What’s the Difference Between Mobility and Flexibility?
This is an important differentiation to make; very few people understand the difference - and it is a big one. Flexibility merely refers to range of motion - and, more specifically, passive range of motion as achieved by static stretching. Don’t get me wrong; static stretching has its place, but it won’t take your athleticism to the next level like mobility training will.
The main problem with pure flexibility is that it does not imply stability nor readiness for dynamic tasks - basketball included. When we move, we need to have something called “mobile-stability.” This basically means that there’s really no use in being able to get to a given range of motion if you can’t stabilize yourself in that position. Believe it or not, excessive passive flexibility without mobility (or dynamic flexibility, as it’s been called) will actually increase the risk of injury! And, even more applicable to the discussion at hand, passive flexibility just doesn’t carry over well to dynamic tasks; just because you do well on the old sit-and-reach test doesn’t mean that you’ll be prepared to dynamically pick up a loose ball and sprint down-court for an easy lay-up. Lastly, extensive research has shown that static stretching before a practice or competition will actually make you slower and weaker; I’m not joking!
Tell Me About This Mobility Stuff…
So what is mobility training? It’s a class of drills designed to take your joints through full ranges of motion in a controlled, yet dynamic context. It’s different from ballistic stretching (mini-bounces at the end of a range of motion), which is a riskier approach that is associated with muscle damage and shortening. In addition to improving efficiency of movement, mobility (dynamic flexibility) drills are a great way to warm-up for high-intensity exercise like basketball. Light jogging and then static stretching are things of the past!
My colleague Mike Robertson and I created a DVD known as Magnificent Mobility to address this pressing need among a wide variety of athletes - basketball players included. We’ve already received hundreds of emails from athletes and ordinary weekend warriors claiming improved performance, enhanced feeling of well-being, and resolution of chronic injuries after performing the drills outlined in the DVD. I think it’s safe to say that they like what we’re recommending! In case that feedback isn’t enough, here are seven reasons why basketball players need mobility.
Reason #1: Mobility training makes your resistance training sessions more productive by allowing you to train through a full range of motion.
We all know that lifting weights improves athletes’ performance and reduces their risk of injury. However, very few people realize the importance of being able to lift through a full range of motion. Training through a full range of motion will carry over to all partial ranges of motion, but training in a partial range of motion won’t carry over to full ranges of motion.
For example, let’s assume Athlete A does ¼ squats. He’ll only get stronger in the top ¼ of the movement, and his performance will really only be improved in that range of motion when he’s on the court.
Now, Athlete B steps up to the barbell and does squats through a full range of motion; his butt is all the way down by his ankles. Athlete B is going to get stronger through the entire range of motion - including the top portion, like Athlete A, but with a whole lot more. It goes without saying that Athlete B will be stronger than Athlete A when the time comes to “play low.”
Also worthy of note is that lifting weights through a full range of motion will stimulate more muscle fibers than partial repetitions, thus increasing your potential for muscle mass gains. If you’re a post-player who is looking to beef up, you’d be crazy to not do full reps - and mobility training will help you improve the range of motion on each rep.
Reason #2: Mobility training corrects posture and teaches your body to get range of motion in the right places.
If you watch some of the best shooters of all time, you’ll notice that they always seem to be in the perfect position to catch the ball as they come off a screen to get off a jump shot. Great modern examples of this optimal body alignment are Ray Allen and Reggie Miller; their shoulders are back, chest is out, eyes are up, and hands are ready. The catch and shot is one smooth, seemingly effortless movement.
By contrast, if you look at players with rounded shoulders, they lack the mobility to get to this ideal position as they pop off the screen. After they receive the ball, they need to reposition themselves with thoracic extension (“straightening up”) just so that they can get into their shooting position. This momentary lapse is huge at levels where the game is played at a rapid pace; it literally is the difference between getting a shot off and having to pass on the shot or, worse yet, having it swatted away by a defender. These athletes need more mobility in the upper body.
As another example, one problem we often see in our athletes is excessive range-of-motion at the lumbar spine to compensate for a lack of range of motion at the hips. Ideally, we want a stable spine and mobile hips to keep our lower backs healthy and let the more powerful hip-joint muscles do the work. If we can’t get that range of motion at our hips, our backs suffer the consequences. Believe it or not, I’ve actually heard estimates that as much as 60% of the players in the NBA have degenerative disc disease. While there are likely many reasons (unforgiving court surface, awkward lumbar hyperextension patterns when rebounding, etc.) for this exorbitant number, a lack of hip mobility is certainly one of them. Get mobility at your hips, and you’ll protect that lower back!
Reason #3: Mobility training reduces our risk of injury.
It’s not uncommon at all to see athletes get injured when they’re out of position and can’t manage to right themselves. If we get range of motion in the right spots, we’re less likely to be out of position, so we won’t have to hastily compensate with a movement that could lead to an ankle sprain or ACL tear.
As an interesting add-on, one study found that a softball team performing a dynamic flexibility routine before practices and competition had significantly fewer injuries than a team that did static stretching before its games (1).
