10 ways to improve flexibility

The science of stretching has long been debated. And if you've ever done Karate, Taekwondo or kickboxing, you'll know that intense desire to get your round kicks to head height.

However, even without any particular interest in wedging your face between your knees, stretching still has many benefits:

  • Range of motion – stretching out your muscles will allow you to maximise your range of motion, which in turn will allow you to build strength.
  • Joint mobility – stretching isn't just about focusing your muscles. It also includes joint health and mobility. Tight, unused joints can start to freeze up and become stiff and sore.
  • Posture – tight muscles can leave us hunched and imbalanced. Stretching, alongside strengthening, can help us correct our posture.
  • Ease tension – a tight neck and back can lead to headaches. Equally tight muscles don't respond well to training.
  • Warm-up – dynamic stretching is great for warming up our muscles to prepare them for weight lifting as well as preventing injury.
  • Form – training correctly with weights requires good form, posture, stability and technique. All of these things mean being in the correct position when lifting weights, so you optimise your gains and minimise the risk of injury. A good example is the flexibility you need when doing squats – keeping your shoulders back, chest elevated, breaking at the hips and keeping your heels on the floor, all takes time to master.

And if you're struggling with your current range of motion, here are 10 ways to improve your flexibility:

1) Stretch regularly

The idea that you can permanently increase the length of your muscles is a bit of a myth. When we stretch, we're actually training the nervous system, so it knows what a safe range of motion is. You will have experienced that feeling of pain when you reach the limit of your stretch. But you haven't always had that pain. Babies are born with the ability to do the splits. As you learn to move around, you're teaching your body how to move. So, your body has learnt your basic parameters of what is safe and what isn't safe. Going beyond these parameters results in your muscles telling your brain that they have reached their threshold.

Your body learns these thresholds from what is normal for you. If you spend all day sat at a desk, your flexibility is most likely going to be poor.

What you need to do is tell your body that an extended range of motion from what it thinks is its limit, is actually ok. This involves regular static stretching, that pushes those limits a little each time. Stretching takes dedication so if you want good flexibility, you need to work on it regularly.

However, frequency is the key rather than pushing yourself too far so be careful not to hurt yourself.

2) Foam Roll

Muscle tension is an issue here and getting those muscles to loosen off can be difficult. As static stretching isn't always appropriate, using a foam roller can really help fire up your muscles without weakening them too much.

This is ideal if you have muscle tension, sore muscles or are recovering from an injury and are in the process of strengthening a particular area of your body at the same time.

3) Try Bikram Yoga

Yoga has been around for years and there's a reason for it. It is truly brilliant for helping you improve your range of motion and flexibility. Especially if you do a lot of weight training, tight sore muscles can be a regular problem.

Bikram Yoga is done in a special studio where the temperature is raised to around 40 degrees Celsius. Yes, you sweat and yes it's hard. But, being so warm and relaxed allows you to push yourself that little bit further when you stretch. A great resource if you can include it in your regime.

4) Static stretch after a workout

Static stretching after a workout is great for upping your flexibility levels. Once you've got your muscles nice and warm, stretch and hold for at least 30 seconds - or a minute if you can. Once the minute is up, take a deep breath and push a little further and hold. Do this for a third time and then stop. It will take time to develop your flexibility, as well as regular stretching. But if you really want it to improve, just know that a quick lunge after a long workout isn't going to cut it.


5) Practise PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation)

This is when you stretch while tensing the muscle at the same time. You may have experienced it with a personal trainer - when you lie on the floor and they stretch back your hamstring while you resist the force at the same time. This is particularly good for helping you to increase your flexibility, as it loads your muscles with more force while at a greater level of extension. Stretching is mainly about telling your nervous system what is safe and not safe to perform. By contracting your muscles while stretching them, you're showing your body that that muscle is strong and safe while being stretched.

Leg stretchers are great for helping you invest some time in a little PNF. Easy to use and fit into your routine, they don't take up much room and you can stretch while winding down in front of the TV.

6) Do dynamic stretches before your workout

More to the point, static stretching (where the muscle being stretched is still and relaxed) before a workout, doesn't actually help with your warm up, or with increasing your flexibility. Dynamic stretches (stretches while moving, e.g. forward and back leg swings or high knees) are much better for helping you to prepare your muscles for lifting weights. They also help you tell your body that you're no longer sitting still and that it needs to prepare itself for exertion. This in turn, helps reduce your risk of injury. A must for every pre-workout.

7) Move regularly

Sitting down all day can cause joints to stiffen up. Frozen shoulders, sore knees and tense necks can often occur when you sit still for too long. Remember to keep your joints moving and try and move around as much as possible.

Things like shoulder rolling, leg swings, gentle neck stretches and doing circles with your hips will all help maintain your range of motion.

And don't forget your back either. A tight lower back can make it difficult to stretch out your hamstrings so maintain a good posture and keep everything moving.

8) Hydrate

Tight muscles are often dehydrated muscles. Headaches are often a sign that we haven't drunk enough water and it's the same with the other muscles around the body. Stay hydrated and eat well. Good nutrition along with good fats and plenty of lean protein will help you maintain good muscle health.

9) Massage

Massage is great for aiding muscle recovery. And repaired muscles can be stretched more easily. Whether you prefer to see a sports therapist or just self-massage using massage balls and foam rollers, doing this can really help improve your flexibility. They can also help you fire up your muscles before a warm up.

Foam rollers can also help with joint mobility, especially if you spend a lot of time doing squats. Use them on your hips and ankles and behind your knees.

10) Stretching and strengthening come hand-in-hand

Although strengthening can tighten up your muscles, a strong muscle is a more capable muscle. And, sometimes, range of motion can be about having the support from strong muscles and using that strength for overall performance.

Strong, warm muscles are more pliable and will help reduce your risk of injury. Strong muscles also help your body feel safe when moving, so will ultimately help you in pushing past those pain thresholds.

Improving your flexibility takes dedication. It's always best done straight after a workout while your muscles are still warm. Remember to train regularly, eat well, hydrate and self-massage, for optimum results.

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