How to Increase Your Flexibility When You Can’t Even Touch Your Toes – Confession: I hate stretching, and I haven’t been able to touch my toes in years. For a while, I shrugged off my lack of flexibility as a minor problem in the grand scheme of my overall fitness. However, it’s recently taken a toll, on both my workouts and my day-to-day functioning. My hip flexors often ache, my running stride feels awkwardly short, and yoga is a painful endeavor.
As a fitness writer, I know all about the benefits of stretching: It can increase flexibility, prime your muscles safely for activity, and calm your body after exercise. So this year, I vowed to finally start stretching. The only problem? I had no idea where to start.
Luckily, I knew a few experts who could help: physical therapist and yoga teacher Nicole Haas, PT, DPT, founder of Boulder Physiolab in Boulder, Colorado, and physical therapist Kellen Scantlebury, DPT, CSCS, founder of Fit Club NY in New York City. So I tapped them for advice on how I could get started.
The first thing I learned? It’s best not to think of the solution solely as a “stretching routine.” Instead of focusing on static stretching, or holding still in a certain position, which is what a lot of us envision when we think of stretching, it’s better to channel your effort toward a broader mobility program. Stretching, of course, will be part of that, but mobility encompasses a whole lot more.
Below, the differences between stretching and mobility, why they’re both important, and some tips on how to incorporate them into your fitness routine.
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What’s the difference between stretching and mobility?
Mobility work and stretching can both help your body move better, but they aren’t exactly the same thing.
There are lots of different definitions of mobility work out there, but to keep it really simple, you can consider mobility work anything that improves motion through your joints, muscles, nerves, and connective tissues, Haas tells SELF. The ultimate goal of mobility work is to enhance your ability to move more comfortably and effectively through your daily patterns. Mobility work can include practices like dynamic stretches, which are exercises where you move fluidly through the full range of motion of a joint—essentially the opposite of static stretching. Mobility training can also include movement like yoga flows, using massage guns, foam rollers, and other mobility devices (like massage balls and sticks).
Stretching, on the other hand, is less broad: It’s one facet of mobility work that refers to any movement that lengthens a muscle (like pulling your heel to your butt to lengthen your quad, or reaching for your toes to lengthen your hamstrings). This, of course, can improve your range of motion as well—but it does so in a more specific way than with more general mobility work.
If your goal is to move and feel better, you’ll want to fit both stretching and mobility work into your life.
What are the benefits of regular stretching and mobility work?
Stretching and mobility work can offer a ton of benefits.
For one, they can help undo the tightness that accumulates when we are stuck in a certain position for a long period of time, like sitting in front of a computer all day (hi, me). Spending hours at a desk can trigger stiffness in your hip flexors, calves, hamstrings, and feet, says Haas. This stiffness can then make it difficult to do other activities later on, like going on a run, for instance (also hello to me). It can also increase your risk of injury during those activities: Stiffness in one area (for example, your hips) can lead to another area (say, your back) taking on force it’s not supposed to, since tight muscles may not be able to fire optimally to perform an intended movement. By incorporating more mobility work into your day, you can reverse these patterns of tightness and more comfortably, safely, and effectively tackle whatever’s next on your agenda—whether that’s hitting the gym, running errands, or cooking dinner.
Mobility work can also help boost blood flow, increase muscle length, and generally help you feel less stiff and tight, Scantlebury tells SELF. Additionally, it can enhance your performance in the gym by allowing you to move weight more freely through a full range of motion and helping you sink deeper into movement patterns, says Scantlebury. For instance, greater mobility could help you lower further down as you squat.
Lastly, mobility is an important factor in aging well. A 2017 study published in the journal BMC Health Services Research found an association between low mobility and increased chance of early death. Having low mobility, especially in your older years, can throw off your balance and increase your risk of falling, according to Scantlebury. “Mobility is not only important in your youth, but even more important as you age,” he explains. We inherently become more stiff as we age, says Haas, but it’s possible to reverse some of this stiffness with regular mobility work.
