Updated: Jun 17
1)Flexibility is not a major fitness ability and in many cases, too much of it can be dangerous.
2) Increasing your active range of motion in a given joint is a physical ability worth pursuing.
3) Unstable joints should be strengthened, immobile joints should be mobilised.
4) You can improve the flexibility of a tight muscle with full range of motion resistance training and optimise the time you have available for physical exercise.
5) Stretching can be used as part of a regular warm-up routine but additional stretching is not needed in most cases.
6) Joints, muscles and bones are all interconnected and shouldn't be seen as independent elements.
7)The joint-by-joint approach is a broader concept and consider the human body as a whole.
‘’You’re not very flexible, you need to work on your mobility!’’ ‘’My hips mobility suck, I need to stretch them!’’
Mobility and flexibility are commonly interchanged in the fitness language.
Many people take pride in being able to touch their toes after a few weeks of consistent stretching practice and many coaches prescribe stretching in an attempt to reduce the risk of injuries, prevent overuse, improve performance and improve quality of life.
In this article you will learn not only why flexibility and mobility are different but also on which one to focus on so you can have a better quality of movement, stay away from injury and improve your sports performance.
Some terminology first
-Mobility: The ability to control a joint to the full range of motion in an active way.
‘’Wow, you can hold a deep squat very comfortably, your hips are very mobile!’’
-Flexibility: The ability of a muscle to be lengthened.
‘’At school with did a hamstring test, seated on the floor we had to touch our toes, I was able to touch my toes so the teacher said my hamstrings were very flexible!’’
-Stability: is the ability of a joint to maintain position while motion takes place somewhere else.
‘’You lower back stayed neutral during the descending phase of your squat, your low back is very stable!’’
Did we get it wrong all this time?
Flexibility was traditionally seen as a major fitness quality and thought to be improved through various forms of stretching.
I mean, who didn’t think that trying to touch the toes was an efficient way to be more flexible?
In the end, if you become more flexible it must be good for something, right?
Not so fast!
The human body can create movement thanks to an interconnected system of joints, muscles, ligaments, bones and tendons.
For many years, corrective exercise practitioners, trainers and physiotherapists have been prescribing accessory stretching and mobilisation techniques in an attempt to keep their clients away from injuries and improve their performances‘’
‘’When a muscle is tight, stretch it!’’ perhaps influenced by the massive bodybuilding culture which pushed the mantra ‘’Train muscles, not movement’’.
I find it funny that some people say either ‘’Train movement, not muscles’’ which the bodybuilder's enthusiast answer with ‘’Well, movement is created by muscles’’
So which one should you train?
The problem with this approach is that it tends to see muscles and joints as independent elements disconnected from the rest of the body and not in the context of whole-body movement.
In this article, we’re going to discover why flexibility is often an overrated concept and why you should focus on mobility, stability and quality of movement instead.
Flexibility is often overrated
Many people think that having flexible muscles is a good thing, in absolute terms.
Let’s see if this is backed up by science.
Improved flexibility is commonly associated with reduced mortality.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t show up in the literature(1,2,).
Other fitness qualities instead, such as cardiovascular endurance, body composition (11, 12), muscle endurance (13), muscle strength and muscle power(14,15,16,17), are all predictive of mortality.
What about flexibility and the risk of falling?
Flexibility decreases with age but unlike muscle strength does not predict the risk of falling in older adults, one of the greatest cause of death in older adults.
Come on, it must do something at least to keep me away from injuries!
Even here, the evidence it’s clear, improving your flexibility does not predict future incidence of low back pain or injury in adults (18,19,20), hamstring injuries in male soccer players (21), hamstring injuries in male Australian Football players (22), or legs pain in adolescents (23).
Is being more flexible boosting performance?
Flexibility is ONE of the many factors involved in human performance.
Some sports require greater flexibility than other sports but that is not predictive of the performance.
For instance, international swimmers show greater flexibility than national swimmers but also greater strength and power.
In some cases, being too flexible can actually reduce your performance.
We can’t say, being more flexible = better performance but we can confidently state that:
In the case where a muscle is unable to stretch properly and this limits the range of motion significantly, until the point where performance is reduced considerably, specific work should be done one the muscle and joints involved to elicit further progression and a more efficient pattern of movement.
It starts to appear clear that we don’t only need to be flexible but also have great control through the range of motion.
Is stretching a bad idea?
If you had to increase the length of an elastic band what would you do?
You’d pull the band until it has the length you need.
That’s why for many years, coaches, athletes and general gym goers always tried to improve flexibility through some sort of stretching.
Stretching doesn’t show a significant impact on decreased DOMS when done before, during or after a workout.
Stretching is not the only way to lengthen muscles and tendons and therefore not the only way to improve flexibility.