We want you to try something right now. Stand up, fold at the hips, and try to touch your toes while keeping your legs straight. What happens? If you feel as though your hamstrings are being stretched to their absolute limit — and yet your hands have barely passed your knees — it sounds like you might be a little inflexible.
Don’t worry. It happens.
Let’s talk about why you’re so inflexible, what causes it, why you should care, and what you can do to improve it.
What Causes Inflexibility?
There are a number of culprits. Here are a few of the more common ones.
A Sedentary Life
If you’re a 9-5er sitting at a desk most of your day, remaining mostly sedentary, it’s more than likely contributing to your inflexibility.
Your body will only be as flexible as you ask it to be. If you’re sitting in a chair all day, you’re not asking it to do much. As a result, many of your muscles — including your hamstrings, groin, pecs, and the muscles of your lower back — tighten and shorten. The result? You can’t stretch them as far.
And the really scary part? This is only one of the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle.
We know what you’re thinking: What on earth could muscle weakness have to do with muscle inflexibility?
Here’s the thing. Your brain and central nervous system will try to protect you from doing things that your body isn’t ready to do. Your muscles need to be strong enough to protect the joint that you’re attempting to stretch.
If they’re not strong enough, then you’re going to run into that stiffness. This is an attempt to prevent tissue damage and injury.
Soreness, Overuse, or Injury
If you do a grueling 90-minute yoga session and have a hard time getting out of bed the next morning, it’s understandably the soreness that’s causing your inflexibility.
The same can be said for overuse. Maybe you’re a functional fitness athlete working on your overhead squats. That’s a tough position for many people to get into as is. If you tackle this movement over and over again, across days and weeks, the overuse is going to get to you and likely cause some stiffness.
An injury is a really good reason to take it easy. If you hurt your hip and then attempt to squat or lunge, you might run into some trouble. Don’t push it — your body is healing! That inflexibility, while frustrating, is there to protect you. It’s your body’s way of saying, “This is as far as I can go right now.”
Why Should You Pay Attention to Your Inflexibility?
Whenever your body tells you something, you should listen; and stiff muscles that don’t seem to want to stretch any further is no different.
Unbeknownst to some athletes, inflexibility is a very common cause of injury. And it makes perfect sense, if you think about it. If you’re sitting at a desk all day — hunched over, head jutting forward to look at the monitor — and then you go run three muscles or do 40 kipping pull-ups in a workout or hit the tennis court to practice your backhand — why would this turn out okay?
For most of us, training is a small part of our lifestyle. A much bigger part is the things that contribute to inflexibility, like sitting at a desk.
This means that when you’re planning your training programming, you need to take your other lifestyle habits into consideration, because they absolutely have an impact.
And when your muscles have reached their limit, it’s time to hit the pause button, listen to your body, and react accordingly.
What does that mean, exactly?
How to Improve Your Flexibility
If you feel inflexible, here’s the great news: You’re not stuck with it! Just like everything else in fitness, this is something you can work on and improve. But we want to emphasize something really important: Patience is key. This will not happen overnight, and it’s not supposed to.
Be diligent and consistent and over time, you’ll see results.
Avoid Staying in One Position for Too Long
This goes for both excessive sitting and excessive standing. If your job requires you to spend much of the day on your fit, inflexibility can strike you, too. And it’s for the same reasons: When your body gets used to one position, the muscles tighten to reflect it.
The easiest way to manage this one is to set alarms or reminders on your phone for once or twice an hour. If you’re sitting, stand up and walk around. If you're standing, take a break and rest your feet. While you’re at it, throw in a few air squats for good measure.
It’s a small change that will make a huge difference. You might also be surprised to find that any hip or chronic back pain you’ve been fighting actually disappears. Bonus!
Roll Out First
When you roll out with a foam roller, you’re breaking up some of the crusty tissue, helping your muscles relax, and quite literally aiding them in lengthening and stretching out.
This is an excellent way to get your muscles ready for further stretching. And on that note...
Hold Your Stretches for a Little Longer
Sometimes, five seconds seems like five minutes. But here’s the problem. Holding a challenging stretch for five seconds isn’t going to do much.
Try holding it for 20 to 30 seconds instead.
Bear in mind that these are habits you’re going to need to adopt and practice consistently every week. Even if it’s a rest day, you’d be wise to add a little stretching into your day, maybe first thing in the morning or before you go to bed.
With time, you’ll kick your inflexibility to the curb.
Another simple way to improve flexibility is with electric muscle stimulation. With a device like PowerDot, you can keep your muscle tissue healthy and active, recover faster, and even heal more quickly from injury.
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Learn more about how to increase flexibility with six stretching exercises.