Have you ever thought “I’m just a stiff person”?
For most of my life, that’s what I believed about myself. I just wasn’t naturally flexible; I wasn’t blessed to be bendy like some people. (Then I proved everyone wrong, including myself.)
I’m 31 now, but it wasn’t until the last few years that I was able to even touch my toes or raise my arms directly overhead.
Because flexibility didn’t seem to come easily to me, I focused on strength training. I was comfortable there. For the most part, I ignored flexibility training, except for the occasional half-assed quad stretches or a few mindless arm circles.
I’m sure you’ve seen the type of stretching I did. It’s common in any Globo Gym warm-up.
We’re told to stretch because it’s a “good warm-up,” but mainstream fitness culture doesn’t teach us much about how to improve our flexibility.
It seems like you’re either born flexible, or you’re just screwed.
But that’s not true.
In this guide I’m going to show you how to get more flexible, even if you’re currently as stiff as a 2×4.
But first, we need to address one thing.
The Myth of “Flexible People”
Because I wasn’t naturally good at flexibility, I told myself I wasn’t a “flexible person.” Rather than actively working on my flexibility, I let myself off the hook with an excuse. It wasn’t in my “genetics,” whatever that means.
Now, there might have been some truth to that. Maybe it didn’t come as easy to me as some, but it didn’t mean it was something I couldn’t improve on with time and effort.
If you’re struggling with your flexibility, the first thing I want you to do is reframe the way you look at it.
Instead of telling yourself, “I’m not naturally flexible” shift your mindset to “I’m always working on becoming more mobile and free in my body.”
It might seem simple or hokey, but I’ve found that our bodies are all bound up with our beliefs when it comes to not just our strength and coordination, but also our flexibility. After all, your brain is a part of your body, isn’t it? It’s just as important to train as your muscles. It’s important to address the mental side just as much as the physical. Otherwise, you’re unlikely to stay motivated to follow through on your training.
This is a shift from a belief where you have no control over your genetics, to one where you have control, since you can get results when you show up and put in the work.
Cut yourself some slack, our culture doesn’t do us any favors
Remember to go easy on yourself. Our modern culture of stagnancy and prolonged sitting doesn’t help us out much in the flexibility department. If you have a desk job, you may have to work a little harder.
Yes, moving more in nature will help. But we also need to address the lack of mobility to a certain degree in order to prevent injury.
Stretching and mobility work is not just a warmup
The main reason average folks don’t improve their flexibility is because they consider stretching to be the warm-up, and weight lifting, bodyweight excises, or cardio to be the core focus of their workouts.
This is why you see people doing half-assed quad stretches.
It’s also a myth. Improving your range of motion is something you need to work on just as seriously as strength or cardio training if you want to see results.
The missing element in stretching
Even if you do treat stretching as a serious component of your training, you are likely making a big mistake that the vast majority of people make: only doing passive stretching.
What is passive stretching? It’s where an external force is assisting your body into reaching the position.
A good example of this is the pec stretch done against a doorway. You’re using the door and the weight of your body, not your muscles, to get into the stretch.
The opposite would be actively using your back muscles to achieve the stretched position. Take a look at the difference, side-by-side:
This kind of stretching is great for relaxing, and it absolutely has its place, but it doesn’t build much internal control over the range of motion.
An example of active flexibility, on the other hand, would be where you’re using the muscles of your back to pull your arm and pec into a stretched position.
Unless we’re actively engaging our muscles and sending neural drive to them, we won’t be creating very useful flexibility.
A perfect example is a person that can do the splits on the floor. Sure, it looks like a nice photo for Instagram, but could they actually control that range of motion without assistance from the floor? Could they call on their flexibility to deliver a head kick? Probably not, because the passive flexibility needed for floor splits doesn’t transfer to actively being able to control that flexibility while standing.
How to do active stretching to become more flexible, faster
If passive stretching is like breathing and relaxing into the positive, active stretching is the opposite. It’s creating tension while you’re in a stretched position.
By sending neural drive (tension) into our tissues, we’re asking our bodies to control the end range of motion. The more we prove to our body that we can control a position, the more range it opens and makes available to us.
Because we’re working at end range, in a stretched position, we want to be careful not to tense up too hard, or too fast. And we definitely want to warm up before we work in this range. You should ramp up tension progressively. Aim for about 50-70% of your max effort. Always stop if you reach a point of pain. Pain is a signal that the body doesn’t trust the movement, and you need to back off a bit. It could even be an indication that you need to rehab with gentle movement or seek help from a professional to release the tissues.
Here’s a video demonstrating active stretching to open the shoulders. Once you understand the principle, you can find all sorts of ways to apply this concept.
Consistency is everything
I think that every day we should be doing things to maintain our flexibility. Bare minimum, we should move all our joints through their full range of motion each day.
That’s your baseline, non-negotiable work if you want to maintain the ranges you currently have and not get any stiffer than you already are.
If you want to improve your active flexibility, I recommend training each joint you’re wanting to work at least twice a week for 20-30 minutes. So if you want to improve you hip and shoulder flexibility, you could train flexibility for an hour every Tuesday and Thursday.
These sessions should feel like work. Cramping is to be expected. You’ll likely be sore the next day. If not, you might not be working hard enough.
It may take some experimentation, so find what works for you. Personally I find doing a little bit every day to be the approach that helps me stick with it.
Flexibility is about expanding your freedom of movement
Use it or lose it is the way our body adapts to life. If we don’t use our full range of motion, our bodies end up making those ranges stiff and unaccessible. The more we reclaim our flexibility, the more flexibility our body wants to give us. In can become an upward spiral of progress.
One of the biggest barriers I see to people sticking with flexibility work as a consistent practice is that it can be very boring and tedious.
Holding a position for 2+ minutes, where you’re flexing and cramping… it’s not fun.
The solution I see to this is to keep remembering the freedom you are working toward. That’s the ultimate goal of this type of training after all, expanding the movement possibilities you have available to you. It’s about unlocking new ways you can play, explore your body, and find joy in movement, not just pain and tension.
The more range of motion you open up with your “boring” flexibility work, the more creative and free you’ll become in your movement.
You’ll be able to use your hips not just to get into a yoga position, but to climb better, dance more freely, or have more fun in the bedroom.
More active flexibility = more options in life and play.
Does it just feel like everything is tight, and you’re not sure where to start?
While you could just try to stretch everything, you’re likely to end up with a bloated training program that would make even Jean Claude Van Damme cringe.
If you’re really not sure where to start, or just want a program to guide you, I recommend Focused Flexibility by GMB.
They have an assessment that helps you get clear on the ranges of motion you need the most improvement in. And they guide you through developing a flexibility program that makes sense for you and your specific needs.
Full disclosure: If you click on the link above and purchase GMB’s program, I will get a cut. This helps me make more awesome videos and tutorials like this for you. I only promote products I’ve personally used and tested, so you can be sure they’re top notch. Thanks for helping out!