Over the last 3-6 months I’ve probably improved my mobility more than in any other time I’ve been alive. This has led to an influx of Instagram messages asking how I’ve managed this apparent wizardry.
What’s the secret?
Of course, ‘flexible’ is a very relative term and what’s flexible to an office working couch potato would be considered fatally tight to a dance team. And while I’m certainly not being looked at twice by any dance team for my flexibility, I’d still say my current level is still a good bit above the average gym going male.
I highlighted ‘male’ because of the undeniable fact that males aren’t naturally as pliable as females. Now I know there will be women who read this and protest they’ve never been flexible and are mad jealous of those slinky like girls who can just slide into splits while cold…….
Remember, I’m speaking in general terms here; we’re talking averages. I’ve taught hundreds of Pilates/Yoga classes and not only do women dominate the population of these classes, they also dominate the flexibility standards. This is empirical evidence talking but there’s also a swarm of research to back up this conclusion.
With the academia out the way let’s look at some practical tips for not only becoming more flexible but also how to do so in a manner that’s efficient and long lasting. We’ve all sat in a pose for 3-5 mins and marveled at how flexible we’ve become, only to wake up the next morning and be tighter than a house brick, AGAIN………..
1. The Motivation, The Drive, The Reason, Your ‘Why’
Mobility work isn’t fun. It’s not sexy. It’s not what you look forward to when you look at the clock and work out how long you’ve got till you finish work and can hit the gym later. When something isn’t fun, the reward after the work needs to be sweet – very sweet. Therefore the reason you want this flexibility has to be important and part of a bigger picture; it has to mean something.
For me it was a combination of wanting a straighter handstand and just looking to move better within the plethora of calisthenics moves I train and explore on a regular basis. For you it may be needed to alleviate pain or to get you better at dance, or a sport, it doesn’t matter on the specifics it matters how specific flexibility is to you.
Handstand line before any real mobility work (left) vs handstand line currently – note the difference in shoulder angles.
2. Find Your Weak Links/Limiting Factors
I’ve touched on this philosophy before in my article about foam rolling, and it’s the idea that not everything needs to be worked on at any one time. If you’re already mobile in a certain area, you won’t necessarily see drastic improvements trying to work only on that area. It’s the places with the biggest deficits that will net you the most gain. Identify what’s limiting you in a given movement pattern (an example could be chronically tight calves hindering your forward fold), and dedicate diligent time to the area and you’ll see far more progress than you would if you just did random stretch sequences every day.
3. Consistency & Frequency Is Crucial
There’s a saying I heard when I was a fresh faced fitness baby and it’s one I still use today: ‘you get what you train’. Basically your body learns what you do and gets better and better at it. So at a basic level it’s: ‘do more of ___________ and get better at it’ – to a point of course. Flexibility plays by these rules too.
It’s always a face-palm moment when people think once per week is enough frequency to improve flexibility. And normally these people are some of the least mobile people I’ve seen. I’m sorry Barbara but you’ve got lots of work to do to reverse the 20 years of slumping in that knitting chair you’ve done.
Simple stretches done daily across the basic patterns (forward fold, arms behind back, arms overhead, deep squat etc) can work wonders for anyone looking to get started with flexibility improvements but it must be done regularly – a minimum of 3 times per week initially and you can decrease this amount as your flexibility improves.
4. Passive/Static Stretching ISN’T Enough
There’s this unjustified folklore within the stretching world that says dynamic stretching is for warm ups, passive stretching is for improving flexibility, ballistic stretching is dangerous and active stretching is only for activating phasic muscles or for rehabilitation purposes.
The reality is all of those methods apply in certain cases and can be used for any goal, subject to the individual. While static/passive stretching is great for relaxation and flexibility maintenance, it’s a painstakingly slow path to new flexibility levels and advanced postures. Reason being, passive stretches don’t utilise muscular contractions and thus, don’t target the central nervous system (CNS). There’s strong research to suggest improvements in range of motion are due to the nervous system more so than the mere length of a muscle(s).
When muscular contractions are involved the CNS begins to ‘remap’ and recognise new ranges as ‘normal’ as opposed to previously ‘inaccessible’. It’s for this reason the PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facillitation) methods work so well; they strengthen the muscles in the elongated position and signal to the nervous system that this new range is now safe and accessible.
(Visual representation of PNF stretching, showing a basic cycle for the hamstrings).
If the technicality is a little strong: muscular contractions in stretched positions do far more for long term gains than simply relaxing and getting floppy in a position. One develops the nervous system’s capacity, the other simply relaxes the nervous system.
5. In Order To Keep The New Range, You Must USE It
Almost in parallel with the above, keeping the fruits of your hard work depends heavily on how much the newly acquired range is used. Dancers remain so flexible because they’re forever using flexibility in their routines. The same applies to gymnasts. You can work your butt off to get front or side splits but if you only do them for the Instagram photo, good luck when you try them a month or 2 down the line!
(The ‘Penche’ – a seriously advanced stretch for the hamstrings but to a dancer, a more regular position)
All well known mobility coaches/gurus agree on one sentiment: it’s much easier to keep your flexibility than it is to gain it.
With that said, this article wouldn’t be complete without giving credit to Calisthenic Movement’s Mobility program as that’s what I’ve used for many months now and I’ve reviewed the program pretty extensively on this site (you can find links to all reviews at the end of the article).
However, regardless of what program you follow or whether you even follow a program at all, these principles apply wholeheartedly. To improve your flexibility you need to move into new ranges regularly, have a clear and concise idea of what flexibility you want and why, strengthen the end ranges, identify personal tight spots and regularly ‘limber up’ in order to solidify your mobility.
If you need any further help with anything to do with flexibility or addressing mobility deficits, I work with numerous people remotely as well as in person, so feel free to drop me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org and I can help you.
Further related reading:
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