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Did you know that 72% of people wish they were more flexible?
Okay, I totally made that up. But if my experience talking with clients is any indication, there are a lot of folks who would like to be a bit more bendy.
Flexible muscles don’t just make your body feel better; stretching is good for the mind, too. Releasing tension in your body relieves mental stress by calming your nervous system and deepening your breath.
A lack of flexibility is more noticeable as you age and your tissue quality changes. Tendons lose their elasticity, cartilage thins and the fluids that lubricate joints decrease over time. However, this doesn’t mean you just have to live with a stiff, immobile body.
Regular flexibility and mobility practices can keep joints and muscles healthy for the duration of your life, and while yoga is great, these ten tips will help you get the most out of any stretching routine — yoga-based or otherwise.
10 Tips to Increase Flexibility
No. 1 Make it dynamic
Dynamic stretching is the latest and greatest technology for increasing flexibility safely, although it has actually been used for thousands of years in practices such as tai chi and chi gong.
Basically, to make any stretch dynamic, you add movement, taking your joints through a full range of motion. If you typically drop into a stretch and hold the static pose for a prolonged period of time before moving on to the next one, you’re missing out on the great benefits of dynamic stretching.
Dynamic stretches engage more muscle fibers instead of just a single line of tissue, as happens in static stretching. They activate your central nervous system and force muscles that are clenched too tightly to relax in a non-threatening way.
(Attacking muscles that are in mild spasm head on is like trying to push a brick wall out of the way – an exercise in frustration.)
Dynamic stretches also lubricate your joints, increase balance and get your blood flowing. They’re great to use pre-workout because they prepare your body for exercise without increasing the risk of injury. There’s significant evidence that static stretching prior to exercise makes you more likely to damage a muscle or joint.
No. 2 Reduce inflammation
There are two aspects to flexibility. The first is structural — basically, how stiff or flexible your physical muscles are.
The second relates to your body’s internal physiology. Westernized lifestyles are pro-inflammatory, meaning they increase the level of inflammation circulating throughout your body.
Inflammation is your body’s natural and healthy response to injury. If you twist an ankle, your body uses inflammation to make blood vessels more permeable, allowing plasma and leukocytes to do their healing work, which is good. But inflammation becomes a problem when it’s chronic, ongoing and systemic.
Chronic, systemic inflammation causes your body to create excessive fibrin, a type of tissue that forms a mesh and impedes blood flow. Too much fibrin actually increases the risk of cardiac arrest and stroke, but the first signs you might have too much fibrin include chronic fatigue, slow healing times, and pain.
If you tend to get very sore after even light bouts of exercise, for example, or if you wake up stiff and achy in the morning, you might have systemic inflammation.
Processed foods including white flour, white sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and an over-abundance of omega-6 oils increase inflammation, as do stress, lack of movement, and poor sleep quality. Fortunately, there are simple things you can do to decrease your systemic inflammation.
The most obvious is to cut out processed foods that are pro-inflammatory and start eating more green vegetables and lean, organic, pastured meats (grass fed beef, free range chickens, basically animals kept the way nature intended and not loaded with hormones and antibiotics).
Second, you can add the natural anti-inflammatory spices ginger and turmeric to your diet. Turmeric, used in Indian curry, is bright orange in color and contains the active ingredient curcumin that reduces inflammation. Ginger also packs an anti-inflammatory kick as a result of a compound called gingerols.
Third, you can supplement with proteolytic (protein eating) enzymes. Your body produces enzymes naturally and they’re required for virtually every metabolic function, but enzyme production drops off as you grow older.
Proteolytic enzyme supplements are enteric coated to survive the acidic environment in your stomach, so they are absorbed through your intestines into your bloodstream. They then go about “cleaning up” all the garbage floating around in your blood – viruses, fungus, and anything that can cause inflammation, including excess fibrin (which is a boon for cardiovascular health).
Enzymes are considered safe even in high does, except for people who are taking blood thinning medications as enzymes thin the blood even further.
No. 3 Trick your nervous system
While excessive fibrin can cause pain and inflammation that make you physically stiff, the majority of flexibility issues come not from your muscles but from your brain.
When you stretch, you’ll get to a point where the muscle feels tight and painful. This isn’t actually the physical end of your muscle. You’ve activated something in your nervous system called the stretch reflex.
Your brain has a set point for every muscle in your body, telling it how long and how short to be. When you reach the end of a muscle’s programmed length, the brain initiates a contraction to keep you from going any further.
If you were under anesthesia, the medical staff would have to be careful moving you so as not to dislocate a joint because your muscles would be so loose we could probably tuck your feet behind your head. But as soon as you woke up, you’d be just as tight as you were before. This is because your brain and its neural set-points (like brakes to your flexibility) came back online.
