Flexibility is so incredibly individual and varies so wildly; some claim to have never been flexible, others claim they’ve always been flexible. Some claim to have become flexible from once being drum-tight, others claim they’ve lost a good level of flexibility to now be ‘tight’.
Of course the definition of flexible can never be universal. What’s flexible to a football player with tight hamstrings certainly wouldn’t be considered flexible to a contortionist! This may sound obvious but you always need to ask yourself what flexible means to you instead of searching for an umbrella term.
While everyone’s answer is different, I’d still make the case for a baseline level of flexibility that pertains to a good quality of life and movement. If your thoracic (upper) spine is rounded, not only will this make you look bad, it will make you feel and perform bad. If you have an excessive anterior pelvic tilt you will be a sitting duck for back pain and will find many core exercises almost impossible.
Some movement patterns are primal and proficiency in them allows you to build a truly functional and fit body – which is why we even train in the first place.
Whenever I work with a new client I always test their flexibility to see which areas need work…..the following are the minimum standards I’m looking for:
Basic standing toe touch with straight legs (back can be rounded)
Deep squat hold without excessive forward torso lean or knee cave
Hands behind back shoulder extension (fingers interlaced)
Active overhead mobility at least 165 degrees (180 is ideal but few people have this standard)
Sufficient shoulder external rotation to COMFORTABLY hold a bar on their back for squats
Any gymnasts, dancers or circus performers who happen to read this will have likely vomited in disgust at such appalling standards, but again, these levels are minimum requirements in order to correctly execute the most effective functional exercises – such as squats, deadlifts and many more.
If you speak to anybody with a high level of flexibility, usually they will tell you ‘some good stretches for _________ ‘ but very rarely will they ever discuss actual methods of gaining flexibility or the realistic timescale involved in order to get there.
Much the same as with muscle growth, fat loss and even strength gain……..we want to be flexible yesterday! ‘Enjoy the process’ is like telling someone you’ve just had sex with their sister these days. It’s foul. We don’t want journeys, we want destinations – and quickly! Any experienced personal trainer or coach of any form has been asked, ‘how long are we looking at?’ more times than they can count.
How Long Is A Piece Of String?
Nobody knows. Nobody – and I mean NOBODY – can give you a definitive answer to how long it will take you to get flexible. If anything, of all the fitness compartments, flexibility has the wildest variation when it comes to seeing notable gains. The best anyone can do is give you a sensible time-frame based off real world experience and practical application.
A year ago now I attended Emmet Louis’ Modern Methods Of Mobility Seminar in London (REVIEW HERE). If you aren’t familiar with Emmet and his work, he’s a mobility coach who works with dancers, acrobats, performers and even recreational gym goers. He’s coached many many people to improved mobility. One of the first things he said to us upon meeting him was: if you want to see marked changes in your mobility, you need to start looking at things in 18 month blocks. Yes, EIGHTEEN MONTHS.
Before I got into fitness I was a chunky gamer kid who was in love with his bedroom Xbox set up. I probably spent more time sitting in my xbox chair than I did drinking Dr Pepper. The result of this was the most inelastic hamstrings ever and a ton of back pain. I vividly remember trying the classic laying hamstring flexibility test (shown below) and struggling to get to 45 degrees!
In the pic below you see me at Emmet’s aforementioned seminar from last year in a forward fold. Keep in mind this was achieved after a thorough warm up and going through various hamstring mobilisation drills.
In the next pic you see a pic of me in the identical position. The profound difference is: the second pic is after precious little warming up. There’s a stark difference between touching your toes after 30 minutes of cardio and an hour of yoga, and touching your toes straight out of bed. This was a key takeaway from the seminar, incidentally.
We go on and on about progression being critical to fitness success and we list the main ways you can progress a given activity……..
- Do it for longer
- Do a more advanced version (this is akin to lifting heavier)
- Do the same routine faster
One factor nobody ever talks about or considers is rate of perceived exertion; how easy is it now compared to how it used to be? We’re so obsessed with moving forward and achieving more, we forget to ever check if basic things now feel simpler.
Methods of getting flexible – is there a top choice?
Repeated static stretching will no doubt get you more flexible than you are currently. Whether those gains will stay with you long term, should you stop stretching regularly, is another matter. Irrespective of what stretching method you choose, there are 2 critical rules I’ve found must be followed.
1) The body must be RELAXED.
This doesn’t mean you need to do an hour of deep meditation before you do any stretching, but more any stretch you do must be done without excessive tension. The face must be relaxed. You need to be able to hold this position in relative comfort. Of course it will be a stretch but not one where you grit your teeth and have to gasp for air.
2) You must have a degree of muscular awareness
There’s a huge difference between reaching for your toes just hoping/letting gravity pull you down and actively trying to pull your way into a fold; pulling the abs in, squeezing the quads, while using a visual target to create more space.
Once you learn develop a strong mind/muscle connection across your body, you’ll not only find getting stronger and building muscle gets easier but you’ll be able to get more from any stretching/mobility work you do. This is not only muscular awareness but body awareness, too.
Like skill development, the more you do something the better you get at it. Flexibility is no exception. The reason dancers and gymnasts are so mobile is because they use these ‘extreme’ ranges in day to day training. The body gets good at knowing what it needs. You could take a gymnast out of a gymnastics centre and make them cease all training, sit at a desk all day for weeks then test their flexibility……..
If they haven’t lost their splits and perfect bridges, they’ll certainly find it more of an effort to get into these positions.
The more frequently you work on your flexibility, the faster results you’re likely to receive. Even at a frequency of twice to thrice per week, depending on your current level, I’d still suggest a solid 3-6 months in order to see marked improvements. And again, these improvements may not be all that visual but you’ll be able to feel them.
Improving mobility cannot be forced and there are no shortcuts. To see long term gains in your flexibility – especially ones that are evident when you’re not warmed up and pre-stretched, you’re looking at a solid 6-18 month time frame.
But also know this: once you’ve attained a new level of mobility, keeping it takes much less time and effort, you simply have to use it.
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