9 Tips to Get the Most Out of Stretching and Mobility Work
The best stretching and mobility program is one that is tailored to your body and patterns of movement. In other words, your work should enhance the other types of activity you enjoy. You may want more hip mobility if you love running; or shoulder and back flexibility if you love swimming, for example. This will serve you better in the long run versus focusing on Instagram-ready poses, like splits or perfectly straight-legged downward dog, which can be discouraging or may not have much to do with your other fitness goals.
In general, a good place to start is to focus on undoing the positions you find yourself stuck in a lot of the day, like sitting hunched over a computer, says Haas.
For instance, the average desk worker probably has tight chest muscles from leaning forward, plus tight hip flexors and hamstrings from sitting for hours. As a result, they may benefit from doing movements to counteract that tightness. This can look like:
- Loosening up your chest muscles through moves like the dynamic cactus pose or behind-the-back chest stretch.
- Doing hip flexor stretches like high crescent lunges or the 90-90 stretch.
- Foam rolling your hamstrings.
On the other hand, if you spend all day on your feet walking (say, you’re a retail clerk moving back and forth throughout the store, often carrying stuff), your areas of tightness may be a bit different. In that case, you can try:
- Loosening up your ankles, feet, and shoulders through moves like ankle circles and shoulder circles.
- Lengthening your spine and back through moves like the rag doll.
Starting with these types of targeted exercises can make mobility work more accessible, since it’s not too broad or overwhelming.
2. Go into it warm.
If you want stretching and mobility work to feel good and be as effective as possible, then make sure your body is warmed up before you jump into it. Ensuring your body is warm will allow you to get deeper into your ranges of motion while also reducing your risk of injury, says Scantlebury. Plus, it’ll likely feel less uncomfortable, too, which is huge for making you want to stick with the practice.
A great time to do a dedicated mobility session is at the end of a workout, when your joints are likely well-lubricated, your tissues are warm, and your blood is flowing, says Scantlebury. If you’re doing a standalone stretch session outside of a workout, do simple moves like jumping jacks, arm swings, and marching in place with high knees to warm up your muscles first, as SELF previously reported.
3. Use tools to mix it up.
Mobility tools—which include devices like foam rollers, massage guns, and massage balls and sticks that you roll over tight areas of your body—can help undo tension and lengthen muscles in the same way that stretching can, says Haas. You can use them on their own or in the same session with static or dynamic stretches.
Some of the smaller, more portable tools, like massage balls and sticks, are easy to tote with you and use on the go, making them a convenient addition to your routine. If you’re on a long car ride, for instance, you can bring a massage stick and roll out your tight quads while you’re in transit. Or, while at your desk on a work call, you can roll a ball under your foot as a way to loosen up achy muscles in that area.
Just be mindful not to roll your mobility device over any bony parts, like your knee or hips, says Haas, as that can irritate your bursae (fluid-filled sacs that act as cushions around your joints). Also, be aware of how much pressure you’re putting on your muscles. Haas has seen people get bruises because they applied too much force when using a massage gun. It’s okay to feel a sense of hard pressure when using a massage gun, but if that sensation veers into pain, then ease up. Ultimately, massage guns should feel good, says Haas.
4. Know what you want to get out of each stretch.
Understanding proper stretching mechanics—basically, what a stretch should generally look like and where in your body you should feel it—is key to getting the most out of your stretches. A big part of this includes knowing the intent of a certain stretch, says Haas.
Take a basic calf stretch, for example. As the name suggests, the intent of this move is to stretch your calf muscles. So if you’re performing it and feel a pinch in the front of your ankle instead, then that’s a sign something is off with your mechanics and you’re not actually stretching your calf, says Haas. In that case, stop what you’re doing and recheck your form until you feel it in the right spot. If you’re not sure what good form means, enlist the help of a certified personal trainer or physical therapist, Haas advises.
You can also check out stretching resources on SELF to break down the moves for your specific goals. For instance: stretches for calves, hip flexors, shoulders, butt, and lower back.
