How to improve your mobility in 2021

Aggiornato il: giu 17

Key takeaways

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?

It depends.

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.

Resistance training through the full range of motion (ROM) has been also successful in improving flexibility.

If we can improve the flexibility of our muscles by simply lifting weight, why add additional stretching?

Well, many of us enjoy stretching as a form of relaxation at the end of a workout or during a day off from training.

Also as we’ll see in a few seconds, some body parts are more likely to become very tight and some stretching might be needed.

In other cases, It just feels good.

And if it feels good to you, do it far from your resistance training workouts.

It’s pretty clear that stretching a muscle immediately before a workout can contribute to a reduction of the total volume, number of sets and number of reps performed in the workout.

An interesting case: Stretching between sets might improve muscle hypertrophy.

How much flexibility do you even need?

The optimal level of flexibility in your muscles will be largely dictated by your lifestyle and goals.

It’s important to notice that you never need flexibility as an independent factor but always in a particular context.

For instance, if your goal is to master a split, your hamstring and hip flexor should be pretty damn flexible (and split-specific flexibility should be part of your normal training anyway).

If your goal is to squat as low as possible, your ankle and hips should be pretty mobile and the muscles and joints in your lower body need to be mobile and flexible enough to hit such depth with good form.

If you like squats but you’re not sure how deep you should go, here’s why you should go as deep as possible with good form:

-Get More muscle and strength in your legs

-Get More glutes activation

-Shifting tension from the knees to the hips

-Strengthening the lower back

-Improving your force production

A person with great mobility have the ability to:

-Perform movement patterns with no restrictions.

-Perform the movement efficiently and without any compensations.

-Control the movement through every part of the range of motion.

On the other hand, some people can perform a movement pattern successfully, but they compensate.

They may fire some muscles in a different sequence, use different muscles for stability or avoid certain joint positions.

A flexible person may or may not have the stabilizer strength, balance, or coordination to perform the same functional movements as the person with great mobility.

A fundamental difference between flexibility and mobility is control.

Control comes through the strength in your muscles.

Control comes through the coordination of those muscles.

Control comes from properly functioning stabilizers.

A different perspective: The Joints-by-joints concept

We saw how each muscle and joints have a specific action.

Some of them create movement and others stabilise and hinder movement.

Not all joints and muscles are created equal!

Strength Coach Mike Boyle and Physical Therapist Gray Cook shaped this concept based on the fact that some joints are more likely to become unstable and some joints instead are more likely to become stiff and less mobile.

Here below you find the most common needs associated with each joint in the joint-by-joint concept. Foot= Stability

Ankle = Mobility

Knee = Stability

Hip = Mobility

Lumbar Spine = Stability

Scapula = Stability

Shoulder= Mobility

The concept to grab here is that a problem on one joint usually shows up as a pain in the joints above or below.

The process is pretty straightforward, lose mobility in the ankle, increase the chances to get knee pain/discomfort.

Lose hip mobility, get back pain.

Lose thoracic mobility, get neck and shoulder pain.

These findings suggest that being more mobile in some joints and stable in others means moving freely, efficiently and without pain.

Let’s see how to use this concept in our training.

4 Steps to Improve Mobility

There are different efficient ways to improve the mobility of a given joint.

1. Dynamic Warm-Up: Whether it's 5 minutes or 30, a good dynamic warm-up can work wonders. This type of warm-up does more than only increase muscle temperature and blood. It incorporates all of the above with movement. You actually prepare the elements of mobility as you prepare for the workout or competition.

2.Mobilize: These are exercises that are specifically geared towards training your range of motion around joints. They involve actively moving, contracting and relaxing muscles through the joints range of motion. Some of these may isolate, while others involve multi-joint movement patterns.

The wrist passive rotations and the 90/90 complex are 2 good examples of joint mobilisation:

3. Self Myo-Fascial techniques: Sometimes these may be excruciating but can be very effective. Foam rolling, lacrosse balls and other tools are basically a type of self-massage. These techniques help you release tight spots in your muscles through a neuromuscular relaxation of the target muscles.

4. Soft tissues Stretching: This may or may not be necessary. Some body parts can become so tight that additional stretching might be needed anyway (like the ankle or the lats). Remember that stretching more than 60 seconds will reduce the outcome of a workout if done straight before the workout.


The human body can move through space and interact with the external world through a complex system of bones, muscles, joints, ligaments and tendons which are all interconnected with each other.

Each muscle and joints have a specific action.

Some of them create movement and others stabilise and hinder movement.

Not all joints and muscles are created equal!

If you want to improve your strength, your muscles and your sports performance while staying away from injuries you should improve the quality of your movement by looking at your mobility and stability in the specific movements you want to get better at.

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  1. Musculoskeletal fitness and risk of mortality

  2. Physical-strength tests and mortality among visitors to health-promotion centers in Japan

  3. The Case for Retiring Flexibility as a Major Component of Physical Fitness

  4. The Squat Bible - Dr. Aaron Horschig

  5. Mobility vs Flexibility: They Are Different And Why You Care

  6. Functional Training for sports - Michael Boyle

  7. Effect of the flexibility training performed immediately before resistance training on muscle hypertrophy, maximum strength and flexibility

  8. Interset Stretching vs. Traditional Strength Training: Effects on Muscle Strength and Size in Untrained Individuals

  9. The role of spinal flexibility in back pain complaints within industry. A prospective study

  10. Adolescent flexibility, endurance strength, and physical activity as predictors of adult tension neck, low back pain, and knee injury: a 25 year follow up study

  11. Body mass index and risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and all-cause mortality

  12. Prospective Studies Collaboration, Whitlock G, Lewington S, Sherliker P, Clarke R, Emberson J, et al. Body-mass index and cause-specifc mortality in 900 000 adults: collaborative analyses of 57 prospective studies. Lancet. 2009;373(9669):1083–96

  13. Association of Muscle Endurance, Fatigability, and Strength With Functional Limitation and Mortality in the Health Aging and Body Composition Study

  14. Associations of grip strength with cardiovascular, respiratory, and cancer outcomes and all cause mortality: prospective cohort study of half a million UK Biobank participants

  15. Objectively measured physical capability levels and mortality: systematic review and meta-analysis

  16. Prognostic value of grip strength: findings from the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study

  17. Association between muscular strength and mortality in men: prospective cohort study

  18. The role of spinal flexibility in back pain complaints within industry. A prospective study

  19. Relations of sit-up and sit-and-reach tests to low back pain in adults

  20. Musculoskeletal Screening to Identify Female Collegiate Rowers at Risk for Low Back Pain

  21. No Relationship Between Hamstring Flexibility and Hamstring Injuries in Male Amateur Soccer Players: A Prospective Study

  22. Preseason hamstring muscle weakness associated with hamstring muscle injury in Australian footballers

  23. Risk factors for development of lower limb pain in adolescents

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