Importance of flexibility
Although the advice we’ve all heard is to stretch before working out, current information says stretching before a workout can actually lead to an increased chance of injury. Doing light cardio (like walking) or sport-specific warm-ups (think easy serves for tennis or close-range catching for baseball) is encouraged instead. Anything that gets your heart rate up and your blood pumping helps.
Flexibility makes for a stronger athlete. The elasticity that makes someone flexible allows for a fuller range of motion and can increase performance. Lower levels of flexibility can lead to more injuries during workouts, including muscle strains, sprains, tears, and muscle imbalance (one side of your body becoming stronger than the other, which can lead to its own set of issues).
Five benefits of being flexible
1. Improved posture and balance
Proper posture is key to spine health. Standing correctly takes pressure off ligaments and can prevent the onset of arthritis. Flexibility improves your ability to engage the muscles needed for correct posture. Muscles with low flexibility decrease range of motion; for example, tightened hip muscles pull your entire upper body forward.
2. Increased mobility
Mobility is the ability for joints to reach their full range of motion; flexibility is how well your muscles stretch. The two go hand in hand. Flexibility allows your muscles to stretch, while mobility is what allows them to move freely within your joints – and the more flexible you are, the more mobile you’ll be. This is important at any stage of life, but especially as you age!
3. Reduced stress
Stretches and meditation go well together, too. During stretches, you can focus on your breath and how your body feels and moves. Stress often causes us to tense our muscles, even when we don’t realize it. These bedtime stretches can relax your muscles and relieve some of the stress you might not even know you’re carrying.
4. Decreased risk for injury
Working out with tight muscles can increase your risk of injury. This is mainly due to the elasticity of loose muscles – looser muscles stretch much more easily than tight muscles. Think of it like a rubber band – it's hard to stretch the band straight out of the box, but after some use, it’s much easier. Having looser muscles helps prevent muscle strains and tears.
5. Shorter recovery time
During a workout, your muscles develop small tears. When these tears heal, the muscle is stronger – this is how you gain strength through exercise. But a side effect of these tears is lactic acid buildup in your muscles; too much lactic acid can cause soreness after a workout. Stretching after exercise can stimulate circulation and relieve muscle tension. Stretching helps bring more oxygen to your muscles, which can reduce lactic acid production and the soreness that comes with it.
How to become more flexible
While some people are naturally more flexible than others, you can improve your flexibility through exercising and stretching regularly. Once you’ve learned to keep your muscles loose, it’s much easier to loosen them. Practicing yoga is a great way to become more flexible.
Try these poses and stretches to improve your flexibility:
Simple hamstring stretch
This exercise from Verywell Fit stretches your back, neck, glutes, calves, and hamstrings.
- Sit on the floor with both legs out straight.
- Extend your arms and reach forward as far as possible by bending at the waist while keeping your knees straight.
- Hold this position for 15–30 seconds.
- Relax back into the starting position.
- Repeat three times.
Mandukasana (frog pose)
This exercise from Verywell Fit stretches your hips, inner thighs, groin, and core.
- Begin on your hands and knees in a tabletop position. Make sure your hands are underneath your shoulders and your knees are below the hips.
- Inhale and slowly move your knees out toward the sides as you exhale.
- Continue opening your hips as you turn your feet out toward the sides and flex your ankles so your inner feet, inner ankles, and inner knees are touching the floor.
- Slowly lower down to your forearms with the palms either flat on the floor or pressed together.
- Stay here and breathe deeply for 5–10 breaths.
- To release frog pose, slowly slide your knees closer together and return to the tabletop position. Alternatively, some people prefer exiting the pose by sliding their feet together on the mat and pressing their hips back into a wide-knee variation of child’s pose.
Salamba Bhujangasana (sphinx pose)
This exercise from Gaia stretches your lower back, shoulders, and chest.
- Lie down on your stomach. Place your forearms parallel to each other with your elbows under your shoulders and palms facing the ground.
- Place the tops of your feet on the ground and rotate the inseam of your pants toward the ceiling.
- Lengthen your tailbone toward your heels.
- Focus on your lower abdomen, drawing your low belly slightly away from the floor.
- Hold the pose for up to 10 deep breaths. Exhale while slowly releasing down to the floor.
- Rest on the floor, head turned to one side.
Overhead triceps stretch
This exercise from Healthline stretches your neck, shoulders, triceps, and back.
- Lift your shoulders toward your ears, then draw them down and back.
- Extend your right arm to the ceiling, then bend at the elbow to bring the right palm toward the center of your back, resting your middle finger along your spine.
- Use your left hand to gently pull your elbow in toward the center and down.
- Hold this stretch for 30 seconds for three to four repetitions on each side.
The key when stretching is to not force your body into any particular shape – if any stretch causes you pain, it won’t be beneficial! Move slowly through each stretch to make sure you don’t strain your muscles in the process.
The bottom line
You don’t have to be a master yogi or Olympic gymnast to be flexible. Working on your flexibility through easy, repetitive stretches is something everyone can do. It’s important to remember that warming up before working out with gentle, consistent exercises that get your heart rate up is the best way to work on your flexibility. Stretching can also be a great way to connect in a time of reflection and meditation.
If you’re overly sore after a workout, or if stretches cause you discomfort, talk to your doctor about your concerns.