How to Increase Your Flexibility and Range of Motion
7 tips for improving your flexibility and ROM even when you think you can’t improve your flexibility.
by Brad Walker | First Published March 27, 2012 | Updated May 6, 2020
Does this sound familiar? Is your flexibility stuck, and nothing you do makes any difference?
If so, don’t panic. This is quite normal. In fact it’s very common with all aspects of physical fitness, not just flexibility. Athletes from all different sports often talk about reaching a “plateau,” where one aspect of their fitness seems to get stuck.
How to Improve Your Flexibility
Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do to increase your flexibility; even if you feel like you’ve tried everything? Here are 7 of the best tips; guaranteed to smash through that plateau and take you to a whole new level of flexibility.
1. Injury Equals Poor Flexibility
Injuries, whether tears, sprains, strains, aches, pains, niggles, twinges or sore spots, will quickly put a stop to your flexibility hopes and dreams.
Any time you have an injury of any kind (even one you don’t realize you’ve got), your body recognizes that as a weak link in the chain and will tighten the surrounding muscles. This is your body’s protective defense mechanism to prevent further damage to the injured tissues and their surrounding structures.
This is not limited to the tissues that have been injured. An injury in your back for example, will often prevent you from improving flexibility in your hamstring or calf muscles. An injury in your hips or knees may prevent you from improving flexibility in your shoulders or upper back.
Tip #1: Work hard to get rid of all injuries, including tears, sprains, strains, and especially aches, pains, niggles, twinges, and sore spots.
2. Mobilize and Manipulate then Stretch
To get the best results from stretching it’s important that the joints and associated soft tissues are prepared for the stretching they’re about to receive. To do this use gentle mobilization exercises and joint manipulations before stretching.
These can include traction (gentle pulling on a limb or body part to open up the joint), vibration, shaking, joint rotations, massage (with your own fingers, a lacrosse ball, a massage stick, or other massage tool), trigger point work and foam rolling.
Tip #2: Loosen up the joint and surrounding tissues first with gentle mobilization and joint manipulation before stretching.
3. Strength v’s Flexibility
You may be thinking: What’s strength got to do with flexibility? Well, quite a bit. In fact, strength and flexibility are much related. Or should I say; interrelated.
The flexibility of a muscle is very dependent on the strength of that muscle: Especially, strength at the end ranges of motion. It’s like your body won’t let you go past a certain level of flexibility until it knows you have the muscle strength to handle that improved range of motion.
Muscle strength is critical to joint stability, so if you’re trying to improve your flexibility around a particular joint, but the muscles that stabilize that joint are weak, all you’re doing is making that joint more vulnerable to injury.
Tip #3: Work on strength as well as flexibility. As the strength of your muscles improve, especially at the end ranges of motion, so will your flexibility.
4. Types of Stretching
There are many different types of stretching (or ways to stretch), and all of them have their advantages and disadvantages. Some are more suitable for warming up; some are better for injury rehabilitation; while others are great for athletic improvement.
Dynamic stretching, for example, is great for warming up and assisting athletes involved in sports that require fast ballistic type movements. But dynamic stretching is not the best choice for improving flexibility. So which types of stretching are best for improving range of motion?
Static stretching is by far the best form of stretching for improving your flexibility and range of motion. In particular; long hold static stretching (held for longer than 30 seconds) and PNF stretching. Static stretches are stretching exercises that are performed without movement. In other words, you get into the stretch position and hold the stretch for a specific amount of time.
Tip #4: Long hold static stretching and PNF Stretching are the most effective forms of stretching for improving your flexibility quickly and permanently.
5. Variety of Stretches
There’s 100’s of muscles in the body and it’s not uncommon for one muscle group to be made up of two, three or more smaller muscles. And they’re all somewhat inter-connected to each other.
Tight hamstrings can cause lower back problems; tight hip muscles can lead to knee pain; and tight chest muscles can cause upper back pain.
If you’re trying to improve the flexibility of your hamstrings for example, then you need to be doing as many different hamstring stretches that you can think of. You need to do hamstrings stretches with your leg out in front, and with your leg out to the side. You need to do hamstring stretches with a bent knee, and with a straight knee. You need to stretch with both legs at the same time, and you need to stretch one leg at a time. You need to vary the position of your hips, and you need to vary the position of your feet.
