A Guide to Increasing Flexibility: Eliminate Pain, Increase Agility and Improve Your Physique

By on October 15, 2014

Here’s an admission: I used to think that stretching was for little girls… I have always been interested in performance, strength and fitness, but for some reason flexibility just didn’t appeal. The splits look cool, but are they really worth the hours of stretching? When you could be lifting? And I was especially sure of this opinion when research showed that stretching before a workout didn’t actually prevent your likelihood of injury (1, 2, 3).

So stretching was off my radar. But then I started getting a little older (I’m 27, so only a little) and I found myself becoming achy, stiff and sore. Generally I just wasn’t as quick or agile as I used to be and everything hurt. Backache became a severe complaint as did energy levels and motivation generally.

This is roughly when my training goals went from ‘being incredibly strong’, to ‘being full of energy and power’. And that’s when I became interesting in stretching again. And did you know, that by stretching, you can not only reduce pain, but also fix your posture, progress faster in the gym, increase energy and even get taller?

How to Fix Your Anterior Pelvic Tilt – Reduce Back Pain, Flatten Abs and Get Taller!

My curiosity was rewarded when I discovered I had an anterior pelvic tilt. This meant that my hip flexors (illiacus, psoas major, quads) were too short/tight and my extensors (glutes and hamstrings) had become stretched and weak. There’s a good chance you have the same problem as it comes from sitting long hours – during which time your legs are raised and glutes are crushed thereby stretching and weakening the extensors while shortening the flexors.

This anterior pelvic tilt is nasty, because it causes your pelvis to ‘tip’ forward, in turn causing your gut to stick out and your butt to protrude as well. Even if you have low body fat, an anterior pelvic tilt can make you look fat. At the same time, it will reduce your overall height and cause nasty back pain.

When I learned this, I used a combination of self-myofascial release (foam rolling) and stretching to solve the problem. It also helped that I started ‘straddling’ my chairs (with the legs hanging over either side) in order to reduce the effects of prolonged sitting. If you get lower back pain and struggle to get rid of your paunch, then try doing the same. You may just have solved all of your problems! A standing thigh stretch, upward dog and bridge are the stretches you’ll want to use (see below). Stomach vacuums are also useful for repairing a pelvic tilt.

And as flexibility started to return, I realized that I felt more energetic, healthier, stronger and generally better than I had done for a long time. Even my parkour improved as I was able to get my legs higher during vaults and hurdles. It’s one of those things that you don’t really notice because it creeps up on you… but most of us are really stiff.

flexibility jump

Flexibility for Bodybuilders

For bodybuilders, flexibility is actually super important. If you’re training muscles to get stronger, then you’re also training them to exert more force on your joints and to become stiffer and more difficult to move. Likewise, it’s all too easy with isolation training to accidentally create an imbalance that can lead to all kinds of issues.

On the other hand, training your muscles with a wider range of motion (ROM) because you have more flexibility, will mean you can cause more microtears and thus trigger more hypertrophy. It also significantly decreases the chances of creating a muscle tear. On top of that, this study suggests that simply doing flexibility training alone will increase your strength during lifts (4)… now I’ve got your attention! In terms of aesthetics, having the correct posture makes all the difference for showing off your musculature.

In one of the studies I mentioned earlier, it said that stretching before a workout could actually make you feel ‘unsteady’ and didn’t reduce the risk of injury. So that’s not what this is about – stretching isn’t a warm up, but a separate workout of its own that will help you to develop your overall physical aptitude.

How Stretching Works to Improve Flexibility

When you stretch, what is actually happening? What is physically changing in your body?

Well, the precise mechanism is not 100% understood (as with hypertrophy), but it appears that regular stretching gradually increases the elasticity of two things: the muscles surrounding your joints and the yellow ligaments. There are actually two types of ligaments, yellow and white, but the white kind are used for support more and do not stretch). Likewise tendons are not flexible. Stretching also seems to increase collagen synthesis interestingly (5).

Another element in all this are ‘stretch receptors’. These are ‘mechanoreceptors’ made from two parts (spindle cells and golgi tendons) that signal when a muscle is getting stretched and fire in order to warm us, triggering pain. It is believed that over time, practice reduces the sensitivity of these receptors – so in some ways increased flexibility is at least in part the result of improved pain tolerance (the degree to which this is the case is an issue). Either way, if pain receptors become less sensitive, that’s good news for us!

Can You Become Double Jointed?

Another factor that influences your flexibility is your joints themselves, where variations in the bones can actually lead to more or less movement. In some cases this leads to ‘hypermobility’ or ‘double jointedness’. Some people can bend their thumbs backwards, while other people can fold themselves into small balls and climb into the washing machine.

It’s impossible to change the shape of your bones without injuring them (not a good thing), so generally you can’t ‘become’ double jointed. That said though, the concept is actually quite arbitrary and ill-defined, so if you become extremely flexible in other ways, this might count as double jointed at parties.

