When a contortionist or a yoga master shows what they're capable of, it's hard not to be impressed by their amazing flexibility. Indeed, it's also hard not to consider how handy their impressive ranges of motion and abilities to stretch could be in daily life.
As with most improvements a person can make on their body, improving one's flexibility can take time to see results and care to ensure the efforts involved are undertaken safely. As such, anyone looking to increase the extent to which their muscles can stretch would do well to take these comprehensive, expert-informed tips under consideration.
What type of stretching is best for you?
Because while it may be understood that stretching is the most obvious way to improve flexibility, it takes some awareness to determine which type of stretching is appropriate for which fitness context.
For example, a 2015 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found instances where just using static stretches as opposed to more dynamic stretches that incorporate motion could result in some minor loss of strength during a workout.
Static stretching hones in on specific muscles
Even if the name is unfamiliar, the action likely is because it simply involves stretching a specific muscle by holding it at a range that makes it feel tense while standing or sitting. This stretching is then repeated as necessary.
In a 2012 study in the International Journey of Sports Physical Therapy, static stretching was determined to be an effective method for increasing flexibility and one's ability to extend muscles. But the researchers said that this finding was situational and the right circumstances for its effectiveness warrant further discussion.
Static stretching vs dynamic stretching
So what is dynamic stretching? This involves moving a specific muscle through its entire range of motion and repeating the process several times. For instance, a static stretch of an arm would involve holding it at a point of tension, while a dynamic stretch would involve making a circular motion between multiple points of tension.
The 2012 study in the International Journey of Sports Physical Therapy also identified dynamic stretches as effective for increasing flexibility and muscle extensibility, adding that this could depend on the specific workout a person is doing.
Benefits of pre-contraction stretching
Pre-contraction stretching is a somewhat advanced technique that involves contracting a target muscle rather than extending it. This technique then involves letting that muscle relax and passively stretch once the first position is held for long enough.
As with static and dynamic stretching, the 2012 study in the International Journey of Sports Physical Therapy identified pre-contraction stretching as an effective way to increase both a muscle's ability to extend and a person's overall flexibility. But the researchers involved also suggested this can depend on certain demographic information.
Slow and stready
As a 2012 study in the Journal of Human Kinetics explained, there used to be an alternate method that trainers recommended in decades past called ballistic stretching. This was like dynamic stretching, but involved rapid, alternating movements when exploring a muscle's range of motion.
However, that study's researchers found that ballistic stretching produces worse flexibility results than seen in pre-contraction methods. Worse yet, the 2012 study in the International Journey of Sports Physical Therapy concluded that this method also increases the risk of injury. Therefore, slow and steady wins the race here.
During dynamic stretching, there shouldn't be any "bouncing"
In addition to the speed involved, another feature of ballistic stretching concerned the tendency of an athlete to try and extend their stretch by bouncing toward the limits of their range of motion.
However, the researchers behind the 2012 study in the International Journey of Sports Physical Therapy advised against doing this due to the associated risk of injury. Even, fluid motions that stop once that limit is reached are preferred.
Train your flexibility 2-3 times a week
As the 2012 study in the International Journey of Sports Physical Therapy explained, that's the advice of the American College of Sports Medicine for stretching during a general fitness program.
That kind of commitment is sufficient for the benefits of working out in general and improving flexibility, but it's also just the minimum. Although athletes should avoid overexerting themselves, putting more time per week into this commitment is fine if it still feels sustainable.
Hold each stretch for 15-45 seconds at a time.
As the 2012 study in the International Journey of Sports Physical Therapy explained, the American College of Sports Medicine advises holding each static stretch or engaging in dynamic stretches for bursts lasting between 15 and 30 seconds.
A 2012 meta-analysis in the Journal of Aging Research concurs, stating that the longest a stretch should be held to achieve the most effective flexibility results without any drawbacks is 45 seconds.
If a stretch is held for as long as a minute, it can cause problems
Although the effect isn't considered dangerously significant, studies examined in the 2012 meta-analysis in the Journal of Aging Research avoided having participants hold specific stretches for any longer than 45 seconds due to the potential for strength lost during a workout.
