You’re probably thinking why does she blog again about flexibility training? Hasn’t she just written about yoga practice to improve flexibility? Yes, I have, but this time I want to point out some interesting research about the benefits of flexibility training and how much time we should spend doing it. And no, I don’t mean the 5 minutes – maximum – of half hearted stretching after a resistance training session. I mean proper flexibility training, like a full session of yin yoga or a similar stretching programme.
We know that a flexible body helps us move better and more efficiently. A more flexible body is less likely to get injured. It improves athletic performance. A study has found that tight hip flexors result in less gluteus maximus activation – which could stop you from hitting your squat PB.1
That’s why athletes focus on it. Tight hip flexors are also recognized as a risk factor for various musculoskeletal injuries in the lower extremities, such as knees and hamstrings.2
We also know that flexibility improves our posture and helps with muscle imbalances and back pain for example.
Flexibility training also becomes more important as we age. Fall rates increase with age. As we get older we use our muscles differently (and mostly less) and our strength and power declines. Our neural processing gets slower, we lose balance more easily. Research by Bird et al. has shown that flexibility training in older untrained adults helps improve balance just as much as resistance training.3
While we all know the benefits of flexibility training, most of us neglect it. I certainly have been guilty of this until recently – until the lockdown actually. But not being able to go to the gym actually gave me the chance to take a closer look at my body and address some issues I had – uneven shoulders for one, a left hamstring niggle another one. Flexibility – or better the lack thereof – in general was another concern. That’s why I started doing yin yoga daily as I wrote about in my previous blog.
If I have learnt one thing in these 70 days of daily yoga it’s this: Although a limber body is a great advantage, it requires a lot of consistence and dedication. My hamstring niggle was gone about a month after doing regular deep hamstring stretches. But my right shoulder for example is still tighter than my left after 70 days – although the gap is narrowing. And the splits? I begin to think this may take years.
It’s important to remember not to go too hard too quick. Our muscles are like rubber bands, if we stretch them too far too soon they can snap – get injured. And advice number one in stretching (yoga or any kind of exercise, really) is to always listen to your body. If it hurts, then stop. Have a rest in child’s pose and go back into the stretch, slowly. Sometimes it also helps to change position slightly – without compromising your body’s alignment.
The most important thing in increasing flexibility is a daily routine. It’s like practicing an instrument. Daily practice is important. Start by incorporating stretching in your workouts, and do at least 20 minutes. Depending on how often you exercise, try to do stretching-only sessions. Yin yoga is great for that. A full hour of yin yoga where you hold each stretch for 5 minutes can really improve your flexibility. Thanks to these one hour sessions my seated wide legged forward fold has gone from barely able to lean forward to getting my elbows to the ground within one month. This is the best way to make good progress in a short period of time.
A good test to see if you make progress is the good old “touch your toes” stretch (without bending your knees of course).
There are different ways of stretching (like static or dynamic) which I am not going into detail here. However, it is important that you stretch not only the areas where you know you have tightness. To achieve overall flexibility and balance your entire body needs a well thought-through stretching programme. One of the best ways to get into stretching and have someone show you how to properly do it is joining a yoga class – for beginners. All you need is a mat and some comfortable clothes.
But however long it takes, the great thing about increasing flexibility is the process. However small, there is progress. Of course, there are better days and worse days. Like in any kind of training. We’re not hitting PBs every time we work out. But the gradual improvement, the travelling of centimeter by centimeter further out of toes and fingertips is very rewarding. I enjoy the spiritual aspect of that – it’s the journey that’s the most enjoyable. Of course, once you achieve your goal of the splits, the crow or the scorpion, this will make for a great party trick too.
As with everything in life though – if you don’t use it you lose it. So once you have improved your flexibility, you have to keep at it. It’s like any exercise program – it’s a lifestyle choice.
1 Matthew Mills et al., Effect of Restricted Hip Flexor Muscle Length on Hip Extensor Muscle Activity and Lower Extremity Biomechanics in College-Aged Female Soccer Players, International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 2015, 946-954
2 Hussain I Younis Aslan et al., Acute Effects of Two Hip Flexor Stretching Techniques on Knee Joint Position Sense and Balance, International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 2018, 846-859
3 Marie-Louise Bird, Keith Hill, Madeleine Ball, and Andrew D. Williams, Effects of Resistance- and Flexibility- Exercise Interventions on Balance and Related Measures in Older Adults, Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, 2009, 17, 444-454,