We're not all born with the inherent ability to easily do a split — and some of us might never be able to do one, no matter how hard we work at it. But even if you're not naturally flexible, you can certainly boost your bendiness and increase your range of motion.
"Each person is born with a varying capacity to be flexible," explains Cathy Richards, an American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)-certified exercise physiologist. "I like to say you know how flexible you are in second grade at recess when some kids can easily put their hands flat on the ground while others can't even get close to touching their toes."
Indeed, flexibility has a lot to do with things like age and genetics, notes the American Council on Exercise (ACE). Still, experts agree we all have some wiggle room when it comes to how far we can stretch — and improving your flexibility can yield big benefits.
The Benefits of Flexibility
Sure, being able to contort yourself into different positions makes for a cool party trick, but increasing your flexibility has plenty of real-life benefits, too. Loose and limber muscles improve your range of motion, making it easier to do everyday tasks from reaching for high objects, to bending to pick up a grocery bag, to sitting comfortably on the floor while playing a game with your kid.
And the easier and more comfortable moving feels, the more likely you'll be able to keep doing it. "When movement becomes less painful, you'll move more often. That increases strength and flexibility further and decreases pain. It's a beneficial cycle," explains physical therapist Alicia Filley, PT, founder of Ascend Health and Wellness Solutions.
But that's not all. There's plenty of evidence showing that flexibility can reduce your risk for injury like muscle tears, per the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). Plus, poor flexibility can be a contributing factor to lower back pain, so by improving your range of motion, you can build stronger quads, hamstrings and abdominal muscles to prevent chronic pain, according to the NSCA.
How to Become More Flexible
If you assumed making your muscles more elastic involves plenty of stretching, you're right. But that's not the only thing you can do to limber up. Far from it, in fact. Here are some of the everyday habits that, over time, can help you become straight-up springy.
1. Move More
The more time you spend sitting, the less flexible you'll be. "The simple act of movement keeps our muscles and joints more supple and lubricates the joint capsules for easier range of motion," Richards explains. "That's why sitting for long periods, like at a desk or in a car, leaves you feeling stiff."
In other words, you'll get looser just by sitting less. Aim to get at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise, each week, as recommended in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.
Richards is a fan of swimming. Women who worked out in the water for an hour, three times a week, significantly improved their flexibility after just three months, according to a small October 2015 study in the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation.
Remember to do resistance exercises, too. While strength training moves used to be thought of as flexibility killers, a September 2017 study in the International Journal of Exercise Science shows that resistance exercises actually play a role in stretching your muscles and helping them become limber. The ACSM recommends doing two to three strength-training sessions per week.
2. Stretch Only When Your Muscles Are Warm
Remember that tip about always stretching before exercise? It's outdated. Trying to stretch cold muscles won't improve your flexibility — and it could very well lead to injury.
If you like the idea of stretching near the start of a workout, it's best to do dynamic stretching and spend five to 10 minutes warming up to boost the flow of blood and oxygen to the muscles you're about to work, according to Harvard Health Publishing. Try walking briskly while swinging your arms in big circles before a cardio session, for example.
"Warmer muscles that are engorged with increased circulation of blood are better able to stretch. Think of other things that are better able to stretch when warm instead of cold, like taffy," Richards says. You'll get the same effect by bumping static stretching to the end of your workout, Filley says.
Static stretching, in which you hold poses without moving for a longer period of time, is ideal for a cooldown because it allows your muscles to relax and lengthen and sends signals to your body to relax.
3. Keep Your Stretches Short
You'll reap the biggest benefits by holding your static stretches for shorter periods — 15 to 30 seconds — and repeating for 2 to 4 rounds, according to a February 2012 study in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy.
Also, resist the urge to bounce while you're holding a stretch, since it can tighten muscles and increase your risk for injury, according to the ACE.
Lastly, don't hold your breath: Take a big inhale and exhale slowly while you move into the stretch. As you hold your position, keep breathing normally.
4. Try Foam Rolling First
If you have the time, consider spending a few minutes with a foam roller before starting your stretches. Warming up with a foam roller for a few minutes makes muscles more pliable and warm, helping you to potentially get more out of your stretch, according to the ACE.
Experts are still learning about how foam rolling helps with flexibility, exactly. But it's thought that the roller's continuous pressure signals the muscles to become less tense, per Harvard Health Publishing.
5. Make Flexibility Exercises a Part of Your Workout Routine
Dedicated flexibility activities, like yoga or tai chi, can further fight stiffness and improve your range of motion. "These activities involve holding positions for extended periods, giving the muscles and joints time to gently and gradually lengthen," Richards says.
If you can, aim for three 30-minute stretching or flexibility sessions per week, the ACE recommends.
6. Try Using a Stretch Band
If you can't quite achieve a full stretch on your own, an elastic stretch band can help you go a little deeper, per the Cleveland Clinic. "They act like extensions of your arms," Richards explains. You could achieve a deeper hamstring stretch, for instance, by lying on your back, lassoing the stretch band around your ankle and pulling your leg toward you, she says.
The key is moving slowly to give your body time to ease into the position. Be sure to maintain steady tension, since yanking on the band or suddenly letting go could put you at risk for injury.
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7. Push Yourself — but Not Too Hard
Stretching to the point of mild tension will encourage your muscles to adapt, helping you become more and more flexible over time. But resist the urge to force yourself into a position that's truly uncomfortable, since you could end up getting hurt.
"You should be able to relax your body, fake a smile and breathe normally," says Kate Ayoub, PT, DPT, MPH, founder of Own Your Movement. "If the stretch is so intense that your entire body is tight, it's probably too much." Sharp or stabbing pain, too, is an obvious red flag, the American Heart Association notes. If you feel significant discomfort, back off.
8. Don't Be Afraid to Get Some Help
If you're not sure where to start with flexibility exercises, a personal trainer can offer guidance on the types of stretches you should be doing, especially if you have a specific goal you're trying to achieve. Plus, they'll be able to check your form to make sure you're performing the moves correctly.
Consult with a physical therapist if you're dealing with specific pain or range of motion issues that make it hard to do everyday activities. "For instance, is putting on a sports bra hampered by your tight shoulders, or do you strain your calf when you play tennis because of muscle tightness?" Filley says. "Those are signs you might need assistance."
- American Council on Exercise: "Benefits of Flexibility"
- National Strength and Conditioning Association: "Benefits of Flexibility Training"
- Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation: "Effect of Regular Swimming Exercise on the Physical Composition, Strength, and Blood Lipid of Middle-Aged Women"
- International Journal of Exercise Science: "Effects of Different Number of Sets of Resistance Training on Flexibility"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Benefits of Flexibility Exercises"
- International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy: "Current Concepts in Muscle Stretching for Exercise and Rehabilitation"
- American Council on Exercise: "Foam Rolling 101"
- Cleveland Clinic: "5 Best Workouts to Make You More Flexible"
- The American Heart Association: "Flexibility Exercise (Stretching)"
- Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans