It’s always been equal parts fun, fascinating, and a little shocking to watch a contortionist perform at an acrobatics show. However, you don’t need to be able to flip your feet over your head to gain the benefits of improved flexibility. Adding a small amount of static stretching to your daily routine can help your body become more limber and even ease the pain of tight muscles. If you want to become more flexible and improve your overall mobility, learn about the best stretches for flexibility.
What Is Flexibility?
What, exactly, is flexibility? According to the sports medicine department of UC Davis, flexibility is “the ability of a joint or series of joints to move through an unrestricted, pain-free range of motion.” Good flexibility doesn’t just mean pliant muscles. It also encompasses your ligaments, tendons, joint capsules, and skin as well.
Flexibility varies from person to person, and a single person can enjoy good flexibility in some muscles while also possessing extremely tight muscles in other areas of their body. For example, you may be able to touch your toes, which indicates flexible hamstrings, while struggling with the butterfly stretch, which may mean your hip flexors and groin are tight.
Fortunately, every person can learn how to increase their flexibility by regularly performing stretches. Before you learn stretching exercises for flexibility, it helps to understand why flexibility can be so beneficial to your quality of life.
What Are the Benefits of Increased Flexibility?
Static stretching (holding a stretch for a length of time) has taken a hit to its reputation recently. Research has shown that static stretching before physical activity doesn’t immediately improve performance. Does this mean we should stop stretching altogether?
No. In fact, dynamic stretching before working out is a great way to warm up muscles. Static stretching also has its place in your wellness routine. However, instead of performing static stretches just before physical activity, focus on static stretching as a way to increase your flexibility.
Being more flexible does offer you a variety of benefits. According to UC Davis Health, performing regular or daily stretches for flexibility can:
- Improve your athletic performance over time
- Decrease the risk of injury
- Increase the supply of blood and nutrients to your joints
- Increase your joint mobility by bringing more joint fluid to your joints
- Improve neuromuscular coordination (i.e., body awareness)
- Reduce muscular tightness
- Help recirculate blood
So, if stretching just before physical activity isn’t such a hot idea, how should you perform stretches to increase flexibility?
How to Create a Stretching Routine
In order to become more flexible, you have to… stretch! That much is obvious, but if you really want to see results, you’ll need to incorporate a regular or even daily stretching routine into your wellness training.
Be Consistent and Have Patience
Flexibility is not something that changes overnight. Be patient. It will likely take weeks before you see improvement. The more consistent you are in performing your stretching routine, the more quickly you’ll notice a positive change.
Find Time for Your Stretching Routine
For the best results, you should perform daily stretches for flexibility, but that may not be feasible or practical for many people. Instead, make a goal that you can handle, such as stretching three times a week. Adding your stretches to another part of your existing routine could be a great way to adopt the exercise habit quickly.
Make Sure Your Muscles Are Warm Before Stretching
Trying to stretch with cold muscles will not only feel uncomfortable but could result in injury. A perfect time to perform static stretches is just after you’ve completed your workout. Your muscles will be warm, flexible, and primed for stretching. Otherwise, make sure to do a warmup before stretching cold muscles.
Stretch All Your Major Muscle Groups
If the only stretch you perform is a sitting forward fold, then your hamstring flexibility will likely increase, but what about the rest of your muscles? Not so much. To really enjoy the benefits of improved flexibility, make sure to stretch each of your major muscle groups. It’s also a good idea to try different stretches to work your muscles, tendons, and joints in different ways.
One of the biggest mistakes new stretchers make is not holding a stretch long enough. When you first start, try holding each stretch for 30 seconds. As the stretch feels more comfortable, see if you can hold each stretch for a full minute. You can take breaks, but make sure not to “bounce” as you stretch.
Don’t Overdo It
You may be tempted to push your stretch as far as you can handle, but this could lead to injury. Instead, stretch slowly and gently, moving just to the point of slight discomfort. Stop here. Do not stretch until you’re in pain. Breathe through the stretch. If you’d like, you can rest a second and then resume the stretch, seeing if you can comfortably move a little farther.
