If you're anything like me, you have spent what seems like years working on your flexibility without much progress. Whether you're a dancer, fitness enthusiast, or simply want more mobility and ease in your movement... training this aspect of your body can be frustrating. This is especially true if you are unknowingly sabotaging yourself along the way! As I developed my movement practice, and dug into the research on mobility and stretching... I realized how much I could improve if I made a few changes. Here is what I discovered:
You're only using static stretching
Surprise! Static stretching is actually not the most effective or safest way to improve your range of motion. Static stretching consists of holding deep passive stretching poses for extended lengths of time. This has traditionally been an integral part of most athletes’ & dancers’ training. The understanding (though slightly misguided) that if your muscles are "tight", you can "lengthen" them by holding these static positions for extended periods. Research in mobility, recovery, and sport injury has actually come to the shown that static stretching isn’t the most effective - and also that it *may* lead to injury1. At the very least it won’t prevent injury.
Flexibility starts with your nervous system, which does its best to protect you from injury. This means if you force it into positions it is unfamiliar with, it will contract the muscle and resist the movements to protect you. This can cause micro tears (and sometimes not-very-micro tears) in the muscle tissue, especially if you are trying to force a stretch past this reflex. Do this enough times and you'll start to build up scar tissue, which doesn't stretch.
Muscles don't actually permanently lengthen, that would be counter-productive. Muscles require a level of tension and tone in order to support our body and create movement. They are similar to an elastic band, in that after extending they return to a neutral position. Lengthening would rid them of their elasticity which we don't want. Effective flexibility conditioning doesn’t necessarily change your physiology, but rather builds a safe space for your body to explore further range of motion.
You aren't hydrating enough
Drinking enough water while you are training is so important. Studies have shown a link between even a small amount of dehydration and a higher risk of injury. Chronic dehydration is a massive problem among the general population, and especially athletes. Water is needed for cell function, and it also provides lubrication for joints and connective tissue. Dehydration can exacerbate or trigger a huge number of psychological issues as well including; reduced motivation to exercise, reduced cognitive performance, mood changes, fatigue, irritability and more... which may all have a significant impact on your ability to train.2
Drinking water is one of the easiest things you can do to improve your performance. So take it seriously, and stay hydrated.
You aren't including strength training
Effective flexibility conditioning includes a variety of stretching and strengthening methods. This includes both passive and dynamic stretching, as well as active methods such as PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation) & “C&R” (Contract-Relax). These more active stretches use isometric contraction (a contraction where muscle length does not change, such as holding a plank position) of the muscle being stretched, to recruit more of the proprioceptive cells to send signals to the muscle to relax. The nervous system is heavily involved in this process, called the Inverse Myotatic Reflex. Facilitating this reflex in our body allows us to bypass the Stretch Reflex and push a little further.
When we contract the muscle in our stretches, we strengthen that muscle at the same time. Dynamic and active stretching allows us to stretch and strengthen simultaneously, and is a much more effective method of training. And no, resistance training and building muscle will not inherently make your muscles “shorter” contrary to popular belief. Research has shown that correctly performed resistance training has no effect on flexibility3. In fact, if you train in functional movement you should be working on strength in all ranges of motion!
You aren't warming up enough
Stretching is not a warm up. A warm up should effectively achieve what it is named for, it should warm you up. It should consist of 5-10 minutes of an activity that 1) gets your heart rate up - increasing blood flow to your joints, limbs, and organs; and 2) gently introduces range of motion to your joints (such as in CARs - more on this in subsequent articles). Warm ups should be dynamic in nature, and start from the top of our bodies moving down. We should aim to “practice” the movement patterns we plan on using in the main training session, and introduce our bodies to the activity we’re about to do. This also has the added benefit of psychologically preparing us for training.
By not warming up and stretching “cold” muscles, our nervous system is more likely to be taken ‘off guard’ and activate our stretch reflex in an attempt to protect us from injury. This could lead to you overstretching, causing microtears that harm any progress made before.
You aren't consistent
You cannot train one week, skip a week, and then pick up again the following week for a few days and expect to make quick progress. Consistency is key, in anything you are learning. Your body feels safe in the movement patterns you use the most, and anything else takes effort until it too becomes a pattern or habit.
Your main conditioning and training should be 2-3x per week in the beginning. But you should be moving every day. Stacking your movements and other habits/activities is a great way to incorporate more movement and ranges of motion. For example, doing your work on the floor while you cycle through different seated stretches will start to send the message to your nervous system that you are now building a new pattern, so it should get on board.
You're holding your stretches for too long - or not long enough
Research has done all the hard work for us in determining how long to hold a stretch. Research shows that stretching for 15-30 seconds for 2-4 repetitions showed improvement in rage of motion. Beyond that the improvement was statistically insignificant4.
You don’t understand alignment
While alignment isn’t the epitome of healthy movement, it is important in flexibility conditioning as it is needed to ensure we are targeting the correct muscles. If you are not in the correct alignment needed to perform a stretch, you run the risk of not training effectively and therefore not making progress. You also run the risk of overstretching connective tissue that doesn’t really want to be stretched - which could lead to injury, especially if you are hypermobile.
The best thing to do here is to build your body awareness and your understanding of correct alignment in your training by hiring or working with a qualified movement or flexibility coach.
You're not breathing
How many times have you come out of a difficult exercise or skill panting because you were unconsciously holding your breath? We can, without realizing it, hold our breath in order to cope with discomfort or pain. Firstly, if you are experiencing pain in your training, you need to talk to your coach and figure out where the pain is coming from. More on this in the next point.
Secondly, holding our breath can have the opposite of the intended effect. By depriving the muscles of oxygen they will be less likely to relax. Holding your breath can trigger your fight-or-flight response5, or your sympathetic nervous system, making it more difficult for your body to relax into a stretch.
You're ignoring your body’s signals
Your body will whisper, and if you don’t respond... it will scream. Pain is just one way our body communicates to us that something is not quite right. If you are stretching or moving and it causes you pain, you should immediately stop whatever it is you are doing and assess the situation with a professional. Pain when training your flexibility is never normal. Pushing through pain because you think it will help you progress will inevitably cause injury.
Stretching should give you a slightly uncomfortable sensation, and the more you learn to listen to your body and get to know what each sensation means, the more you can use this communication to your advantage. Feel a tingling or buzzing sensation? That is likely nerve tissue. A burning sensation under the skin? That is probably your superficial fascia. Hearing or feeling a clicking or popping sound when you extend your hip? Probably a tendon slipping against the hip joint. All of these messages bring valuable insight into what our body needs. When you ignore these signals you risk injury, or at the very least you lose out on an opportunity for more effective training.
You fail to see the bigger picture
In the end, flexibility is not just about “stretching”. And each skill required work on a number of systems and tissue. Your nervous system and nerve tissue, your connective tissue and fascia, and the joints and muscles attached to them, all play a role. If you think that stretching your hamstrings will get you to your splits - you are only a fraction of the way there.
Exercises such as nerve flossing/gliding, fascial release and self massage, and strength training are all necessary parts of flexibility conditioning.
Wow, 1500 words later and here we are. I hope you’ve learned something in this article and take it with you the rest of your Flexibility journey! Please let me know if you have any questions or would like clarification.