I don't know about you, but I feel personally victimized when I'm told to sit on the floor and reach for my toes. I can run for miles and crush intense HIIT classes with ease, but when it comes to flexibility, I feel utterly defeated. So, I decided to find out what exactly makes someone flexible, why it's even important, and how I can get in on some of that stretchy goodness.
There are two things to think about when it comes to flexibility:
First is the range of motion in the joints. "Your body has joints, muscles, tendons, and ligaments," says Ron Noy, M.D., of Prestige Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine. "The joint is going to have a static amount of motion that it can do. The reason that shoulders have more motion than hips is because the socket is flatter in the shoulder than it is in the hip." In other words, there are areas of your body that naturally move more than others, known as range of motion. Anatomy—fun!
The second aspect that defines flexibility is tightness—and the tightness around joints is determined by the muscle, the fascia, the ligaments, and the tendons. "Those are the things that can actually be altered in adult life," Noy says.
So while the range motion in your body might vary from joint to joint, it's the tightness in the fascia and ligaments that affects the flexibility of particular joints and muscle groups in the body. When you're wondering how flexible you are (or aren't, in my case), ask yourself if the muscle you're moving is able to do its job.
What else affects flexibility?
Gender, age, genetics, and daily activity are all factors that contribute to how flexible you are. Noy says that women are typically more flexible than men just because of the way the female body's joints and muscles form in comparison to males. "The activities we engage in as children will also affect how our joints will develop," Noy says. "Ballet will stretch the joints farther than, let's say, football."
Also, as we become older, we're not as active—the majority of us spend hours of our day sitting. "If you think about how much people are hunched over their computers—that causes a lot of contraction in your muscles, tendons, and ligaments," Noy says. "If you don't constantly stretch those things out, they're going to get tighter."
But, no matter how much someone stretches or moves daily, genetics do play a factor as well. "For a dancer, I am not very flexible," says Maria Ambrose, a professional dancer and instructor at Shadowbox in New York City. "I can move really fast, which is great, but I can't lift my leg to my ear."
A study from the Journal of Applied Physiology looked at the flexibility of the human back. After assessing the lumbar range of motion of 300 pairs of fraternal and identical twins, the study found that 47 percent of the range of motion in the subjects' lumbar could be attributed to genetics. So for pros like Ambrose, it might just be the way the cookie crumbles.
Christina Jensen, a former Radio City Rockette and instructor at Rumble in New York City, says that being too flexible has led her to get hurt. "I went too far and did too much, and that's when I broke my L5. Then what do you do? You have to retract back," she says. Both women come from athletic backgrounds and practice stretching daily but have had two completely different experiences with flexibility.
Regardless of how much you want to pretzel your body, flexibility is important.
As Jensen pointed out, being flexible doesn't necessarily stop you from getting injured, but it can help prevent it.
"When you properly stretch, you change the fascia," says Sita Hagenberg, co-founder of Bendable Body. "Our muscles' ability to move and strengthen, to do anything, is determined by the fascia. So when it's dense and stiff, the muscle is strangulated—it's like wearing a straightjacket." When you work through tension in your fascia by stretching or foam rolling, it can help improve joint pain, stiffness, and the alignment of your body.So, what does it take to become a little more pretzel-y?
When it comes to improving flexibility, think about your end goal. "Are you wanting to do a split or are you trying to be able to help your muscles recover faster?" Ambrose says. You might feel discouraged by not being able to touch your toes or do a split, but your body doesn't necessarily need to do those things.
It's also important to realize that improving your flexibility is not going to happen overnight. Much like brushing your teeth or taking a shower, stretching is something you need to make a part of your daily routine if you want to increase your flexibility.
And if touching your toes is your goal?
Ben Lauder-Dykes, an instructor at Fhitting Room in New York City, says that with any static stretch you do, you should try holding it for two to three minutes, once a day, for 60 days. So, for example, if you want to get your nose to your knees, you need to spend some quality time in a forward fold over those hamstrings.
Sure, it doesn't sound like the most exciting endeavor, but Lauder-Dykes says that's part of the problem. "People think that if something is simple and easy, it's not effective," he says. "It's unfortunate, but sometimes people don't realize how important stretching is until they get injured."
"My best advice for people is to take time and practice good form with everything," Jensen says. "If you don't have the flexibility yet in your hamstrings to touch your toes, forcing your body into doing it isn't going to end well."
Take some tips and tricks from a pro:
As Lauder-Dykes says, if you're looking to work on a certain area, or if touching your toes is your end goal, you're going to have to stretch consistently for a consecutive number of days.
One thing he emphasizes with all of his clients is to always monitor results. "You need to identify a starting point, which can be how you feel when you're doing your exercises," he says. But while going off of how you feel is a good way to kick-start your regimen, you'll want to find a more objective way to measure your progress. The same way someone would take before-and-after photos with weight loss, try the same with your flexibility. Going by how you feel can change day to day, but if you're taking a photo, you objectively get to see your results (regardless of how you're feeling). "You might not feel like you've improved, but when you take a photo you might say, 'wow, I actually got lower.'"
Alexa Pipia is a social media editor in New York City who received her master's at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. When she's not writing, you can find her honing her boxing technique or running a race. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.