Gender, body type, age, prior injury, and sedentarism all play a role in impacting level of flexibility. The most important factor for flexibility, however, is the use of the joint itself.
In other words, the more often a joint is exercised and brought through its normal range of motion, chances are it will be more flexible.
When asked about flexibility and stretching, most of us associate it with injury prevention or pain relief. From an injury-prevention standpoint, the theory is that dynamic stretching before a workout or game followed by a static stretch afterwards can improve flexibility and thus reduce injury.
Actually, research tends to be conflicted on the subject. A literature review on 6 randomized trials and cohort studies concluded that, in fact, injury reduction was not significantly greater for stretching specific muscles or multiple muscle groups compared to those who did not stretch at all.
Impaired flexibility may feel as if the joint or muscle is stiff or tight. For example, inflexible hamstrings and hip flexors typically feel tight and can reduce forward flexion at the hips. Essentially, the joint feels like it cannot move as far as it should.
Of course, there are other benefits of flexibility. Flexibility exercises have the potential to improve postural stability, balance, and circulation, which all play an increasingly important role as we age. Flexibility can also improve joint and muscle health, as well as improve physical performance in activities of daily living and in sports.
Luckily, there are several ways to increase flexibility and achieve its many benefits.
8 helpful tips that can help improve flexibility
- Improve muscle strength. Strengthening the muscles around the joint will help stabilize the joint and can actually improve the flexibility around that joint.
- Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF). PNF is a common technique used by physical therapists and other fitness professionals. This technique triggers the myotatic reflex of a muscle, which involves a simultaneous stretching of the target muscle and contraction of the opposing muscle. In doing so, flexibility and range of motion is increased at the target area.
- Practice yoga regularly. Yoga tends to improve flexibility with regular weekly practice (not to mention a great way to burn calories, increase muscle mass, promote relaxation, and improve posture).
- Drink lots of water. Water not only acts as a cushion for tissues and organs but also allows fascia to glide smoothly across our muscles. When we are dehydrated, we hinder our range of motion and flexibility.
- Breathing techniques. Performing deep breathing during a stretch allows for adequate delivery of oxygen to muscles, and also improves circulation to muscles and tissues.
- Apply topical relief to sore muscles. Often, muscles become sore and temporarily less flexible when they are worked hard during exercise. To help reduce soreness and expedite return of flexibility, try applying an Arnica gel for fast relief.
- Avoid stretching to pain. Stretches should feel as if light tension is placed on the muscle. Taking a muscle past its absolute length may put undue pressure on the ligaments and tendons, and can lead to a strain (an injury to the muscle or tendon). Pain is typically the first sign that indicates the stretch has gone too far.
- Don’t bounce stretching. Bouncing your muscles in their stretched position can cause muscle injury by overstretching.