Ignoring this recommendation hasn't been shown to directly hamper flexibility, but can make exercises unnecessarily harder.
Repetition is key
Just as a stretch needs to be held for a long enough time to have any likely impact on muscle flexibility, it must also be repeated while warming up for maximum effectiveness.
Specifically, the 2012 study in the International Journey of Sports Physical Therapy quotes the American College of Sports Medicine as recommending that athletes repeat each stretch two to four times.
Don't repeat a stretch more than four times
Although repeating one's stretches is considered an essential part of improving one's flexibility, that doesn't mean that an athlete will unlock additional benefits by repeating them more than the American College of Sports Medicine recommends.
According to the 2012 study in the International Journey of Sports Physical Therapy, no further increases in muscle elongation were observed in those who repeated their stretches more than four times at once. At best, those who do this are wasting time.
Older adults can break the rules during hamstring stretches
Hamstring stretches are an important part of maintaining leg flexibility, but research cited in the 2012 study in the International Journey of Sports Physical Therapy suggests that the usual recommendation for 15-45 second stretches may not apply to older adults.
Specifically, they found that holding a static hamstring stretch for 60 seconds encouraged greater flexibility among this age group than shorter holds did.
Stretching hips can improve flexibility in an important way.
In the 2012 study in the International Journey of Sports Physical Therapy, a brief mention is made of research suggesting that taking care of the muscles at the front of the hips (known as flexors) and those back towards the posterior (known as extensors) can benefit older adults.
Specifically, static stretches in these areas were found to have a potentially strong effect in improving gait while walking.
Don't forget the back.
One of the studies examined in the 2012 meta-analysis from the Journal of Aging Research had its participants engage in a regimen that included back extension stretches, as well as others that had them reach forward while sitting, rhythmically tuck their knees in, and lift their pelvic muscles at regular intervals.
Together, these exercises showed the study's authors encouraging signs that they could help maintain and possibly improve spinal mobility in the older adults involved.
Don't forget about your neck
And as the 2012 study from the International Journey of Sports Physical Therapy outlined, the reasons for this can go beyond just improving flexibility.
In this study, researchers cited another experiment that found that 12 months of static stretching for patients with chronic neck pain proved just as effective as physical therapy and strengthening exercises.
Strength training can help flexibility as much as stretching
In a 2015 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, researchers found that even in isolation, an exercise program that emphasized strength training also showed positive results for study participants' flexibility over the course of 16 weeks.
So whether people in the gym realize it or not, the weight training they're doing to build muscles is also helping to make them more flexible.
Keep in mind: flexibility training does not make muscles longer
In the 2012 study from the International Journey of Sports Physical Therapy, researchers discussed an earlier study suggesting that eight weeks of static stretching increased the physical capacity of a body's muscles to stretch.
But the researchers in 2012 agreed with the earlier study's findings that such a regimen would increase a person's range of motion; they introduced other research suggesting that it had more to do with a body's tolerance to stretching than anything. So when flexibility improves, it essentially unlocks capabilities the body already had.
Cool-downs are just as important as warm-ups for flexibility.
When the researchers behind the 2012 study from the International Journey of Sports Physical Therapy examined the effectiveness of pre-contraction stretching in improving a person's range of motion, they also confirmed an ideal time to do it.
Because these techniques involve stretching passively after contracting a given muscle, they were considered ideal for the cooldown period of "relaxation stretching" after a workout. In the process, those findings also supported the utility of including a cooldown period.
Combine different types of stretches
According to a 2012 study in the Journal of Human Kinetics, pre-contraction stretching was linked to decreases in muscle performance when they were introduced in the warm-up period before a workout but found to increase performance when conducted after.
This finding accords well with the conclusions of the researchers behind the 2012 study from the International Journey of Sports Physical Therapy, who recommended engaging in static or dynamic stretches during the workout's warm-up period. However, deciding which is the better choice could depend on an athlete's demographic.
