Think you aren’t flexible? You can improve your stretching—here’s how to get a greater range of motion whatever your workout goals
4 Tips for Increasing your Flexibility
Thanks to flexible acro yogis everywhere, we’re chomping at the bit to execute backbends, forearm stands, and arm balances. But training to touch your toes isn’t the same as training to run 13.1 miles. Our genetics, anatomy, and hormones only allow us to reach so far—and exactly how far differs from person to person. We tapped Dr. Derek Ochiai, sports medicine specialized Orthopedic Surgeon and yoga instructor Adriene Mishler to find out how to increase our flexibility to meet workout—and Instagram—needs.
File this under “duh”, but exactly how to stretch is less obvious. Both static (holding a pose for a period of time) and dynamic (stretching via controlled movements) stretches are valuable for gaining the most mobility. What doesn’t help: bouncing. “Holding a hamstring stretch, then bouncing in place, doesn’t turn it into a dynamic stretch. It causes strain in your muscles, especially if you’re not warm yet,” Dr. Ochiai says. He recommends that before starting a workout, spend 5-10 minutes jogging or biking, then stretch. The warmer your muscles, the more pliable they are. “If that’s too much then stretch first thing in the morning right after a hot shower. It’s sort of like you’re warming up your muscles even though you’re not doing an aerobic warm-up,” says Dr. Ochiai.
Make a Plan
When it comes to flexibility, improvements are made by inches, not miles, so it’s harder to track and easier to give up. Take a before and after picture so you have a physical measure of your improvements. For total-body flexibility, Mishler recommends starting with the spine. “If you start to focus on your spine, then naturally you start to notice your neck, hips, hamstrings, and all the limbs connected to it.” She recommends stretching into cat cow, or for a more measurable pose, camel. For a more basic start, an elementary toe-touch is an easily measurable stretch to increase flexibility in the spine and hamstrings.
The one (and only) way to see results is to stretch consistently. “It can take months stretching every day, or every other day, to get improvement in flexibility,” says Dr. Ochiai. The more you stretch, the more you get flexible, but how often you stretch should depend on the pose’s intensity. He recommends stretching one to two times a day, allowing four to six weeks to see improvements.
Read Your Body
What’s the line between stretching and straining? “At the very moment you realize you’re holding your breath or clenching, that’s the time to stop,” says Mishler. When you constrict your breath, oxygen gets cut off from your muscles, which makes them tighten, not lengthen. Too much determination can also be harmful. “I speak from so many years of really pushing my way into a posture shape, and just being sore as hell for two days,” Mishler recalls. When you push too hard, your muscles will strain and then retract, returning to its original state instead of loosening up. To effectively increase your range of motion, move incrementally. (Don’t skip the cooldown!)