How to Become More Flexible
Flexibility is important at every age to prevent injury and maintain mobility and muscle function.
Bend down and touch your toes. At some time or another, all of us have tried it — either as a way to test our flexibility or become more flexible.
Touching your toes, like all other bend-and-hold moves, requires our muscles to stretch. “Flexibility is the amount of stretch that a given muscle allows,” explains Bryant Walrod, MD, a family and sports medicine physician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.
Every muscle in our bodies is made up of long strands of muscle fibers, or cells, bunched together into progressively larger groups and ultimately wrapped in connective tissue called fascia. Our muscles, by design, contract (which allows you to do things like move or carry an object or push open a door) and also stretch, he explains. And the opposing stretch is just as important as the contraction.
Why Flexibility Is an Important Component of Exercise
“If a muscle doesn’t have the ability to sufficiently relax and stretch, it will change your body’s biomechanics, potentially leading to strain or stress on other parts of the body,” Dr. Walrod says. Eventually a muscle that cannot sufficiently relax and stretch can limit our mobility.
Mobility is the ability for joints (where two or more bones meet) to move through their full and healthy range of motion without being restricted by other tissues like ligaments, tendons, or muscles. When mobility becomes limited because muscles are too tight, the ability to safely perform everyday tasks as well as exercises ranging from running to strength training diminishes, explains Adam Rivadeneyra, MD, a sports medicine physician with the Hoag Orthopedic Institute and Orthopaedic Specialty Institute in Orange County, California.
Think of a dancer who tries to kick her leg over her head without warming up first or a pitcher who tries to throw a fastball as soon as he steps out of the locker room. Both are practically asking for an injury. If flexibility becomes severely limited, even everyday tasks (like bending over to pick up something you’ve dropped or lifting a suitcase) can similarly increase the risk of muscle strains and tears.
What’s more, it’s important to remember that everything in your body is connected. So when one muscle gets too tight, it pulls on neighboring bones and muscles. And if one joint can’t move like it should, other joints have to pick up the slack in order to keep you moving. Over time, this can result in overuse injuries such as tendinitis.
Inflexible muscles can also result in struggles performing everyday activities such as reaching behind you to retrieve something from the back seat of the car or crouching down onto the floor to play with your children or grandchildren. This is especially true in older adults, as flexibility naturally declines as part of the aging process, Walrod explains.
The most recent U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans include flexibility as an important aspect of your health, despite a lack of research outlining its health benefits.
“Flexibility helps you perform activities of daily living and self-maintenance as you age, like putting socks and shoes on, taking care of your foot health, and being able to wash yourself,” says Nicole Belkin, MD, orthopedic surgeon at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center.
How to Improve Flexibility: The Different Types of Stretches
To make sure your muscles retain their ability to relax and stretch when you want them to (no matter what your age), they need to do so regularly. That means you need to purposely do movements that stretch your muscles.
If you’re looking to increase your flexibility, Dr. Belkin recommends stretching three to five days a week for five minutes. Here are the types of stretches you can do to maintain or improve flexibility.
One of the most common types of stretching is static stretching, in which you move to a joint’s end range of motion and then hold that position for 15, 30, 60 seconds, or longer, Walrod explains.
For example, to stretch your hamstrings, you can touch your toes, either while standing or seated on the floor with your legs outstretched. To stretch your chest muscles, you can hold both sides of a doorframe and then step forward. To stretch your glutes, you can hug your knee into your chest.
Most people grew up performing these flexibility stretches before beginning their regular strength training and aerobic workouts. However, consistent research shows that, as a general rule, people should not perform static stretches, especially when held for periods longer than 60 seconds, before their workouts, Walrod says. That’s because static stretches can actually make the muscles too flexible without allowing them to properly stabilize your body’s joints, he explains.
For that reason, it’s best to static stretch after exercise as a way to help cool down or throughout the day as a way to break up long periods of stretching and loosen tight muscles, he explains.
Dynamic stretches are exercises that gently move joints through their full range of motion, increasing blood flow to the body’s muscles and connective tissues. For this reason, they are ideal to perform before workouts.
Research suggests that dynamic stretching before a workout can improve performance and help prevent injury — though static stretching after a workout may be better for improving flexibility. Examples include bodyweight squats, lunges, incline push-ups, resistance band rows, and any low-intensity movement that is performed slowly, under control, and through a full range of motion, Walrod says.
Myofascial Release (‘Foam Rolling’)
A form of myofascial release, foam rolling involves applying pressure to the muscles’ connective tissues to help them relax, Walrod says. Think of it as similar to getting a massage. Sometimes, the massage therapist really has to dig into your knots for your muscles to relax and feel better. To improve flexibility, foam rolling may be the most beneficial when performed immediately prior to dynamic stretching.