You’re more likely to stick with your stretching routine if you learn to enjoy the process. Focus on your breathing during your stretching and be with your body. Stretching can be very relaxing or even meditative. By being mindful during stretching, you’ll derive both physical and mental benefits from the experience. Turn stretching into you time and celebrate all that your body does for you.
Best Stretches for Flexibility
Before you begin your stretches for flexibility, make sure your muscles are warm. Protect your knees, elbows, and other joints by stretching on a mat or a towel. You may wish to play soothing music. Finally, don’t forget to breathe through your stretches.
1. Seated Forward Fold
How: Start in a sitting position with your legs stretched out in front of you. Gently fold forward, reaching for your toes. Keep your spine straight and avoid rounding your back. Try to touch your nose to your knees. Bend your knees as needed.
Targets: Hamstrings, lower back
How: Start in a seated position. Bring the soles of your feet together and toward your body with your knees bent to each side. Hold your feet with both hands and gently fold forward over your lap.
Targets: Lower back, groin, hips
3. Kneeling Hip Stretch
How: Kneel with one knee back and one knee forward (like you are proposing). Keep the back knee under your hip, then press the back hip forward. You should feel a nice stretch in your hips. Switch sides and repeat. This is an excellent exercise for anyone who sits for work or school and experiences tight hips.
Targets: Hip flexors, quads, groin
4. Child’s Pose
How: Begin on your knees. Your feet should be behind you, with the bottom of your feet facing upward. Slowly sit your hips back and fold your chest forward toward the ground. Stretch your arms in front of your body. Slide your knees apart to sink deeper into the stretch.
Targets: Shoulders, upper back, hips
5. Downward Facing Dog
How: Begin on your hands and knees. Gently press up through your toes, lift your knees off the ground, and straighten your legs as your hands remain on the floor or mat. Press back with your hips in the air, straightening your legs as much as possible, forming an upside down “V” shape. To get an extra calf stretch, lift one heel and press the opposite heel into the ground. Switch legs.
Targets: Hamstrings, calves, upper back
6. Seated Twist
How: Start in a seated position with your feet in front of you, toes pointed upward. Bend one knee. Twist your upper body toward that knee and place your opposite elbow on the outside of the bent knee. Your other hands can be placed on the floor behind you as a kickstand, to avoid hunching and to keep your chest and back lifted. If you’d like, press your elbow against your knee to get a deeper stretch. Switch sides and repeat.
Targets: Lower and mid-back
7. Standing Quad Stretch
How: Begin in a standing position. You may wish to place a hand on the wall or a chair for balance. Carefully raise your right leg behind you and grab your ankle with your right hand. Gently pull your heel toward your glutes until you feel a nice stretch in your quads. Switch sides and perform with the other leg.
Targets: Quads and hip flexors
8. Standing Back Chest Stretch
How: Begin in a standing position. Clasp your arms behind your back. Press your shoulder blades together and gently raise your arms.
Targets: Chest, shoulders
9. Neck Stretch
How: Reach over your head with your right hand until your fingers are close to your left ear. Very gently pull your head toward your right shoulder. This is an excellent stretch for anyone who stares at a computer or phone screen all day. To deepen the stretch, sit in a chair and hold onto the edge of the chair with your left hand. Repeat this stretch on your other side.
Targets: Neck and traps
10. Wrist Stretch
How: Begin on all fours on a mat or soft surface. (You may also wish to place a folded towel under your hands.) Carefully flip your hands so that the backs of your hands are on the mat and your fingers are facing your body. Gently use your body to add weight to this stretch. You can stretch both wrists together or one at a time. Another variation is to keep your palms on the ground and turn your hands so that your fingers point toward your body. This is a good stretch for anyone who types a lot during the day.
Time to Get Stretching
These are only a handful of stretching exercises for flexibility, but they can offer a good start as you begin to build your stretching routine. If any stretch doesn’t feel right, switch it out for a different one. The beauty of stretching is that there are all kinds of stretches to increase flexibility for every part of your body. A great way to add more stretches to your collection is to take a stretch-based class. Stretching is something you can also easily do at home with the help of on-demand stretching and mobility classes.
EōS Fitness offers a range of flexibility-based classes, including Yoga, Tai Chi, and Gentle Stretch, just to name a few.