The stretch reflex has a purpose, though. It keeps you from going into a range of motion where your muscle is too weak and there is risk of injury. So, for example, if you bend over to touch your toes and hit the stretch reflex before you get all the way down, your brain is afraid that if you go any further, your muscle may be too weak to support your weight, or it might not be able to bring you back up, thereby resulting in damage to your hamstrings, or possibly your spine.
You can (safely and incrementally) trick your nervous system into letting go in greater and greater range, though. As a result, you’ll develop better strength and flexibility along the entire length of the muscle.
No. 4 Breathe Deeply
Your body needs oxygen more than any other nutrient. You can survive for weeks without food and days without water, but you’ll die in a few minutes without oxygen.
Oxygen is necessary for cells to absorb nutrients and flush out waste products. Chronic stress causes the muscles in your chest and shoulders to contract, restricting your breathing. Additionally, shallow breathing promotes a fight or flight response in your brain, sending the signal that it’s time for action, not relaxation.
Researchers at Harvard have found that body position and posture profoundly influence brain chemistry So, if you’re constantly taking shallow breaths, you’re promoting stiffness in your muscles due to a “stressed out” brain and poor nutrient uptake in your cells.
Take five to ten minutes a day to practice deep breathing.
No. 5 Keep Hydrated
After oxygen, water is the most needed nutrient for your body. A lack of sufficient hydration causes tissues to dry up and blood to become thick and clotted. There isn’t enough fluid to wash away metabolic waste products — your body’s version of car exhaust.
Dehydration leads to stiff, tight muscles. Just imagine the difference between a nice, juicy steak and beef jerky. Dehydrated tissue starts to look and feel like beef jerky as it loses its elasticity and “bouncy” quality.
Since you lose water through respiration, sweat and urination, you’ve got to constantly replenish in order to meet your body’s needs. How much you need to drink depends on your height, weight and activity levels. Beverages like coffee, tea and alcohol increase dehydration, so if you consume these regularly, you’ll need to drink additional fluids to compensate.
No. 6 Stretch Your Psoas
You’ve probably never heard of a psoas before, much less know how to stretch it. The psoas is a deep abdominal and hip muscle that originates just below your diaphragm on the front of your spine, runs behind your internal organs, around the front of your hip and attaches to the inside of your femur, or thigh bone.
It has two actions: the psoas flexes the hip, or, if the hip is fixed, pulls the lumbar spine forward creating a “sway-backed” appearance. The psoas is primarily indicated in cases of lower back pain because of its deep action on the spine and the predominance of sitting (which tightens the psoas) in western cultures where back pain is an epidemic, but a tight psoas has far reaching effects.
Tension in the psoas often shortens the trunk, or core, pulling the rib cage down and ultimately restricting shoulder flexibility (if you can’t raise your arms straight overhead and get your elbows behind your ears, you likely have a tight psoas, among other problems).
A tight psoas also creates a walking pattern that inhibits glute and hamstring function while simultaneously tightening those pesky hip flexors. Getting flexibility in your psoas will translate to more flexible hips and shoulders.
While your psoas is quite a deep muscle — in more ways than one since it’s also linked to survival emotions such as fear — it’s relatively easy to give it a good stretch.
No. 7 Use Far Infrared Heat to Deeply Warm Muscles
The warmer your tissue is, the more flexible it will be. Heat increases circulation. Increased blood flow also brings more nutrients into the tissue while simultaneously flushing out waste products.
Heating pads are nice, but they only warm the surface of the skin. In order to get deeper heat with a heating pad, the surface temperature would be so hot that it would burn your skin before it reached deeper layers of your muscles.
Far infrared heat penetrates the muscles and tissue, warming up to three inches deep. Far infrared is a solar spectrum that comes from the earth’s sun. It’s not harmful to your skin like ultraviolet light. Rather, it’s the spectrum that makes you feel the sun’s warmth even on a cold day.
Have you ever been outside on a brisk fall day and felt warm in the sun but cold when a cloud covers its light? That’s far infrared heat in action. The cloud can’t instantly decrease the ambient temperature, but it blocks the far infrared heat, making you shiver.
Fortunately, you don’t have to have the sun to use far infrared heat to increase your flexibility. There are far infrared heating mats available for home use. As a bonus, I find that I’m much warmer overall when using my far infrared heating pad in the winter, and I’m able to keep my home cooler while still being comfortable.
The only caveat with far infrared heat is to be careful not to overstretch your muscles. They’re very warm and pliable, and you don’t want to injure yourself, so don’t be too aggressive in your stretching or you could tear something.
