How to Increase Flexibility: Exercises, Stretches and Benefits

Have you ever looked at yogis, gymnasts or ballet dancers and wondered at their feats of flexibility while you struggle to touch your toes? Though there are people who were born naturally limber (aka hypermobile) or have danced, done gymnastics or yoga most of their lives, that level of flexibility is elusive to the average person.

That being said, we can all benefit from developing our flexibility as it’s a complementary component to any successful health and fitness routine, helping you enhance your range of motion, minimize the risk of injury, support proper posture and improve functional movements.

Don’t worry, even the most unflexible of you out there can learn how to increase flexibility, improve your range of motion and lengthen your muscles with the right flexibility exercises and stretches. But first, let’s define what exactly we mean by flexibility.

back pain stretch flexibility

Flexibility definition

Flexibility is more than more than being able to bend or stretch easily. Being flexible is your body’s ability – more specifically, the ability of any given joint – to perform movements at your maximum range of motion (ROM, for short). Even though some people may naturally have more ROM than others, having a limited ROM doesn’t mean you can’t increase it with the help of flexibility exercises over time.

As with many things in our body, ROM decreases with age. The good news is that it’s something we can continually work on and improve, no matter our age. Whether you lead a sedentary lifestyle or your fitness routine is solely strength and cardio based training, neglecting to pay attention to your flexibility can result in less mobility, which in turn can restrict what you can do. It’s a pretty compelling argument to dedicate time to this aspect of your health. Improved flexibility leads to numerous benefits – so let’s get stretching for a more supple future!

Why train flexibility?

Apart from being able to forward fold like a boss at your local yoga class, you may want to consider incorporating flexibility training into your workout routine. Why? Because as our ROM naturally declines with age, it’s important to continually train your flexibility to effectively counteract potential issues on the horizon that may compromise the quality of your life, such as:

  • Increased risk of injury
  • Postural misalignment (think of a hunched elderly person)
  • A decline in everyday functional movements
  • Physical ailments such as back pain

Back pain and flexibility

An estimated 80 percent of Americans suffer from lower back pain. So what does this have to do with flexibility? Well, the triggers of back pain tend to be due to inflexibility and a lack of mobility in other parts of the body. Generally, lower back pain is due to tight muscles paired with weaker ones that lead to imbalances. The tight muscles pull the weak muscles out of place along with the skeletal system they attach to. Not only are these imbalances at the root of most back issues, but they also contribute to a wide range of general aches, pains, and postural problems.

wide straddle stretch for flexibility

Benefits of limbering up

Releases physical and mental tension

Generally, a side effect of stress is muscle contraction leading to that tightness in various parts of your body, e.g., tension headaches due to scrunched shoulders and upper back. Flexibility stretches are a fantastic way to combat the effects of stress. Stretching first thing in the morning helps wake up your body and mind, and also releases mood-boosting endorphins lending your day a sense of ease. Stretching before bed will also encourage a good night’s sleep.

Corrects poor posture

Sitting at a desk all day? Then you most probably want to incorporate a few flexibility exercises throughout your day to counteract the slouched back effect that is a typical office job ailment. Stretching out your lower back, chest, and shoulders can realign your spine, alleviate any general physical tension and help prevent that Hunchback of Notre Dame posture down the line.

Builds stamina and fitness

Flexibility exercises (whether passive or dynamic) will help increase blood flow to muscles and tendons. How does this affect your stamina and athletic performance? More blood circulation equals more oxygen delivered to your body and an improvement in physical endurance.

Prevents injury

Incorporating flexibility stretches as part of your regular fitness routine can ease post-workout soreness, but how? Flexibility stretches can enable increased nutrient delivery to your stiff muscles, and thus expedite recovery. Not only will developing your flexibility help you recover faster, but also will loosen muscles making them more readily available for your next workout and extending your ROM – avoiding pulls or strains.

Boosts blood circulation

We’ve already touched on the increased blood flow that results from flexibility exercises, but did you know that in addition to the above benefits, improved circulation enhances cellular development and organ health?

