Can you touch your toes?
Are tight muscles making it hard to move? Or causing you pain?
Then getting more flexible might help you move better and feel better.
When you think about getting more flexible you probably think, “I need to stretch.”
Sometimes that helps, but not always. There are many different ways to get more flexible and you have to find the way that works for you.
Let's go over 4 ways you can get more flexible. But first, let's discuss what flexibility is and its lesser known (but arguably more important) counterpart mobility.
What is Flexibility (and Mobility)
Flexibility is the ability of a muscle or group of muscles to lengthen passively through a range of motion.
Mobility is the ability of a muscle or group of muscles to lengthen actively through a range of motion.
You will notice that the only difference between the two is the word passive vs active. This is an important distinction. Think of the difference like this:
Flexibility is the amount you can length muscle with outside help. Mobility is the amount you can lengthen it without help.
For example, if you lay on the ground and lift your leg as high as possible that is an expression of your mobility. But if I walk over and help you lift your leg you will find that it can lift much further – that is your flexibility.
This is important because your mobility is effectively the amount of flexibility you can express. Being really flexible and not being mobile isn’t helpful when it comes to actually moving in real life.
From now on we will default to the term mobile, since if you are mobile you are also flexible. But you can be flexible and not be mobile.
And we want both for a healthy well-functioning body!
An important note that is often overlooked is that we are talking about the ability for the muscle to lengthen – not making it longer. When you get more flexible your muscles aren’t any longer than they were before. You have just taught them how to express more of the length that they already have – which is controlled by your brain (more on this later).
Benefits of Flexibility and Mobility
Being both flexible and mobile will help your body function better – to a point. Some people think that more mobile is always better, but this is not true. Like most things in life there is a golden mean where you get most of the benefits.
That being said, most people lack mobility, but by improving it they get many benefits, such as:
-More positive state of mind
-Improved physical performance
Now that you know what you stand to gain by improving your mobility, let's go into how you can do it.
The first thing you need to know about stretching is that it is a broad category. And all the different types of stretching have different benefits (and risks) and involve specialized techniques.
There are at least 7 different types, but here we’ll go over 2 safe and effective versions that you can start using today.
This is what most people think of as “stretching.” It involves taking the muscles to a near-the-end range (where you feel a “stretch”) and holding that position. How long you need to hold it is a subject of great debate.
The standard recommendation is at least 30-60 seconds. But many credible experts recommend 5, 10, or more minutes in a static stretch to make it effective.
Stretching in this manner can be productive or counterproductive. If you want this to work for you instead of against you here is the most important tip:
Static stretching is about relaxing into the stretch.
Meaning that if you force yourself into a range of motion, face contorted in pain, breath held – not only are you risking injury, the stretch is also likely to make you less flexible.
Static stretching is good for your flexibility – but not necessarily good for your mobility.
You also need to remember that in the short term this type of stretching will decrease your athletic performance. So if you are about to try something athletic this type of stretching is not the best choice.
I generally only recommend this type of stretching before a workout when someone lacks a huge range of motion. And then you should do some warm movements before engaging in anything intense.
This type of stretching is much more active than static stretching. Instead of finding a slightly uncomfortable position and holding it for a sustained period of time, you find the end range using you own muscle power and hold for at most a few seconds.
Some of these stretches look a lot like regular exercises – for example, a lunge is a great dynamic stretch.
For a more in-depth discussion of this type of stretch I recommend this article.
If athletic performance is one of your goals, this is an important part of your training, and should be used before you compete or train.
But if you are really deconditioned then this might not be the best for you. You might end up exhausting yourself “warming up” and then hurt your training session.
You can also use this type for a lighter workout or recovery workout between other training sessions.
Remember, we aren’t increasing the length of your muscles. We are just teaching them to lengthen closer to their full potential.
This means you don’t need to stretch at all to get more flexible; you just need to do something that will allow your muscles to lengthen more.
One easy way to do this is by massaging the muscles. You can get it done professionally, but you can also do it yourself.
Doing it yourself has the advantages of being cheaper and easier to schedule. You can use things around the house (like a rolling pin) or buy some relatively cheap equipment (like a foam roller and lacrosse ball) and do a pretty good job yourself.
Often this is more effective than stretching. Why?
Because like most things your muscles stretch through the path of least resistance. So if there is a tight section of your muscle when you stretch all the rest of the muscle will stretch while the tight part does not.
But when you self massage you can target specific areas of the tissue and teach the tight part to lengthen.
How will you know where the “tight” spots are? They are the parts that feel more uncomfortable.
But again, this is about relaxing so make sure that you can keep a relaxed face and breathe deeply. If you can't, that means you are applying too much pressure and you may make the problem worse instead of better.
If you want to learn more about how to use a foam roller check out the article I wrote here.
Remember, when we are talking about flexibility we are talking about the ability of the muscle to lengthen.
Often you can achieve this without lengthening the muscle at all. This is because when you are in an unstable position your brain will stop your muscles from using their full range of motion.
So if you can get more stable your brain will “Take off the brakes” and let you express your flexibility (and mobility) fully. Stability is your ability to control your joint position and balance.
You can think of it more as the ability to resist force – as opposed to strength which is the ability to produce force.
A common example we see of this is with people who have “tight” hamstrings. If we improve their core strength their hamstrings often magically lengthen more.
One of the most effective ways of doing this is through improving your reflexive strength, which you can read more about here.
One of the big myths about lifting weights is that it will make you inflexible.
The truth is that your body will adapt to the range of motion that you use. So if you lift weights through a small range of motion (which is very common for people more concerned with the amount of weight than anything else) then your body will adapt to these small ranges of motion and you will lose flexibility.
But if you lift weights in a full range of motion (the correct way) strength training will maintain and can increase your range of motion.
For this reason many people who successfully strength train never stretch, and yet are very flexible.
Specific types of weightlifting are more likely to use a full range of motion.
For example, Powerlifters will almost never do a full range of motion squat. The reason is that for their sport they are judged on the ability to squat below parallel (which compared to many gym bros is deep). So they train to do that as effectively as possible. But Olympic Weightlifters have to catch a barbell they threw in the air, so the lower they can squat the lower they need to throw the weight – and the more weight they can throw. So these athletes practice deeper squats (and are usually more mobile).
Lifting in a full (but safe) range of motion is the best way to gain health and longevity. You might not put up the same numbers as someone who is lifting in a partial range of motion. But you will probably get (and stay) more mobile than they are.
If you love stretching and the way it feels, then it is definitely something that you should be doing.
But if your goal is to get more mobile it is not necessarily the best thing for you to be doing.
If you want increased mobility you need to find what helps you improve your mobility.
Every person needs a different solution. The best way to find out is to experiment and see what helps.
If you do it and get more mobile it works for you. If it doesn’t then it doesn’t work.
If you want more resources I suggest these books:
Relax into Stretch – for stretching
Becoming a Supple Leopard – for self massage
Original Strength – for stability
For strength training it depends on the implement that you are using. If you want a specific recommendation, send me an email.
And if you learned something then you should sign up for my newsletter and I will send you a free copy of my eBook “Double H’ai Workouts” which has 18 kettlebell workouts and 18 bodyweight workouts for people of all levels.