Many people believe that you're born with flexibility instead of earning it. And while genetics can play a part, everyone has the ability to improve their flexibility, no matter where they start.
Your PE teacher in elementary school might have made you do the sit and reach, but chances are they never explained the benefits of flexibility. And if you don't know why something is good for you, it's harder to drum up the motivation to improve at it.
The best part: Flexibility training doesn't have to be a huge part of your weekly exercise routine. If you work it into your cardio and strength days, you'll see and feel the benefits of being flexible in life and in performance.
What Is Flexibility, Exactly?
Contrary to what you might think, flexibility is not simply the ability to touch your toes or put your foot behind your head. Instead, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) defines flexibility as the range of motion of a joint or group of joints per the skeletal muscles (and not any external forces).
Let's unpack that a bit. Every joint or group of joints has varying levels of range of motion based on the extensibility of the muscles and tendons that surround them, explains Keats Snideman, PT, DPT, a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and owner of Keats Physical Therapy, so one joint may be more flexible than another.
According to the ACSM, there are two components to flexibility: static and dynamic. Static flexibility is the full range of motion of any given joint because of external forces placed on it, like from a partner stretching your hamstrings. On the other hand, dynamic flexibility is the full range of motion of a given joint achieved by using your muscles and external forces, like lowering into a deep squat (thanks, gravity!).
It's important to note that mobility and flexibility aren't the same thing, even though they are often used interchangeably. Mobility is the ability of any given joint to move through its anatomically possible range of motion, which can be influenced by flexibility (i.e. muscles and tendons) and other factors. Ultimately, your flexibility is measured by how much the muscles and tendons surrounding the joint or joints are actually able to extend or lengthen.
In other words, "flexibility is generally the ability to achieve specific joint ranges of motion in a passive manner without direct active muscle activation. Mobility, on the other hand, is when you actively move through a range of motion," explains Jereme Schumacher, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in San Diego.
Everything from poor posture and improper body mechanics to repetitive movement patterns and sedentary behavior can limit our flexibility, explains Jessica Matthews, doctor of behavioral health (DBH), assistant professor of kinesiology at Point Loma Nazarene University and author of Stretching to Stay Young.
5 Benefits of Flexibility
Keep in mind that there's no such thing as having an "optimal" level of flexibility that everyone should strive for, and being more flexible isn't always better. "As long as you have enough range of motion to do the tasks you need to do safely, you are good," Snideman says.
That said, there are some reasons to include flexibility exercises in your workouts.
1. Flexibility Increases Your Mobility
While everyone has varying degrees of flexibility, generally speaking, the more flexible your muscles are, the greater your mobility. Simply put, you can't be mobile without your muscles being flexible. That's because flexible muscles makes moving more comfortable and allows your joints to move in proper sequence, meaning you're able to load the right muscles and joints to perform exercises.
"Flexibility acts as a prerequisite for mobility. If you are unable to achieve a specific range of motion in a passive manner with adequate flexibility, then in general, you will not be mobile within that range either," Schumacher says.
In turn, mobility makes everything from HIIT class to hiking to reaching the top cabinet easier. "Improved range of motion makes the activities of daily living more feasible and enjoyable. It makes physical activity more enjoyable, it eases aches and pains and it even improves posture," Matthews explains.
2. Flexibility May Ease Lower Back Pain
While pain is highly individualized, some research connects flexibility with reduced pain, particularly lower back pain. According to a June 2016 systematic review in Healthcare, stretching the hip flexors, hamstrings and the erector spinae and latissimus dorsi muscles in the back — in conjunction with other regular exercise — can help with reducing stiffness and lower back pain.
However, the research is murkier when it comes to other types of pain. Be sure to work with a professional, like a physical therapist, who can help you pinpoint the causes of your discomfort and suggest the appropriate stretches and exercises for treating it.
3. Flexibility Might Help Ward Off Injury
Increased flexibility throughout the body allows your joints to move smoothly and in the right sequence during functional movements, Schumacher says. "This, coupled with proper muscle activation and control, can help mitigate the risk for injury by decreasing excessive stress at any given joint."
Simply stretching and becoming more flexible won't prevent all types of injury, of course, such as an overuse injury. But it may help with preventing muscle and ligament sprain injuries because static stretching helps improve the flexibility of muscle tissues and ligaments, per an older September 2008 systematic review in the Journal of Research in Sports Medicine.
"From there, you could extrapolate that you would not get as many injuries as you would if you had restricted range of motion and were less flexible," Matthews says.
4. Flexibility Can Lead to Increased Strength
Strength is generally increased by contracting your muscles in functional body-weight exercises or weight lifting. But Schumacher says that the greater joint range of motion you can achieve with increased muscle flexibility can lead to greater muscle contracting — and therefore increased strength.
"When we strength train, we need the joints to be able to move through their full range of motion to effectively load the muscles we're targeting," Matthews says. Flexibility makes it easier for your muscles to move under tension, which allows you to train with more power.
5. Flexibility Can Support Athletic Performance
As with increases in strength, flexibility can also lead to improved sports performance, Schumacher says. "When coupled with proper muscle control and stability, an increase in flexibility will allow an athlete to achieve proper postural positions needed for a specific sport and task."
For example, greater flexibility will allow a golfer to achieve a larger back swing, and therefore, potentially a more powerful swing.
"Optimal" flexibility varies depending on the activity, Snideman adds. "A weight lifter, for example, is going to need a lot more flexibility in knees, ankle, hips and shoulders than a recreational runner," he says.
Ready to Improve Your Flexibility? Start Here
- American College of Sports Medicine: "Flexibility Assessments and Exercise Programming for Apparently Healthy Participants"
- Healthcare: "A Systematic Review of the Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Non-Specific Chronic Low Back Pain"
- Journal of Research in Sports Medicine: "A Systematic Review into the Efficacy of Static Stretching as Part of a Warm-Up for the Prevention of Exercise-Related Injury"