Strength, endurance, cardiovascular exercise and body composition goals often dominate the focus of physical fitness. But a fifth core component exists: mobility and flexibility training. Meanwhile, stability is also often overlooked, despite being a key facilitator to all five core components. Together, mobility, stability and flexibility can increase our physical and performance potential, while simultaneously decreasing the risk of injury during activity, and even rest too. But what do these three terms actually mean? How do they differ? How they can be effectively incorporated into a training routine? And why should we care? Below we delve into each ‘ility’ to enhance our understanding of how they can collectively promote longevity to our greatest superpower: the human movement system.
Mobility is the range of movement we have at a joint or series of joints.
Generally speaking, the key joints we look to mobilise are the thoracic spine, shoulders, hips, and ankles. Wrists (often overlooked), deserve some attention too.
A good test of mobility is an overhead squat, which tests our overhead reach, along with thoracic extension and range in the hips and ankles.
How Do I Become Mobile?
Mobility can easily be incorporated into warm-up sequences before a bigger workout, or done as standalone mobilisation sessions. Many movements, such as bodyweight squats, crossover with dynamic stretching techniques which are a great way to increase your heart rate while also targeting key joints and muscle groups.
Moving through these ranges as part of your warm-up will lubricate your joints, making movement more fluid when you start increasing the intensity of exercise with weight, speed, frequency and other variables. Movement preparation done like this will also reduce injury risk, as your body becomes ready for what you are about to do at a greater intensity by reminding itself what it feels like with the easier version.
Stability means controlling the body during movement and/or challenging conditions (such as balancing on an unstable surface or efficiently landing on the ground when running or jumping). It is closely related to balance.
Stability can be seen on the other end of the joint spectrum to mobility. The joints we look to stabilise (speaking generally again) are the lumbar spine, elbows, knees and scapula area, alternating those mentioned above for mobility.
A good test of stability is a single-leg RDL (Romanian deadlift), which focuses on stabilisation of the knee and lower back during a unilateral (single-sided) movement where the weight of the body moves through space and time, while the balancing leg aims to remain stable through the knee.
How Do I Become Stable?
Stability training needn’t be done in isolation from other training methods. You can get stronger, more powerful, improve your endurance and more, all while improving stability.
Consider how you can intentionally play with the stabilisation of a movement to make it easier or harder. Let’s take a reverse lunge as an example. This exercise requires good stability when performed correctly to maintain balance and alignment of the leading ankle, knee, hip and shoulder. If you find this challenging to keep the key joints stacked on top of one another, you can better stabilise yourself by allowing the back knee to rest briefly on the ground on the lowering phase of the movement, or hold onto something like a ledge or a suspension trainer to support your body.
On the flip side, if the standard reverse lunge is too easy, you can further challenge your stability by adding a knee drive for the back leg as you stand up
or even perform the move on a Bosu (balance board). Building a solid foundation of stability should extend throughout the body. Core stability around the lower spine will facilitate all types of movement, from the upper body, lower body, running, swimming, dynamic sports and just day-to-day functionality.
Flexibility is defined as our muscles’ ability to lengthen beyond their normal range and return to their usual position without being damaged. So basically, how stretchy and elastic your body is. The sit and reach test is useful for gauging flexibility. This test is exactly what it sounds like: sit and reach your toes with your fingers. It primarily focuses on hamstring and lower back flexibility, and is easily measurable.
How Do I Become Flexible?
Stretch. More specifically, hold active static stretches for fifteen or more seconds from top to toe. Just be mindful to only perform static stretches to warm muscles,
not cold ones. So, flexibility training shouldn’t be done in absolute isolation. It should be preceded by a warm-up, if not a full workout, or incorporated into wider workouts (such as with yoga), to ensure your muscles are ready to be pulled to their limits. Standard static stretching isn’t the only way to improve flexibility, but it’s the most basic and accessible starting point before more advanced techniques can be introduced, namely reciprocal inhibition and PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretching.
Why Should I Care?
So far we’ve mainly discussed our three ‘ilities’ in isolation, but they are best thought of together as they can complement one another and effectively fit into anyone’s training regime, whether it’s mobility warm-ups, strength/conditioning workouts that incorporate stability, or flexibility cool-downs. But so what? What is the value of knowing the difference between these three and how they can improve our movement system?
When it comes to mobility and stability, the joint-by-joint approach demonstrates the spectrum in which these two modalities operate. This approach looks at the key joints in the human body and identifies which, generally speaking, need to be mobile, while the others require stability. For the general population, this approach will help promote joint, muscle, tendon and ligament health and longevity, allowing us greater freedom and quality of movement as we get older and naturally less mobile and physically stable.
Having this awareness of which joints should be stable and which should be mobile when training will facilitate neuromuscular efficiency, which helps prevent injury as the brain and body learn when to remain strong and when to be fluid. Stability is the foundation of strength, while mobility is the foundation of movement, so the two work in tandem to allow us to move strongly. An athlete/coach can more specifically identify which joints to focus on for specific movements relevant to their sport, adapting the joint-by-joint approach to meet the needs of athletic function.
For instance, a hypermobile ankle may be unsuitable for sports that have constant direction changes such as football and basketball, so ensuring some mobility is present is important, but emphasising stability can reduce the risk of sprains.
Flexibility is often an afterthought, neglected and reluctantly left to the end of a workout (if included at all), sort of how it’s been left here on this blog… but it is very important. After mobilising, stabilising, strengthening, running around or being sedentary for extended periods, your muscles need some TLC after all their efforts or lack thereof.
Muscles will tighten up after workouts of almost any kind or long days of sitting at a computer for work or study. Stretching can be the necessary remedy to alleviate this stiffness and reduce the risk of injury from tightness or day-to-day aches and pains throughout the body. These benefits can be enhanced by being more mobile, as increased range of movement will allow for greater depth in static stretches, highlighting how mobility and flexibility combine to form one of the five core
components of fitness.
While we’ve hopefully clarified some key differences and complementary qualities between
mobility, flexibility and stability, there’s a lot more to discuss. Talk to a registered fitness professional to help further apply these training methods to your individual wants, needs and understanding, or book in to chat to your sports massage therapist about their relation to injury prevention in more depth during your next massage session.
MSE Sports Massage Content Creator