No. 8 Pick Just One Goal
People who want to gain flexibility often have a vague notion of what that means. “I want to be more flexible” isn’t specific enough to get you results, and trying to stretch every muscle in your body is counterproductive.
That’s like saying you want to be a marathon runner and a professional weight lifter and a flamenco dancer all at the same time. Yes, you can do it, but you have to start with one and get really good at it before you move on to something else.
If you want to increase your flexibility, choose one area of your body that you want to work on. Usually it’s the hips or the shoulders. You can get more specific with “hamstring muscles” or “pectorals,” but I much prefer to choose a range of motion you’d like to achieve.
If you want to get your arms over your head with elbows straight and behind your ears, focus on that. If you want to be able to drop into the splits without effort, work every day to accomplish your goal. Increasing flexibility in one area of your body, like increasing strength in one area, often translates to increased flexibility in other areas.
No. 9 Engage Two-Way Lengthening
Perhaps the most helpful thing I can teach you is how to use two-way-lengthening to increase flexibility. It’s a little bit difficult to conceptualize until you physically experience it, but it will vastly increase your results once you do.
What is two-way-lengthening? It’s what gives dancers their grace. Two-way-lengthening is the process of stretching in two directions at once. It requires a great sense of your body to accomplish, but once you do your friends will ask you if you started taking dance classes (people ask if I take ballet all the time…I don’t and haven’t since I was in the first grade).
In Kung Fu martial arts, they refer to this as heaven and earth and incorporate it into many of their exercises.
Try It Out
Start by simply standing. Feel your feet on the floor. Gently press your feet downward with the whole surface of the sole of your foot. If it helps, imagine you’re melting them into hot wax. Notice how the downward pressure immediately lengthens your body upward as well.
Then, maintaining that sense of downward pressure, shift your attention to the top of your head. Lengthen it upwards toward the ceiling, as though someone had a hook in the sky that was holding your head up.
Feel how this sensation elongates your body? You can use this all over the place:
When you’re stretching your hamstrings, lift your tailbone as you press your heels down into the ground. Now you’re stretching in both directions.
When you reach your arm out to the side, extend outward through your fingers while also pulling your shoulder back toward your body. Two way lengthening at work.
If you’re finding this hard to visualize or don’t really feel it in your body, think of a rubber band. Imagine the band is looped around something fixed, like a piece of furniture. You have a hold of the other side and you are pulling it away from the furniture. This is single lengthening as the band is only stretching in one direction: from the fixed point to your hand.
Now imagine you have the same rubber band in both hands (no furniture or fixed point) and you pull with equal force in each hand stretching the band. Now the band is lengthening in two directions away from the midline. This is what you are trying to accomplish with your muscles.
No. 10 Use Your Brain
Athletes use visualization to take their performance to the next level. They run through their sporting event in their mind, imagining themselves achieving their absolute best.
Researchers have found that muscles respond to visualization. Muscle activity was measurable in weight lifters who merely imagined exercising, and simply thinking about working out can increase muscle strength by around 13%.
Similarly, you can leverage your brain to increase flexibility. Remember, it’s the brain that controls the length of your muscle, so it makes sense to approach flexibility from a “software” perspective as well as a “hardware” approach (i.e. the actual exercise of stretching).
There are two ways to engage your brain to increase flexibility. The first is to envision the shape that you’d like to make, like dropping into the splits or touching your toes in a forward bend. Imagine how achieving that shape would feel in your body if you actually did it.
Then when you perform your stretches, try to get your body to a place where it matches what you imagined.
The second way to engage your brain is to use the power of suggestion. The human subconscious mind is very open to suggestion, so whatever you tell yourself on a regular basis becomes your reality.
Most people are telling themselves that they are getting older, weaker and less flexible with each passing year. Start telling yourself that you are getting more flexible all the time. When you’re actually stretching, focus your attention on the muscle that feels tight and tell yourself that you can feel it lengthening, getting more flexible, relaxing.
Inhale deeply and when you release your breath, consciously relax the muscle you’re stretching a little bit more. If you’re too uncomfortable to relax, back out of the stretch a bit and make it easier on yourself. The nervous system doesn’t like to be attacked. You’ll get more mileage if you keep stretching within your comfort level.
Put It Into Action
These flexibility principles will augment any stretching or mobility practice you already have in place. You can implement them in yoga, Pilates, or during your pre-gym warm up and cool down routines.
If you’d like more detailed instruction on putting these into practice, you can find specific exercises that actively use these flexibility principles in the Posture Rehab video course. There are 31 videos with complete, step-by-step exercises designed to reset your nervous system, increase flexibility and mobilize your joints.3