training, is the goal to move better in general, with flexibility being one part of it. This could be improving one’s pike flexibility with the final goal of using it within other movements, or building up a squat to use it. Splendid, now that’s clear let’s look at the different kinds of flexibility!
This sub-flexibility is defined that neither your joints move nor muscles contract.
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It is what is classically known as passive flexibility and often gets messed around to be flexibility. But as you see it is solely one forth of the whole.
This part is defined that your joint remains still, but your muscles contract actively.
These are Isometric Contractions and all the PNF stuff which is widely known.
Dynamic passive flexibility is a somewhat exotic type. It is the flexibility you express when someone else moves your joints around – like a physio therapeut could do.
Therefore, the joint moves, but the muscles do not contract.
Last but not least there is the one mostly getting messed around with ‘mobility’. It is your active flexiblity.
Your joint moves and your muscles contract. This can be a lot of things like dynamic stretches, loaded stretches, all the ‘mobility exercises’ around.
Joint is still
Muscles do not contract
Kinds of Flexibility Training
Fortunately after all this theoretical stuff, this one here is easy!
The kinds of flexibility training orient themselves on the kinds of flexibility – they’re the same!
This means you can train each kind of flexibility specifically:
Static passive (Here you find passive stretches – stretches you sink into or get pulled into by external weight)
Static active (These would be Isometric Contractions and PNF methods)
Dynamic passive (These would be stretches an external person will get you into – mostly done by therapeuts)
Dynamic active (These are the active mobility exercises many over at Instagram preach. It could be CARs, Loaded Stretches*, Ballistic Stretches, and how they’re all called)
Most will mainly train static passive, static active, and dynamic active flexibility in some forms. Dynamic passive flexibility will be done by a physiotherapist or experienced coach.
How should I train to get Flexible?
To get more flexible you should address the issue specifically. Therefore, you need to know where your biggest issues are.
Most will do great by combining active dynamic, static passive, and static active stretches. To get more flexible in general.
In some cases, for example in hypermobile yogis, more active work would be useful to bridge the gap between their immense passive range and active controllable one.
Depending on your goal and your starting point years are nothing abnormal. I needed nearly 2 years to fix my squat and get from WoW-Druid-Level-80 into a somewhat natural bodyweight squat effortlessly.
The last thing I want to do is rob your motivation! But – I don’t want you to be frustrated because some keyboard-warrior said it takes exactly 2 and a half months.
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I would start with the three big ones – your spine, your hips, and your shoulders.
If you manage to work on these regularly and see improvements start fixing restrictions of the smaller joints. Now you can also learn and improve some basic moves – like the squat, hanging down from something, walking & running, …
You can read about the ‘normal’ defined numbers which your joints should be capable of here, also known as the normal-null-method.
A short, daily mobility routine
Beyond that basic capacities, a daily movement routine is a great habit to cultivate. It gives you lots of benefits and simply feels amazing!
For example, start every day with some CARs.
Or move lightly.
Do some yoga. That should be intense or long.
It is about getting into your body and feel great. Think of it like toothbrushing, but for your body. Daily maintenance work.
Be playful when it comes to movement and get creative. Getting active doesn’t mean that you always lock yourself in a room with your fellow lads and do 5 times 3 sets of 10. Playing around is as important as structured training is.
Another way to be more active is to stretch shortly before going to bed. Longer hold stretches or some soft yoga can definitely help to wind down.
Specific mobility training – active and passive
When basic movement is a daily habit of yours, one way or the other, you can start to work on some specific weaknesses.
Therefore, it is important to know where exactly are your weaknesses. If assessing yourself isn’t something for yourself contact your trusted physio or mobility coach.
My recommendation is to work your mobility after every session for 15-20 minutes. Do some Isometrics, some passive holds, and active exercises. Done 4 times a week that’s 1,5h of combined flexibility-work.
Right after your workout you are limber, your nervous system is very active and you should have some power left – if you didn’t trash yourself completely in the workout beforehand.
Now it is time to work specifically on your squat for example. Or your internal hip rotation. Or your pike position. It doesn’t matter. What matters is knowing exactly where to attack the chain’s weakest link.
Use your set breaks while in the gym
Another great recommendation for you is to use your time in between sets. Or even to cool down with some prehab work.
Why not stretch your hamstring a bit while working on l-sits?
Or hang from a bar in between squats?
Or do some scapular exercises in between handstands?
There are 1000 things to do that keep you warm, get you active, and won’t affect your workout. Win-Win, I would say!
What important stuff does anyone do in between sets anyway? 😀
Another worthy place to check out is Ido Portal’s old Blog. His Floreio Projekt is a great place to start and work out alternatively. And – everything over there is for free. Give it a try!
Keep in mind that I am by any means not perfect. I tried my best to summarize my knowledge and the actual results of modern science within this post, to keep it as real as well researched as possible. Nonetheless, I didn’t want it to be a scientific article – more like a fun-read out of which you can learn much.
Besides the obvious running – which would be an endurance capacity. But nothing can be looked upon that isolated within our complex world, isn’t it?