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Mobility vs. Flexibility: are they the same?

You’ve probably heard that developing your flexibility and mobility should be added to your fitness goals, to improve athletic performance, encourage healthy ageing, and enhance your Qigong practice. But what do the terms flexibility and mobility actually mean? Are flexibility and mobility really the same thing?

What is flexibility?

Either passively or with assistance, flexibility generally refers to one of two passive (non-active) physical abilities. One, a muscle’s ability to stretch (called extensibility) and two, a muscle’s ability to move through its potential range of motion.

Generally speaking, flexibility does not refer to the ability to perform dynamic movements or static positions with muscular control. Also known as static-passive-flexibility, flexibility refers to the ability to assume an extended (stretched) position only using your body weight, the support of your limbs, or the assistance of a prop or another person. In other words, you don’t necessarily need muscular strength to maintain the position.    

Joint range of motion (ROM) measures how far and in what direction a joint can express its movement potential. The shape, location, and function of a joint determines how far and in what direction a joint moves. Common synovial joint movements include flexion, extension, abduction, adduction, internal rotation, and external rotation. Many factors can reduce joint ROM, including a  feeling of muscle tightness, which is also known as stretch intolerance.

Contrary to popular belief, flexibility work–like passive static stretching–does not change the length of your muscles. Instead, when we safely and regularly visit the edge of our stretch (called stretch tolerance), our central nervous system (CNS) gradually begins to feel more comfortable entering different ranges, which will decrease feelings of tightness and allows us to experience a greater ROM. In short, flexibility refers to commonly refers to how far you can passively move your muscles and joints, as directed by your central nervous system, individual anatomy, and injury history.

While flexibility work does not necessarily develop or demand strength, balance, stability, or coordination, it can profoundly impact another area of your physiology: the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS governs your stress response (via the sympathetic nervous system, or SNS) and relaxation response (via the parasympathetic nervous system, or PNS). When performed correctly, passive static stretching has been shown to soothe the stress response (also known as fight or flight) while promoting the relaxation response (also known as rest-and-digest). In addition to serving as a useful tool for exploring and understanding your body, flexibility exercises, like moderate stretching, can be a useful tool to help you relax your body and mind after a long, hard workout or a long, hard day.

What is mobility?

Mobility generally refers to your ability to actively move through your joints ROM with strength and control. While flexibility considers the distance a joint or muscle can move, mobility considers how well the interdependent components of your musculoskeletal system (muscles, joints, and connective tissues) are able to actively participate in various ranges of motion. Mobility also often refers to being able to perform functional human movement patterns without ROM restrictions or compensation from another part of the body (i.e., lifting from the low back because the hips have limited mobility).

Mobility can represent dynamic movement (like a kettlebell swing), in addition to assuming and maintaining an active static position (like a plank pose). Put another way, mobility is flexibility with the strength to support it. Mobility does not try to force the body beyond useful parameters. Instead, mobility encourages that we develop our ability to move through various planes of movement and ROM with muscular control. Mobility can be viewed as functional flexibility. In addition to getting the least push back from our central nervous system (which feels safest when we have muscular control), developing mobility prepares you to move well through your workouts, sport, and life itself.  

Maintaining optimal mobility throughout our lifetime is critical to our long-term well-being and health. Limited mobility impacts our ability to optimally perform our daily activities, especially as we age. A public health concern, limited mobility is strongly associated with poor health outcomes, injuries, reduced access to goods and services, and social isolation. Optimising your mobility can help you enhance your athletic performance, prevent injuries, and enjoy a greater quality of life at any age.

Qigong for Improved Flexibility and Mobility

Human bodies are dynamic, multidimensional, and kinetic. We are made (and therefore benefit from) diverse multi-planar movement. Through controlled and compound movements, Qigong offers mobility exercises that can help you improve your functional mobility, increase your flexibility, elevate your athletic performance, achieve your fitness goals, and age gracefully. No matter what your age or ability, Qigong can optimize your physical function, prevent falls, improve balance, increase flexibility, maintain your autonomy, activate your body’s natural relaxation response, and ultimately improve your quality of life.

Try these Qigong exercises

Tiger descends the mountain

three men practicing qigong tiger exercise crouching

For the Tiger Level II exercise from 5 Animals Qigong, most of your body weight is on the front foot, while the back foot rests on the outside, behind the front leg. Upon descending, the front leg bends as far as is safe and comfortable. This movement improves shoulder and back mobility, and is a great, deep stretch for your hamstrings, quadriceps, and buttocks – while also targeting lower back pain.

Bear collects fish

barefoot woman practicing qigong bear outside on grass

For this Bear Level II exercise from 5 Animals Qigong: while squatting on one leg, lower yourself until your thigh is parallel to the ground. At the same time, extend your other leg out to the side. This movement provides a deep stretch in the hip, as well as improving stability and flexibility in your lower limbs and your feet.

In Tevia Feng’s e-courses, 5 Animal Qigong and 5 Element Qigong, athletes develop dynamic strength and functional flexibility with mobility exercises such as balancing, deep squats and lunges, and spinal twists. Inspired by animal forms and dragon movements, each one of these exercises develop muscular strength and control in various planes and ranges of motion. Once you have mastered even a few White Tiger Qigong techniques, you will have the tools you need to enhance your performance, workout, and activities of daily living.  

Mindfully developing your flexibility and mobility are lifetime gifts to your physical, mental, and emotional health. Visit our blog, or browse our ebooks and online courses to learn how Qigong can help you achieve a lifetime of health and mobility.

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