What is mobility?

Mobility is the ability to express a range of movement with control. Mobility differs from flexibility in that it refers to active ranges of motion rather than passive ranges.

Flexibility is the ability to passively express a range of movement. For example a calf stretch where you dorsi-flex the ankle by pushing the ball of your foot against a wall while keeping your heel on the ground.

Mobility is the ability to actively express a range a movement without any external assistance. For example dorsi-flexing your ankle as in the example above, using only the muscles that control your ankle.

What is the practical difference?

If you can only achieve a position passively, that is with external assistance, you do not have control of your body in this position, you lack strength there and risk injury if you move in that position under load.

For example imagine a person who only has 45 degrees of flexion in their wrist. This person starts doing yoga which has a lot of positions like planks where you support your body weight on your hands with your wrists in 90 degrees flexion. It may be possible to force the wrist into 90 degrees flexion with the weight of the body on top of it, but this is not a good long term strategy for injury free wrists.


Imagine another example of someone who wants to press a big weight above his head, but lacks sufficient shoulder range of motion to lift his arm into a vertical position (shoulder flexion). He might achieve the goal of getting the weight above his head without fully flexing his shoulder by compensating somewhere else, for example arching (extending) the spine to create the impression of a vertical arm. Great! The task appears done, but at what cost to the spine which is now under load in a sub-optimal position? Repeat this manoeuvre for many reps over weeks and months to see the results of this experiment.

Why are we lacking mobility?

When we are young most of us have a great deal of mobility but this seems to diminish with age. Lack of mobility is not simply attributable to the number of miles on your clock, more likely it is the ‘use it or lose it’ principle.  Typically as we become adults we move a lot less, we work at desks and exercise in straight lines if we exercise at all. Children don’t move in such rigid confines, but their playful movement is regarded as something for children that we should grow out of. Modern life doesn’t present a lot of varied movement challenges for most adults. Our ancestors would have been involved in a great many different physical activities, just in the business of surviving, that kept their bodies strong and mobile later into life.

How to improve mobility

General varied movement is beneficial for maintaining the ranges of motion that you currently have, but won’t make much of a dent in areas where you have become stuck. You will need to take a more focused approach to the problem movements, by increasing the range of motion and building strength in the new end ranges. A combination of long passive stretches followed by active muscular contractions around the end ranges of the joint is effective. Mobility training could be described as a form of strength training in the end ranges of movement.

If you are mainly sedentary while working, take regular movement breaks throughout the day. Short movement breaks of 5 minutes out of every 30 to 60 minutes can be beneficial for focus and flow. Mixing movement in throughout the day is probably more ancestrally consistent than the modern approach of sitting all day then trying to cram all of your movement into one ‘work out’.

If you want to improve your mobility the Running Dojo is a great place to start, or contact me directly for one to one training.