Flexibility vs. Mobility: What’s the Difference?

By Eric Wong

I’ve created two popular programs targeting flexibility called the Hip Flexibility Solution and Shoulder Flexibility Solution.

To be completely honest, at the time, the main reason I used the word “flexibility” in their titles had mostly to do with marketing.

When thinking about it, most people think of the word flexibility, not mobility (although this is changing) so if a program has the word “flexibility” in it, it might be seen as a better fit.

Yes, I am a businessman and need to do my best to put organic, local food on the table and it ain’t cheap!

However, I’m very clear in the difference between flexibility and mobility so let’s define the terms now so we’re 100% on the same page:

Definitions of Flexibility and Mobility

Flexibility: your ability to be moved or bent

Mobility: your ability to move or bend

Considering the hip as an example, flexibility of the hip into extension means how far the joint can move into extension via some external force, whether it’s a physio moving you or gravity.

Mobility of the hip into extension is how far you can extend the hip without external forces acting on it and instead, generating the required forces internally to move your hip into hip extension.

While improving mobility is the ultimate goal because that’s what’s most useful in life, the gym and sport, flexibility may need to be addressed first.

Flexibility limitations typically result due to two types of structural issues:

  1. Shortened/tight tissues like muscles, fascia, the joint capsule or ligaments that restrict joint movement.
  2. Degeneration of passive tissues like cartilage or menisci or bony adaptations that block proper movement of the joint.

Any of these problems will restrict both flexibility and mobility.

So if you have a hip flexibility limitation, but you perform hip mobility exercises i.e. Lunge and Overhead Reach, it won’t give you the gains you’re after because it doesn’t address the root cause of your restriction, which is structural.

If flexibility limitations are present, mobility will be restricted too. This is by definition.

If you can’t passively be bent to 90°, there’s no way you’re going to be able to actively bend to 90°. It can’t happen.

This is why it’s necessary to clear flexibility (structural) issues before working to improve mobility (neuromuscular) – because mobility exercises will not necessarily fix all of the issues restricting flexibility.

Flexibility ==Mobility

Some techniques to address structural issues are Active Self-Myofascial Release and Banded Stretching, both found in the Hip Flexibility Solution. If you haven’t followed HFS, it’s a good idea to do so to ensure flexibility issues aren’t limiting your mobility development.

Here’s a great hip flexibility technique that will help a restricted joint capsule:

If you do have adequate flexibility but can’t perform a certain movement, this is a mobility restriction due to a lack of strength and/or coordination of the muscles contributing to the desired movement.

Restoration and improvement of mobility via building muscular strength and neuromuscular coordination is the focus of my upcoming Hip Control course (and all of the Control series).

The last thing I’ll say on flexibility and mobility is this and it’s important:

To minimize your risk of injury, you want to MINIMIZE THE GAP between flexibility and mobility.

The reason why is because the greater the gap i.e. high flexibility but low mobility, the greater the range of motion where you don’t have control.

When you’ve got an uncontrolled range, you don’t have the strength and/or coordination to enter and exit the range or the ability to reverse the movement at any point within that range.

Sometimes life and sport put us into these ranges and when they do, if the range is uncontrolled is when injuries or tissue damage occur.

So keep building your flexibility AND your mobility and you’ll have the freedom of movement that makes life worth living.

About the Author

Eric is the founder of PrecisionMovement.coach and has a degree in Kinesiology from the University of Waterloo. He's been a coach since 2005 and spent many years focused on training combat athletes including multiple UFC fighters and professional boxers and now dedicates his energy to helping people eliminate pain and flexibility and movement restrictions. He lives in Toronto with his wife and daughter and he drinks black coffee and bitter IPAs. Click here to learn more about Eric.