Reason #4: Mobility training will increase range of motion without reducing your speed, agility, strength in the short-term.
Believe it or not, research has demonstrated that if you static stretch right before you exercise, it’ll actually make you weaker and slower. I know it flies in the face of conventional warm-up wisdom, but it’s the truth!
Fortunately, dynamic flexibility/mobility training has come to the rescue. Research has shown that compared with a static stretching program, these drills can improve your sprinting speed (2), agility (3), vertical jump (3-6), and dynamic range of motion (1) while reducing your risk of injury. Pretty cool stuff, huh?
Reason #5: Mobility training teaches you to “play low.”
All athletes want to know how to become more stable, but few understand how to do so. One needs to understand that our stability is always changing, as it’s subject to several environmental and physical factors. These factors include:
From a training standpoint, we can’t do much for #1, #2, or #4. However, mobility training alone can dramatically impact how well an athlete handles #3 and #5. The better our mobility, the easier it is for us to get wider and get lower. The wider and lower we can get when we need to do so, the better we can maintain our center of gravity within our base of support. Neuromuscular factors - collecting providing for our balancing proficiency - such as muscular strength and kinesthetic awareness play into this as well, and the ultimate result is our stability (or lack thereof) in a given situation.
- Body Mass - A heavier athlete will always be more stable. Sumo wrestling…need I say more?
- Friction with the contact surface - The more friction we can generate (as with appropriate footwear) with the contact surface, the better our stability. Compare a basketball court (plenty of friction) to the ice in a hockey rink (very little friction), and you’ll see what I mean. This also explains why athletes wear cleats and track spikes.
- Size of the base of support (BOS): In athletics, the BOS is generally the positioning of the feet. The wider the stance, the more stability we are. Again, think sumo wrestling.
- The horizontal positioning of the center of gravity (COG) - For maximum stability, the COG should be on the edge of the BOS at which an external force is acting. In other words, if an opponent is about to push you at your right side, you’ll want to lean to the right in anticipation in order to maintain your stability after contact.
- Vertical positioning of the COG: The lower the COG, the more stable the object. You’ll often hear sportscasters talk about Allen Iverson being unstoppable because of his “low center of gravity” or because he “plays low.”
Reason #6: Mobility training can actually make you taller…Really!
I’ve worked with a lot of basketball players, and I can honestly say that not a single one of them has ever told me that he wants to be shorter. And, I can assure you that the coaches and scouts would take a guy who is 7-0 over a 6-11 prospect any day.
So what does that have to do with our mobility discussion? Well, imagine an athlete who is very tight in his flexors; his hips will actually be slightly flexed in the standing position, as the pelvis will be anteriorly tilted (top of the hip bone is tipping forward). Likewise, if an athlete has tightness in his lats (among other smaller muscles), he’ll be unable to fully reach overhead. These two limitations can literally make an athlete two inches shorter in a static overhead reach assessment.
Just as importantly, such an athlete is going to “play smaller,” too. He won’t jump as high because he can’t get full hip extension and won’t be able to optimally make use of the powerful gluteal muscles. And, his reach will be limited by his inability to get the arms up fully. Together, these factors could knock two inches off his vertical jump and prevent him from making a game-saving block. It really is a game of inches.
Need further proof? I’ve seen several athletes instantly add as much as two inches on their vertical jump just from stretching out the hip flexors and lats before they test. This is an acute change in muscle length, though; mobility training will enable you to attain these ranges of motion all the time.
Reason #7: Mobility and “activation” training teach certain “dormant” muscles to turn on.
In our daily lives and on the basketball court, it’s inevitable that we get stuck in certain repetitive movement patterns - things we do every day, several times a day. With these constant patterns, certain muscles will just “shut down” because they aren’t being used. Two good examples would be the glutes (your butt muscles) and the scapular retractors (the muscles that pull your shoulder blades together). As a result, these shutdowns lead to faulty hip positioning and rounded shoulders, respectively (and a host of other problems, but we won’t get into that).
To correct these problems, we need what is known as activation work. These drills teach dormant muscles to fire at the right times to complement the mobility drills and get you moving efficiently. Mike and I went to great lengths in Magnificent Mobility to not only outline mobility drills, but also activation movements and movements that incorporate components of both.
Reason #8: Having mobility feels good!
Think about it: what’s the first thing an athlete wants to do after a good stretching session? Go run and jump around! Now, just imagine having that more limber feeling all the time; that’s exactly what mobility training can do for you.
Knowledge of the game and technical prowess will take an athlete far in the game of basketball, but it takes an efficient body to build the physical qualities that will take that same athlete to greatness. Without adequate mobility, an athlete will never even reach the efficient stage - much less the next level.
About the Author
Eric Cressey, M.A., C.S.C.S., has helped athletes of all levels achieve their highest levels of performance. An accomplished competitive powerlifter, Cressey trains at the world-renowned South Side Gym in Stratford, Connecticut, and will soon take his expertise to the newly opened Excel Sports and Fitness Training (www.ExcelStrength.com) in Waltham, Massachusetts. Feel free to contact him and sign up for his free newsletter at www.EricCressey.com.
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