And if you really want to improve the flexibility of your hamstrings, you need to stretch your lower back, your buttocks, your hips, your groin, and your calves.
Tip #5: Don’t do the same old boring stretches all the time; include a variety of stretches for all your muscle groups.
6. When to Stretch
Stretching before exercise or as part of your warm-up is great, but pre-exercise stretching is not meant to improve your flexibility; its purpose is simply to prepare you for exercise. So if you want to improve your flexibility, when is the best time to stretch?
One of the best times to stretch is after your work out, as part of your cool-down. This is when your muscles are most warm and pliable, which makes it much easier to stretch and reach new levels of flexibility.
Another great time to stretch is just before going to bed. This works at a neuromuscular level, as the increased muscle length is the last thing your nervous system remembers before going to sleep. Sleep, is also the time when your muscles and soft tissues heal, which means your muscles are healing in an elongated, or stretched position.
Tip #6: Do most of your flexibility training at the end of your work-outs as part of your cool-down, or late in the evening. This will help to improve your flexibility on a more permanent or longer lasting basis.
7. Hydration, Nutrition and Sleep
A lot of this goes without saying, but increased hydration, good nutrition, adequate sleep and good emotional health are vital for good flexibility and good health in general.
Muscles are made up of about 75% water, so to keep muscles and associated soft tissues supple and flexible stay hydrated. Eat 100% certified organic fruits, vegetable and meats. Cut out processed food and eliminate as many additives and preservatives as you can. Eat slowly and chew your food. You shouldn’t just eat food for the sake of eating; you should enjoy and savor every mouthful.
Aim to get 9 hours of good quality sleep a night. I know that may seem unrealistic, but try to aim for that. You’ll be surprised what a good sleep will do for you. And take care of your mental and emotional health.
Tip #7: Your general health and well-being are vital to your fitness and flexibility; keep hydrated, eat healthy and get adequate sleep.
Research and References
- Alter, M. (2004) Science of Flexibility, 3rd Edition (ISBN: 978-0736048989)
- Behm, D. (2019) The Science and Physiology of Flexibility and Stretching, 1st Edition (ISBN: 978-1138086913)
- Etnyre, B. Lee, E. (1988) Chronic and Acute Flexibility of Men and Women Using Three Different Stretching Techniques. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, Volume 59, Issue 3, Pages 222-228.
- Jensen, A. Ramasamy, A. Hall, M. (2012) Improving General Flexibility With a Mind-Body Approach: A Randomized, Controlled Trial Using Neuro Emotional Technique®. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(8):2103-12.
- Lucas, R. Koslow, R. (1984) Comparative Study of Static, Dynamic, and Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation Stretching Techniques on Flexibility. Perceptual and Motor Skills, Volume: 58 issue: 2, page(s): 615-618.
- Page, P. (2012) Current Concepts in Muscle Stretching for Exercise and Rehabilitation. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 7(1): 109–119.
- Sexton, P. Chambers, J. (2006) The Importance of Flexibility for Functional Range of Motion. International Journal of Athletic Therapy and Training, 11, 3, 13-17.
- Shrier, I. (2005) When and Whom to Stretch? Gauging the Benefits and Drawbacks for Individual Patients. The Physician and Sportsmedicine, 33(3):22-6.
- Starrett, K. Cordoza, G. (2015). Becoming a Supple Leopard, 2nd Edition (ISBN: 978-1628600834)
- Walker, B. (2011). The Anatomy of Stretching, 2nd Edition (ISBN: 978-1583943717)
- Wikipedia contributors. (2019, October 27). Stretching, In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
About the Author: Brad Walker is often referred to as the "Stretch Coach" and has even been called the Stretching Guru. Magazines such as Runners World, Bicycling, Triathlete, Swimming & Fitness, and Triathlon Sports have all featured his work. Amazon (author page) has listed his books on five Best-Seller lists. Google cites over 100,000 references to him and his work on the internet. And satisfied customers from 122 countries have sent 1,000's of verified customer reviews. If you want to know about stretching, flexibility or sports injury management, Brad Walker is the go-to-guy.
Disclaimer: The health and fitness information presented on this website is intended as an educational resource and is not intended as a substitute for proper medical advice. Please consult your physician or physical therapist before performing any of the exercises described on this website, particularly if you are pregnant, elderly or have any chronic or recurring muscle or joint pain.