Of course someone who can fold their whole body in half probably doesn’t have oddly shaped bones throughout their entire body. In these cases, hypermobility can be the result of having particularly stretchy ligaments. This can be the result of having excess ‘elastin’ (a type of protein) in your system, or extra collagen. Women are extra flexible just prior to giving birth due to a hormone called ‘relaxin’ which actually expands the pelvis. Women are also generally more flexible than men, due to estrogen’s ability to promote collagen and elastin production. This is another point to consider for bodybuilders who are trying desperately to reduce their estrogen – it’s not all bad!

How to Increase Flexibility Through Stretching

The main way to increase flexibility is with stretching. Practice stretching for about 10 minutes a day (or every other day) and you should start to notice a difference over time.

There are three main types of stretching, which include:

Static Stretching: Here you put yourself into a position where you’re stretching and then just hold that pose for about 8-20 seconds. You should be stretching just beyond the point where it’s comfortable, but not so hard that it ‘hurts’ or you can cause damage that will ultimately set you back. This is the main type of stretching you see people using and it’s what should form the bread and butter of your own flexibility regime.

Dynamic Stretching: Dynamic stretching involves doing things like high kicks in order to stretch through a movement. This is a good way to increase proprioception and to push past your usual limitations when stretching – but it’s not going to result in noticeable changes as quickly. This is more useful for athletes or martial artists looking to improve particularly abilities – probably not so much for the ‘average Joe’.

Ballistic Stretching: Ballistic training is the training that involves ‘bouncing’ into a movement. This used to be how a lot of coaches got their teams to stretch, but then it came to light that it could actually cause injuries and even negatively affect strength in a workout (6), so don’t be doing that one!

So static stretches are the other of the day and a great place to find them is yoga. Each morning I’ve been practicing upward dog, downward facing dog, three legged dog, mountain pose, warrior pose, triangle pose… and I feel tons better for it.

You can find lists of stretches all around the web and I might upload some here in future (I feel like I need to be better at them myself first). In the meantime though, feel free to refer to my rather crude notes that I’ve taken in OneNote below.

stretching-yoga-posesstretching-yoga-poses2

How Long Does it Take to Improve Flexibility?

How long it’s going to take you to increase your flexibility will vary depending on how dedicated you are, your current level of fitness and genetic factors. As I say though, you should aim to train daily or every other day at least and if you do this you should start to notice differences fairly quickly at around two weeks.

If you’re ambition is slightly greater and you’re trying to reach the splits, then you might be looking at a couple of months of training 15-20 minutes if you’re starting from a good base. In my own experience, I can tell you it only took a couple of days for my back pain to be significantly reduced.

Top Tips to Speed Up Flexibility Training

If you want to get more flexible more quickly though, then you need to throw everything at it. Thus, there are a few tricks that might help you to see progress quicker:

  • Drink plenty of water and consume plenty of sodium and potassium to avoid cramping
  • Consume extra protein to help your muscles and ligaments recover from damage
  • Use self-myofascial release (foam rolling) to break down scar tissue, knots and fascial adhesions that can also reduce flexibility. If discomfort has come on suddenly, this could be the cause.
  • Warm up before stretching in order to make your muscles more malleable and to avoid injury
  • Add gelatin, vitamin C and vitamins B and E to your diet to increase collagen and elastin production
  • Calcium and magnesium may also help to strengthen joints and ligaments, while muscle-relaxants such as ginger could also have acute benefits.
  • Stretch casually when convenient – while waiting for the bus or using your laptop on the carpet for instance

All this will help you to improve your chances of gaining flexibility quickly and enjoying more energy, less pain, better posture and increased strength and agility. The real trick though is simply to stretch often, so consider adding some yoga to routine and experience the benefits for yourself!

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

4 Comments

  1. Vojtech says:

    Hey Adam, great info! What type or stretching exercises can one use for arms? I use to play a drum a lot (hours daily), do you have some specific tactics to strenghten the arm joints so I wont overuse them within several years 🙂

    • thebioneer says:

      Hey Vojtech, thanks a lot! A couple of the yoga moves in the illustrations will help arm flexibility (like reverse warrior), but I think the main thing you’d probably be looking at for drumming would be wrist stretches. Just gently pulling your hand back with a straight arm (both ways – so fingers point up and then down) is what I’ve generally seen – but make sure not to overdo it! I also wrote an article on grip strength and forearm training which may be relevant, you can find it here: https://www.thebioneer.com/the-weak-link-how-to-increase-forearm-and-grip-strength/

      Good luck and thanks for reading!

      • Vojtech says:

        Adam, thanks for the tips, too! I will try the rock climbing definitelly, it is great technique and combined with stretching it can make miracles. Also I like your point that we have very good base and potential in our forearms but its very underused these days.

        Adam, please check out your inbox if you get by and got some time, I have sent you a mail regarding ambidexterity research and cooperation 🙂

        • thebioneer says:

          Hey Vojtech, no problem! And yeah I recommend it, it’s great fun. Thanks for the e-mail, am taking a look now 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.