Stretching the trunk muscles will likely help with spinal mobility
According to the 2012 study in the International Journey of Sports Physical Therapy, trunk stretches like the forward fold shown here were shown to increase spinal mobility in older adults after about ten weeks of incorporating them into warm-up exercises.
Spinal mobility refers to both the flexibility of the relevant muscles and the range of motion a spine can accommodate. The 2012 meta-analysis in the Journal of Aging Research also found that regular flexibility training of this kind could reduce the effects of aging on the spine.
Men and older adults under 65 should try contraction stretching
Although it remains unclear why this is for the time being, the researchers behind the 2012 study from the International Journey of Sports Physical Therapy found that stretches that contract and then relax a given muscle may work better for men and older adults under 65.
The data their study gathered suggested that such exercises could be more effective at increasing flexibility among this group than among other demographics.
Women and older adults over 65 should try static stretching
For women and older adults over 65, the 2012 study from the International Journey of Sports Physical Therapy concluded that it was likely a good idea to include static stretches into workout routines.
Because just as pre-contraction stretching was found to be more effective when the same demographic was below the age of 65, static stretching began to show more effective results once that age threshold was crossed.
Dynamic stretching is useful for higher-intensity workouts
Although static and pre-contraction stretching was found to decrease muscle performance if paired ineffectively with certain workouts, the 2012 study from the International Journey of Sports Physical Therapy found the same was not true for dynamic stretching.
For that reason, the use of dynamic stretching to improve flexibility is considered most effective when paired with workouts that incorporate a lot of running or jumping, such as sprinting or playing basketball.
Remember not to overstretch
A 2012 meta-analysis in the Journal of Aging Research examined a litany of studies, and all of them made a point of having their subjects stretch only to the point where a painless tension is felt. And it's important to stay conscious of that threshold as flexibility improves.
Because as the researchers behind the 2012 study in the Journal of Human Kinetics outlined, the tendons become more adaptable and accustomed to accepting more force as the body becomes more flexible. However, this can make it easier to stretch to the point of injury without realizing it, so be mindful of overextension.
In the 2012 meta-analysis in the Journal of Aging Research, one trend becomes abundantly clear from each of the studies examined. And that's that each of the studies that saw measurable improvements in their subjects' flexibility took place over the course of 8-12 weeks at minimum.
It takes a significant amount of time for the muscles to adjust the amount of stretching they're willing to tolerate, so it's worth knowing that any progress will appear gradually over the course of multiple weeks.
Yoga can only help improve flexibility
A 2016 study in the International Journal of Yoga found that participants who incorporated yoga into their flexibility training for ten weeks saw greater flexibility results than those who didn't.
Those who trained in yoga for that time also saw greater benefits to their balance by the time those 10 weeks were over.
The Right Foot Lunge yoga position helps a hard-to-stretch area
According to a 2016 study in the International Journal of Yoga, research subjects who practiced this yoga position for ten weeks could bend their ankles back further once that term was over than those who engaged in flexibility training without yoga.
Researchers also found that this position gave the yoga test group a better chance to stretch their posterior shank muscles.
The downward dog yoga position is just great for the body
As the authors of the 2016 study in the International Journal of Yoga explained, research subjects in the yoga test group were able to significantly improve the range of motion in their hips, knees, and shoulders after practicing the downward dog position for ten weeks.
Furthermore, they also showed greater flexibility in their hamstrings and lower back muscles by the time the experiment was over.
The chair yoga position is great for the lower body
In a 2016 study in the International Journal of Yoga, participants who practiced the chair position for ten weeks saw greater flexibility in their knees as a result of doing this.
And while this was also true for those who didn't do yoga in the study, the strain on these subjects' shoulders suggested that the yoga test group achieved these results just by keeping an engaged lower body.
With all of these tools and tips in mind, find out what works!
The ultimate conclusion of the 2012 study from the International Journey of Sports Physical Therapy suggested that while many of the stretches discussed here are potentially helpful, their effectiveness seems to depend on the individual patient.
So the best way to improve one's flexibility is to carefully try out each technique and out them together until the right combination is found. From there, just keep practicing them.