Flexibility is undoubtedly one of the most severely overlooked aspects of fitness. While many people are keen to get flatter abs and bigger biceps, it seems that flexibility very much takes a back seat if it gets considered at all.
This is a big mistake however, seeing as stretching can actually be hugely beneficial for our bodies in many ways and is more crucial today than ever before.
Unfortunately, most of us will spend our days in pretty much the same position for eight hours at a time. Of course I'm referring to the time we spend at work, which has us sitting at a desk with legs raised upwards the entire time while our shoulders are hunched over.
And when we do get away from the office and actually start using our bodies, our training often focusses on building strength in specific certain areas without considering how the whole thing needs to work as a whole.
The benefits of flexibility include, but are not limited to:
More dynamic movements
Better party tricks
Strength and physique developments when combined with a gym routine
Reduction in chronic pain
Increase in energy
So if you're feeling stiff, achy, tired and immobile it could be because you have lost a lot of flexibility. The solution? Get stretching. But how long does this take, and what's the best way to go about regaining your range of motion?
How Long for Better Flexibility?
One of the areas where we most commonly suffer a lack of flexibility is in the hamstrings. This isn't just a problem facing the Average Joes among us either it's also a common problem among certain athletes as a highly common cause of injury. So how long would it take you to stretch out the hamstrings and permanently increase flexibility?
The answer to this question will depend on various factors: how often you stretch for instance, and how well you stretch when you do. Genetics will also play an important role as well as your current level of flexibility.
According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), everyone should stretch each muscle group for 30 minutes at least three times a week in order to see the benefits. This is actually a lot of time when you think about it if you dedicated this same amount of time to exercise and strength training you would be in very impressive shape.
Reading around the web, it seems you can expect to start seeing noticeable changes within the first couple of weeks of stretching if you do it regularly enough (around five times a week) even if you aren't training for that 1.5 hours per week. If your aim is to be able to do full splits then you'll need to train for about two months, for at least 10 minutes a day. But again, everyone is different.
How Flexibility Works
When training your flexibility, it might be useful to know what precisely it is that you're training what is it that actually changes physically in the body when you focus on increasing your range of motion?
In fact, there's not one 'single' change that occurs in the body leading to flexibility, but several. When you stretch you affect not only the muscles surrounding the joints, but also the 'yellow' ligaments (we also have 'white ligaments' which don't stretch and aids in rigid structure). Tendons also do not stretch but there is another element in the form of 'stretch receptors'. Stretch receptors are nerves that send information to our muscles about contracting and relaxing (they are mechanoreceptors linked to the medulla of the brain). Essentially it's the stretch receptors that tell our muscles when to stop stretching because they're potentially at risk of causing damage. Thus, stretching over time also needs to help us to dampen these signals or at least to work through them and this can occur by regularly causing them to fire.
The Basics of Flexibility Training
If you are serious about gaining more flexibility, then this is something you should approach in a manner similar to any improvement in health and fitness. This means you should create a routine or a 'workout' and then repeat it regularly. This can be added to the start or end of a weightlifting workout or a cardio routine for convenience. Ideally you'll want to stretch for 10 to 20 minutes every other day to start seeing results.
On top of that, you can also find opportunities throughout the day to work on your flexibility. Waiting at the bus stop? Why not do some stretches? Or while you watch television in the evening?
You can find plenty of stretches to use by looking around the web and if you're struggling for inspiration, then you can try turning to yoga which includes a lot of stretches that are also great for balance and core strength. Find a selection that you like the looks of and that together will target every major muscle group and then work through them in a sequence, holding each position for about 20 seconds before moving on to the next. Don't 'bounce' into the movement ('ballistic stretching') or you risk causing injury.
How to Speed Up Flexibility Flexibility Tips
So with the basics in mind, how do you go about increasing flexibility faster? Here are some tips that can help you to fast-track your progress.
Don't Do Too Much Too Soon: If you're trying to fix an imbalance or you badly want to be able to do the splits, you might be tempted to try and 'force' your training to go faster by pushing your stretches harder. This is actually a mistake as it can lead to tears that actually slow down your recovery. In fact, you shouldn't really feel much pain at all while stretching. Slow and steady wins the race!
Nutrition: Drinking lots of water is crucial to improve flexibility and to prevent cramps. You also need to ensure you get enough potassium and sodium for the latter point. Protein is also important to help recovery just as it is for weightlifting while calcium can help to strengthen your connective tissue. Magnesium will help your body to make use of the calcium, while glucosamine will prevent the breakdown of cartilage. Essential fatty acids like cod liver oil can help to lubricate your joints while muscle relaxants such as ginger could also be useful.
Build Stretching Into Your Weight Training: If you don't like the sounds of doing workouts especially to increase your flexibility, then you can save yourself some time by incorporating your stretching regime into your weightlifting. This might mean doing a deeper lunge for instance. Note though that you should use a lighter weight. You can also do a stretch before each individual move as another alternative in order to build stretching into your lifting.
Warm Up First: Warming up before stretching is an important way to avoid an injury as you can otherwise tear your muscle. This is another good reason to build your stretches into your workouts. Interestingly though, there's actually no need to stretch prior to your workout according to the studies (1). So you warm up in order to stretch, you don't stretch as a form of warm up
Foam Rolling: Foam rolling is a form of 'self-myofascial release'. Essentially, this involves rolling on a foam cylinder or a tennis ball in order to remove fascial adhesions areas where the 'fascia' (a white film covering the muscles and holding everything in place) have become damaged and thus fused together reducing mobility and flexibility. This can also help you to remove knots and to speed up recovery after a tough workout or bout of stretching.
Next time you plan on doing some stretches, start out by rolling on a tennis ball and trying to get to the point where you get 'referred pain' shooting through your body. It should hurt, but also feel slightly relieving at the same time.
If you're not sure about rolling on a tennis ball, then a deep tissue massage may also help.
Incorporate Dynamic Stretching: Holding the poses as described above is an example of 'static stretching' static because you aren't moving during the stretch. We also mentioned that 'ballistic stretching' wasn't a good idea, but there is another option called 'dynamic stretching'. Dynamic stretching is basically moving through a movement by doing a bodyweight squat ATG (ass-to-grass) for instance. Another option is to try practicing high kicks. Don't force it too much, but this is a useful 'functional' form of stretching.