When you think about flexibility, you may envision ultra-bendy yogis or ballerinas. But it turns out, flexibility isn’t just about showing off how bendy you are. Remaining limber can help you comfortably perform everyday tasks, like reaching down to pick up your kids and stretching up to the top shelf at the grocery store. Plus, when it comes to working out, increasing your flexibility can help you stay injury-free, reduce muscle soreness, and allow you to have a greater range of motion when you move.
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Still, even if you stretch for a few minutes at the end of each workout, you might not feel your flexibility increase much, if at all. In fact, you may feel tighter than ever after you exercise.
So what are you doing wrong, exactly? Whether your goal is to do the splits or simply be able to touch your toes, here’s how experts recommend you stretch in order to increase flexibility.
Stretching for flexibility 101
If your goal is to increase flexibility or feel less tight after exercising, your first step is to actually make time to stretch after your workout, says Ceasar F. Barajas, Aaptiv trainer. So, you can’t rush out the gym doors the minute you step off the treadmill! And on recovery days when you aren’t exercising, you can still stretch.
If your goal is to improve flexibility, Barajas recommends holding the stretches for longer than you normally would. “Aiming to statically (holding the stretch) stretch muscle groups for at least 30 seconds once a day can ideally help to increase muscle length over a period of at least four to six weeks,” he says.
As for working on your flexibility before versus after your workout, Barajas says to try stretching both times. Just switch up the types of stretches you’re doing. “Static stretching once a day for all major muscle groups should over time start to help increase flexibility. This can be done after a workout to help the body cool down. The body is warm enough to help elongate muscles,” he says. “Before working out, aim for dynamic (moving based) stretching to help improve workout performance.”
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The best stretches to improve flexibility
Now that you know how often and how long to stretch, you might wonder which stretches are best to improve flexibility. The answer is complex, as any area you hold in a stretch for a long period of time will eventually get more flexible. However, Barajas recommends trying different yoga poses for best results.
“I’m biased, but as a yogi, I love to recommend to people a variety of yoga poses that can be done regardless of yoga experience,” he says. “Some of my favorite poses include forward fold, downward dog, crescent pose, child’s Pose, butterfly sit, and laying or seated twists.”
Cells speak in the language of force. It does take time for your nervous system to downregulate when your body is in a stretched position.
If your goal is more specific (i.e. loosen up hamstrings) Aaptiv trainer, Nicole Sciacca, says it is OK to focus on stretching out one target area, too. “Identifying where you feel tight or limited in range of motion is a good place to begin,” she says. “One example is for folks with tight hamstrings, I sometimes suggest sitting upright, legs extended with a bend in the knees. I’d have them grab for the edges of their feet leaving their chest in contact with their thighs and then breathing into the backs of their legs,” she says.
Still, she says it is difficult to offer specifics on how to improve flexibility through stretching because it is so individual for everyone. (Some of us are more flexible than others, of course.) That’s why it’s a good idea to work with an Aaptiv trainer who can help you meet your goals. “It’s hard to offer specifics in a broad sweep. Each person comes with entirely unique biology, compensation patterns, and injuries,” she says. “All of these things need to be taken into account by a trained professional in person.”
Change your body, change your flexibility
Sciacca explains that when you hold a stretch for longer than you normally would, your nervous system actually downregulates. (That’s a biological process where the cellular components actually decrease in quantity due to an external variable, in this case, the stretching.)
“Cells speak in the language of force. It does take time for your nervous system to downregulate when your body is in a stretched position. A stretched position is ultimately the most threatening position for a joint,” she says. “If you think about it, the joint is at its weakest place and we are holding this position. We typically are not strong in our end ranges unless we have a mobility training program because we are likely not training for strength in our end ranges. That’s why one way to improve flexibility is to take longer, passive stretches.”
Still, she says it is important to remain mindful of your breath and remain calm when you are in an extended stretch. Stretching for long periods can put a lot of stress on the body. So don’t push yourself too hard, even if you’re trying to increase flexibility. “If you feel sharp, nerve type pain, always back off or seek guidance from a professional,” she says.