Reduces cholesterol

You may be reading the above header and asking yourself how? To increase flexibility means you improve blood circulation and as a result, lower blood pressure, reverse the hardening of your arteries and prevent heart disease – all an effect of high cholesterol.  Of course, you can only achieve this if you’re already eating a healthy, balanced diet to begin with – you can’t out-stretch poor nutrition.

How to increase flexibility

You’re in luck, as there are many ways that you can work on your flexibility these days as there are a few different styles of flexibility exercises out there – most of which are effective in increasing your ROM.

7 types of flexibility exercises

Flexibility training incorporates various stretching approaches, suited for different aspects of fitness – be it warming up, cooling down or developing your ROM. Here are seven of the most common and popular flexibility exercises to help you get your stretch on!

hamstring stretch outside runner

1. Static stretching

Here you develop muscular tension without contracting the stretched muscle. You hold a challenging stretch for at least 20-30 seconds while gradually increasing your ROM.

2. Active stretching

Also referred to as static-active stretching, active stretches are when you assume a position then hold it for a desired amount of time, which is difficult to do for longer than 10-15 seconds. An example would be lying on your back, holding one leg up in the air straight and them holding it. Many yoga postures are considered active stretching.

3. Passive (or relaxed) stretching

This stretch requires an external “assistance” to help deepen the ROM and intensity of the stretch. It’s a technique where you relax into a stretch while an external force (someone or something) intensifies the position further.

4. Dynamic stretching

Dynamic stretching requires movement to help increase your ROM. It consists of controlled, gentle movements that incrementally take you to the limits of your ROM and then slightly past it. This is the number one method to use to warm-up for activity as it is the most effective, safest, and will not compromise performance afterward.

5. Isometric stretching

A type of static flexibility exercise where you use isometric muscular contraction to stretch the intended muscles as well as with the aid of a partner or an object, e.g., chair, table, ledge, etc.

6. PNF stretching

PNF stands for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation and is a more advanced form of flexibility stretching, often used in physical rehabilitation. This contract-stretch-hold may be the most effective stretching technique for increasing ROM.

7. Ballistic stretching

As the name suggests, this is an explosive and rather extreme form of stretching. You perform this stretch by using the momentum of a moving body part to force it beyond its regular ROM. It’s used part of a warm-up and can be compared to a dynamic stretch but is a bit more aggressive. Be careful with this one as this is one of the more dangerous stretches, and some professionals believe that the potential for injury outweighs the benefits.

Flexibility of a dancer:
In addition to their dance training, dancers also incorporate yoga, pilates, barre, and physiotherapy to lengthen, stretch and protect their muscles.

Flexibility: Exercise guidelines

A great, scientifically proven method of increasing your ROM would be to follow the ACSM’s flexibility exercise guidelines, which in summary state:

  • Adults should do flexibility exercises at least two or three days each week to improve ROM
  • Hold each stretch for 10-30 seconds to the point of tightness or slight discomfort
  • Repeat each stretch two to four times, accumulating 60 seconds per stretch
  • Static, dynamic, ballistic and PNF stretches are all effective
  • Flexibility training is most effective when the muscles are warm – try light, aerobic activity or a hot bath to warm the body up before stretching
arm shoulder flexibilty

How deep should I stretch?

As each person is different due to their individual capacity for ROM, the main thing to keep in mind is that you don’t want to push your stretches to the point of pain. On the other hand, if you don’t feel it, then it’s not deep enough. Think of it like finding a sweet spot between not feeling anything and feeling some discomfort – a good stretch can feel a little bit uncomfortable. 

Stretching tip:
Take a nice hot bath before starting your flexibility training to warm up muscles and joints.

Want to improve your flexibility from the comfort if your home? Then sign up for 8fit Pro and add one of the in-app yoga sequences to your home workouts. On top of that, you’ll have access to an extensive HIIT style workout library and nutritionally sound meal plans.