Flexibility vs. Mobility in Youth Fitness Programs
By Mike Robertson
What is the difference between Flexibility and Mobility?
I’ve always used the Bill Hartman definitions; they go something like this:
Mobility – Range of motion under specific circumstances (specific)
Flexibility – Range of motion about a joint (non-specific)
As you can see, mobility is specific to a certain movement-i.e., you need a certain amount of hip mobility to squat, lunge, etc.
In contrast, flexibility is non-specific-i.e. you lay someone on their back and stretch their hamstrings. This gives you an idea of their flexibility, but it’s not specific. Just because they have great hamstring length doesn’t mean they’ll be able to perform functional movements properly or without compensation.
Are both important to young athletes or is one more important than the other?
I feel that both are important, but flexibility is merely a component of mobility. I think of mobility as an equation, something like this:
Tissue length + neural control/stability + joint architecture = Mobility
So my goal with youth fitness programs is to improve their mobility and allow them to perform those specific movements (squatting, lunging, etc.) without compensation from other areas (generally the lumbar spine).
Youth Fitness Programs: When should young athletes train flexibility?
There are several times throughout the day when I would incorporate specific flexibility drills into youth fitness programs:
Pre/peri-workout – I would only use this as part of an acute-corrective strategy; in other words, I don’t believe that static stretching has much of a place pre-workout. The goal here, for example, would be to statically stretch the hip flexors and pair that stretch with an activation drill for the gluteals. This will enhance motor control and function by helping restore proper length/tension relationships.
Post-workout – Here I’d use more active flexibility techniques like eccentric quasi-isometrics (EQI’s).
Before bed – I’ve always been a proponent of static stretching before bed. I think not only does it allow you to unwind and relax, but if you hop right into bed afterwards, you’re less likely to lose any flexibility gains you just worked for.
Youth Fitness Programs: When should they train Mobility?
Whenever they can! Quite simply, most people need more mobility in the appropriate areas (ankles, hips, t-spine, etc.). Especially in the beginning or foundational period of their training, more is generally better.
Getting more specific, pre-workout mobility training is a slam dunk. But if someone is really restricted in their movement patterns or movement quality, I’ll have them perform mobility drills several times throughout the day to reinforce good movement. Unlike strength training, you’re not going to over train your body by doing some simple mobility drills throughout the day.
Youth Fitness Programs: Are there different kinds of flexibility, or is “bending over to touch my toes and stretch my hammy” all young athletes should be doing?
With the athletes I work with, we include several different kinds of mobility throughout their day.
Pre-workout, we always do a dynamic warm-up. Always. They’ve been sitting in school or class all day, so my first goal is to get them warmed up and moving through a nice range of motion.
EQI’s are a little more advanced, but they’re still working to promote optimal length/tension relationships and develop active flexibility. Once someone has been training for a few months, I like to get them doing this at the end of every workout.
Finally, we discussed static flexibility above, and I think it’s an integral component as well. Kids are a lot different now from how they were 10, 12, or 15 years ago when I was a kid! They sit more. They play more games. They have more homework. Static stretching can help get them back in tune with their bodies and keep themselves healthy.
I think all these methods are important; what’s more important is using the right flexibility method at the appropriate time.
Youth Fitness Programs: What is the single greatest mistake or myth people make when it comes to Flexibility training?
Not doing it!
Seriously, most people are so focused on their training and/or diet, they put no value or stock into recovery methods. Using the methods I outlined above in your youth fitness programs can go a long way to improving the flexibility and mobility of your body.
Flexibility and mobility are part of a complete program for athletes and in youth fitness programs. Check out the IYCA’s Complete Athletic Development 2.0 program to get the most comprehensive resource ever assembled for developing young athletes.