When I tell humans out in the world what I do I’m often asked—usually after a glum confession to being “the tightest person in the world”—what a person needs to do to get more flexible. It’s funny, because people don’t usually ask that about how to get stronger, or how to get faster, or better at a sport.
But flexibility is still cloaked in mystery. The old school approach to flexibility, suffering in a stretch until you get sick of it and give up, is understandably unpopular and lots of people don’t know what to do instead.
So here are four tips that can help to improve your flexibility without stretching. If you add some stretching on top of that (our classes and videos can give you some idea how to approach it in an effective, safe way) then that’s gravy. But these four tips alone can increase your range of motion and reduce pain and tightness.
1. Improve your Posture
Our posture has a huge effect on muscle functionality, tightness, and flexibility. Most of us only spend a small percentage of our day training, and for the rest of it we are mostly sitting and standing. So the way that we sit and stand is inevitably influential on our training.
Optimal posture stacks the body with the major joints in a straight, vertical line. This takes advantage of the bones balancing on one another to minimize the amount of work that our muscles have to do to hold us up. When we deviate from that vertical line with a forward thrusted head, an over-arched back, or forward rounded shoulders, muscles are called into play to offset that weight shift. After a while, the muscles get resentful and will become tight and cranky.
Learning how to stack your major joints as best as you can—ear over shoulder over hip socket over knee over ankle—will reduce tightness and thereby improve flexibility.
Our bodies are designed to move. Modern lifestyle has created immense conveniences that enable us to be sedentary and supported most of the time. This convenience takes a toll on our bodies by reducing the amount that we use our full capabilities.
It is extremely beneficial to move through your body’s full range of motion every day. This isn’t some big deal deep stretch session, it’s a gentle exploration of the ways that your body moves comfortably. Circle through every joint in your body, allowing them to move to their end range. I find that this is particularly effective when you first wake up to counter the stiffness of sleeping.
If you go for long enough without using a range of motion, you start to lose it, and losing range is a major cause of long-term pain and that general creakiness we associate with age. Check out my Full Body Stretch: Mild and Mellow for a super gentle full body ROM routine.
3. Targeted Strengthening
The myth is that strength and flexibility are opposing forces and you have to give up one to get the other. In fact, weakness can be a root cause of tightness. Many chronically tight muscles are not tight because they are too strong, they are tight because they are weak. Or they are tight because other muscles around them are weak so they are overworked and resentful (see the previous section on posture).
Figuring out which muscles on your body are sleepy, unenthusiastic, and just generally under performing and gently strengthening them through their full range of motion can make dramatic changes in your flexibility. Our video workouts and classes at Fit & Bendy include targeted strengthening for parts of the body that are commonly underperforming on a lot of our clients. This strength training enhances our active and passive stretching.
Every structure in our body is coated in a thin layer of fascia. This fascia also creates our tendons and ligaments, and separates one muscle from another. In a healthy, hydrated body there is a nice slimy layer of goo coating the sheets and cords of fascia, allowing the muscles and tendons and ligaments to slide along each other for ease of movement.
When we are dehydrated, this goo dries up and turns into more of a paste. The fascia doesn’t slide very well, and it can get completely stuck together. If you leave it stuck for too long it becomes increasingly difficult to unstick it. There are various techniques for unsticking fascia including ball rolling, myofascial release massage, and Structural Integration. But the best thing you can do is stay juicy by drinking lots of water. The minimum is 8 glasses per day, but you should consider more if flexibility is a goal.
Plus there are so many additional benefits to being hydrated. It’s an all-around win!
These four steps are useful for anyone concerned with flexibility and improved body mechanics, whether you are training like a maniac, brand new, or anything in between. Take the time, using these tips and as a jumping off point, to get to know your body and the root causes of tightness. Everyone is different, so if you understand your own body well, you can find the methods that will give you the best results.