5. Integrate it into your day where you can.
One way to get and stay consistent with stretching and mobility work is to weave it into your daily routine, says Haas. “I’m a big fan of just integrating it here and there, wherever you can,” she says. “Anything is better than nothing.” Even a couple of minutes can be helpful. For instance:
- Wake up with a quick yoga-inspired flow first thing in the morning
- Bust out a few targeted stretches before a big meeting
- Use a massage tool on your feet during a Zoom call
- Slot in a foam roller session before bed
By doing small bursts of mobility work during the day, it takes the pressure off of having to dedicate a larger chunk of time to it, says Haas.
Small bursts also help break up sedentary patterns so that you’re not spending as much time locked in the same position. In turn, this can reduce how stiff you feel overall and thus reduce the amount of mobility work needed to combat that stiffness, says Haas.
Another pro tip: Place mobility tools—like a yoga mat, foam roller, or massage gun—in easy-to-spot places at home so that you’re more inclined to use them. Haas, for instance, has a small bin of mobility tools that she sees whenever she walks in the door, which encourages her to use them.
6. Don’t be afraid to enlist assistance.
If you’re doing stretches that involve a balance component—say, you’re pulling your ankle toward your butt to stretch your quad—use assistance if you need to, says Scantlebury. That way, you can focus your efforts on getting a good stretch versus wobbling all over the place. So if you struggle to balance when pulling your ankle to your butt, rest your hand on a chair or wall for support. And if you’re doing yoga-inspired stretches or mobility work, props like blocks, blankets, or straps can provide the modifications you need.
7. Learn what a “good” stretch feels like.
Wondering how much to push into a stretch? You want to feel some type of sensation, but the amount of pressure should feel good and never painful. If it’s painful, that communicates to your brain that there’s a problem, and your brain will likely tell the muscle to tighten up as a protective response, explains Haas. In other words, it won’t be an effective stretch.
A better approach is to gently ease into a stretch. You should feel like you can relax into it, says Haas. Then, when you feel your muscle loosen up a little (which is typically what happens), you can gently increase the intensity of the stretch, she advises. Typically, you should hold static stretches for 15 to 30 seconds, says Haas.
8. Don’t forget about strength work.
As you work to improve your mobility, don’t forget about strength work too. “It’s really important to have stability through the range of motion that you have,” says Haas, and strength work improves that.
In terms of combining strength work with mobility training, be careful of doubling up too much, says Haas. For instance, even though deadlifts can be a way to stretch your hamstrings, don’t push the stretch aspect too much, since that can be dangerous when you’re lifting heavy weights. Instead, let your strength work stay focused on strengthening, and save your mobility efforts for separate occasions. Consider this expert advice on how to create a balanced and effective weekly workout plan that incorporates strength work, cardio, and rest activities, including mobility work.
9. Reevaluate what “flexibility” means to you.
Even if you follow the above recommendations religiously, your flexibility still may not reach the level you’d hoped for. That’s simply because some of us are naturally more mobile and flexible than others. This is due to factors that are out of our control, including genetics and body type, as well as our past experiences with stretching and mobility work, says Scantlebury. For example, people who grew up doing activities that involve lots of flexibility and mobility—like dance, cheerleading, and gymnastics—are likely more flexible and mobile as adults compared to people who did not do those activities, he explains.
That’s why it’s important to keep your expectations around starting a mobility or stretching program in check: You don’t need to achieve flexibility feats to be “successful” in your mobility and stretching work. Haas, for one, is a yoga teacher and acknowledges she can’t touch her toes with straight legs and probably won’t ever reach that level of flexibility. “I use my hamstrings a lot for running, for skiing, for other things, and so there is a little bit of stiffness and tension in them based on that,” she explains. “Which is okay.”
Increasing your flexibility and mobility is possible, it just takes time and consistent effort. Current research shows that you need about six weeks of mobility work to see a desired outcome, says Haas. But that doesn’t mean you won’t gain anything in the interim. Pretty quickly after starting a mobility routine, you should simply start to feel better, says Scantlebury—think: less stiff and achy.
Stick with it, and you’ll notice changes in your muscle length and joint mobility. And moving better, and feeling better while doing it, is ultimately one of the biggest reasons to lead an active lifestyle in the first place.
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