Wish you could touch your toes? Interlace your fingers behind your back with straight arms? Sit in iconic lotus pose?
I hear you.
Toe-touching has always been easy for me. But it took months of stretching to open my chest and shoulders enough so I could achieve interlacing my fingers behind my back. And I will never be able to do lotus pose, my progress toward it barely noticeable two decades later.
Turns out there’s good reason for both my inherent and attained flexibility, and lack thereof. Same goes for you. Understanding a few key aspects of your body will help you be more forgiving of however flexible you are, or aren’t, and help you work toward a realistic and healthy level of flexibility.
Physical flexibility is important (up to a certain point; more on that in a sec). For one, if you can efficiently move your body, you’re more apt to move it in general, which, obviously, is good for your health. Adequate flexibility also helps your skeletal system stay properly aligned so that you can avoid back pain, neck pain and all kinds of chronic discomfort. It also makes you less prone to injury. A good level of flexibility even lets you breathe better, which has a tremendous effect on your nervous system.
First, let’s clear up two misconceptions about flexibility:
Myth No. 1
Tight muscles are the main inhibitor of flexibility.
Muscles play a role, sure. But muscle fibers aren’t the only tissues at play. Fibers surrounding and within your muscles, known as fascia, play a huge role. Through stretching and exercise, you’re able to affect your muscles and your muscular fascia in order to increase flexibility—but, as you’ll learn in a moment, the nature of your individual fascia contributes to your starting point.
Another important factor in flexibility is the individual way your bones and joints are woven, along with the individual nature of the connective tissue at your joints. For example, some people’s pelvic structure makes it difficult for them to externally rotate their femurs in order to sit comfortably in a cross-legged position (and forget lotus pose—hello!), or, conversely, to bend their knees and internally rotate their femurs in order to sit their hips down comfortably between their feet. You can’t overhaul your bone structure in order to increase flexibility.
Myth No. 2
There’s no downside to being flexible, only to being stiff.
Flexibility and stability counter each other on a spectrum. Generally, the more flexible someone is, the less stable their joints are. And the less flexible someone is, the more stable their joints are. Ideally, you want a good balance between flexibility and stability.
Next, work toward finding your own flexibility sweet spot:
Now that we’ve touched on some basics, it’s time to assess your baseline flexibility. A safe and accurate way to do so is through Beighton tests. Try this one: Reach an arm ahead and bend its elbow so that its fingers are ahead of your gaze and your palm faces down. Now use your other hand to gently draw the thumb of your outstretched arm toward its corresponding forearm. The closer your thumb gets to your forearm, the more naturally flexible you are and the looser your fascia is. The farther your thumb is from your forearm, the less naturally flexible you are and the stiffer your fascia is.
If you’re already very flexible—have hypermobility in your joints—you probably need to work on building strength to increase stability rather than on becoming more flexible.
But if your test shows you’re naturally stiffer, stretching can help.
Here are two guidelines to help you stretch safely and effectively:
Stretch every day, if you can
We’re not talking gymnastics-level stretching. Instead, stretch in ways that feel good to you. Stretching is natural: Your cat does it, babies do it, you automatically do it after being in one position for a long time.
To increase your flexibility, be intentional about stretching. Set aside time for a 10-minute stretching routine, or weave it in whenever you can—simply get up from your computer and get bendy.
Again, we’re not talking gymnastics-level stretching. Don’t try to do splits or intense backbends (unless you know you’re at that level). Your stretches should feel delicious, no stabbing pain involved, and if anything goes numb or tingles, back off. You should feel sensation toward the middle of your muscles, not near joints, and be able to breathe normally. Hold your stretches for as long as you’d like.
Of course, there are many styles (dynamic, static, etc.) and schools of thought on stretching, including some that eschew certain types of stretching altogether. For example, one type of stretching is done in cooler temperatures and positions are held for 3-plus minutes, at a mild level of discomfort—Yin yoga, which targets dense connective tissue in order to strengthen it, assisting with joint health, a factor that can aid flexibility. You certainly can try more complex types of stretching like that, but if you feel unsure about them, stick to what feels natural and delicious, and then notice whether there’s a difference in your ranges of motion after several weeks and then after several months.
Yoga teacher and former Yoga Journal editor Mitra Malek has worked with many anatomy and stretching experts over the years. Her thumb gets about 3 inches from her forearm in her Beighton test.