What’s the Difference Between Mobility and Stretching?

Let’s face it. As much as we hate working on flexibility and range of motion, it’s more important now than ever. The tech we’ve cleverly created has vastly improved our lifestyles. But it’s also screwed up our bodies. We’re addicted to our smartphones, which has led to ‘texting neck’. We sit in front of laptop screens all day and end up with hunchbacks. What’s the end result of all our shitty movement patterns? A population of people suffering from neck, back, shoulder, hip, and knee pains. Tight muscles. Niggling injuries that never seem to go away . . .

You won’t miss your ability to move freely until it’s gone. And when it goes, you’re up shit creek without a paddle. So, how do we stop pumping all our hard-earned cash into the pockets of physios and massage therapists? We need a system to address the root causes of our issues. We need to learn how to move correctly and do regular maintenance on our bodies. This is where mobility comes in.

This will be a monster two-part post. In this one, I’ll define mobility and look at how it differs from stretching. In the second part, I’ll go over the mobility methods along with some example exercises you can do.

These posts are based on Dr Kelly Starrett’s book Becoming a Supple Leopard. They only scratch the surface of his mobility system, so if you’re dealing with chronic pain, joint problems, tight muscles, or anything in between, I suggest reading his book.

What Is Mobility?

Mobility work is like stretching on steroids. It’s a holistic approach that helps resolve pain, prevent injuries, and optimise athletic performance. It’s used by athletes, military, and desk jockeys around the world.

Dr Kelly Starrett of San Francisco CrossFit and MobilityWOD has helped popularise mobility. His book Becoming a Supple Leopard is a comprehensive (i.e., the size of a small house) guide to all things mobility. Here’s the (long-winded) definition of mobility from the book:

A movement-based integrated full-body approach that addresses all the elements that limit movement and performance including short and tight muscles, soft tissue restriction, joint capsule restriction, motor control problems, joint range of motion dysfunction, and neural dynamic issues. In short, mobilization is a tool to globally address movement and performance problems.

You can think of mobility as a system that addresses all the issues that lead to pain or range of motion restrictions. In contrast, stretching only addresses tight muscles.

How Is Mobility Different to Stretching?

If you sit for long periods of time, your hip flexors become adaptively short and tight. To fix this issue, you’re typically told to stretch. But this only addresses the muscle. It doesn’t address the cause or other factors that could be resulting in tight hip flexors. This is where mobility comes in.

The first priority in the mobility checklist is to fix the movement error. You need to address the root cause of tight hip flexors—usually extended hours sitting on your ass. Once this has been corrected (e.g., convert to a standing desk), you can use mobility methods to open up the hips. Starrett’s mobility focuses on three systems:

  1. Joint mechanics
  2. Sliding surface dysfunction
  3. Muscle dynamics

Let’s take a look at exactly what these terms mean in the context of mobility.

Joint Mechanics

The medieval torture devices that pulled joints apart might have helped pave the way for modern mobility methods. If a joint capsule is tight, it can restrict your range of motion in same way tight muscles do.  As Starrett points out:

The joint capsule is a ligamentous sac (thick and leathery fibrous tissue that connects bones and cartilage at a joint) that surrounds the joint . . . What people tend to forget (or don’t fully understand) is that this strong, supportive sac can get tight and adaptively short when the joint is held in a bad position for prolonged periods, which ultimately affects joint range of motion and tissue health.

To address joint mechanics, Starrett uses bands or weight to pull the joint into a good position. The picture below is an example of a banded hip distraction. As you can see from the bloke’s grin, it’s not nearly as painful as the medieval torture devices.

Image source: Rogue

Image source: Rogue

Sliding Surface Dysfunction

Healthy tissues—skin, nerves, muscles, and tendons—should all slide and glide over each other. Starrett uses sliding surface dysfunction as a catchall phrase to describe how these different components, structures, and systems of the body relate to one another.

Sitting for long periods of time can cause sliding surface dysfunction. When you’re on your butt all day, your glute muscles stick to one another and become unresponsive. Sidenote: you might want to do some glute activation exercises during your next Netflix binge.

If your tissues have become a matted down mess, it can result in movement restrictions. Imagine wearing those really tight skinny jeans. The ones sold to you by the hipster at the store who said they’re in. Can you squat to full depth in them? Not going to happen. Starrett says that your skin and muscle tissues are like those tight jeans. They create a ‘cast’ that restricts movement.

No amount of stretching will unglue matted down tissue. To restore sliding surfaces, you need to release the skin from the underlying tissue or bone. This is done by working on tissues with foam rollers, lacrosse balls, VooDoo Floss Bands, or other tools to create large shearing forces across the muscle. Here’s an example of soft tissue work using a ball:

Image source: Rogue

Image source: Rogue

Muscle Dynamics

Muscle dynamics upgrade the horse power of regular stretches. It’s like swapping out your four-cylinder Honda Civic for an HQ (classic Aussie muscle car) with a 427 Chevy Big-Block.

So, instead of doing 1970s static stretching, you’re using a position that you’re trying to improve (e.g., squat). Then actively contracting and relaxing at end range to lengthen the tissue.

Say you have trouble getting into the bottom of the squat position. You’d pick a mobility method that looks like a squat. Then apply it using the contract and relax method and/or bands. Here’s an example using the infamous couch stretch:

Up Next—Part 2

Next week, part 2 of this blog will go over mobilization methods you can use to target each of the three mobility systems—joint mechanics, sliding surface dysfunction, and muscle dynamics.

Do Something—Anything!

Don’t just consume information. If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you find this post useful. You’ve now got two choices: 1) close the screen and think ‘that’s nice’ and move on with your day. Or 2) look up one mobility exercise here to address an injury or pain. Start out with an easy exercise you can do at home. Make it short so you have no excuses. And as Nike says, just do it! Decision creates action. Action creates results.

I Need Your Help

I’ve also got a huge favour to ask of you. No, I don’t want your money. But will happily accept it! I’m trying to get this blog off the ground and I can’t do it without your help. Simply sharing this post on social media (you’re so close to the share buttons—look down below) or emailing it to a friend makes a HUGE difference in my life. In return, I promise we can be best mates and you can reach out anytime. Seriously. If you need help with any health, fitness, or Jedi Knight goals you can contact me here.

You can also share some love by adding a comment below. Let me know if you currently stretch or do mobility work.

Subscribe to My Blog

If you liked this post, you’ll love my weekly email. Short. Punchy. Packed full of gems of wisdom on life, fitness, and beyond! Enter your email below to subscribe. In addition to one weekly email (learn more), you’ll get instant access to download two FREE e-books: the Battle-Tested Body Transformation Guide and Quick and Clean Recipes.