So You Want to Be More Flexible? Here’s How to Get Started


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overhead view of a person wearing a charcoal gray tank top and leggings sitting on a peach yoga mat, leaning forward to touch their toes
Anchiy / Getty Images

If bending over to touch your toes seems like an impossible task, it may be time to start thinking about increasing your flexibility.

From breath work to stretching to strengthening, focused effort just a few times a week can make a significant difference in how flexible you feel.

Read on for our beginner’s guide to becoming more flexible, one stretch at a time.

What flexibility is and isn’t

Flexibility is the ability of your muscles and other connective tissues to stretch temporarily.

Mobility is the ability of your joints to move freely through a range of motion in a pain-free way.

Part of good mobility is good flexibility. But being flexible doesn’t mean your mobility is up to par, and vice versa.

Flexibility is just one piece of the mobility puzzle.

Why flexibility is important

At its core, flexibility is important for everyday life.

Think about bending over to pick up the laundry or reaching for something high on a shelf. If your muscles are inelastic, tasks like these will be much more complicated.

Flexibility is also needed to release muscle tension and soreness as well as to promote relaxation. It’s hard to get comfortable if your body constantly aches!

It can also improve aerobic fitness, muscular strength, and endurance, allowing muscles to complete the full range of motion (mobility) for maximum effect.

How to build a routine that suits your needs

If you’re looking to increase your overall flexibility, it’s best to incorporate a combination of breath work, static stretching, and dynamic stretching.

Adding strength training can further improve both your flexibility and mobility.

This may seem like a big time commitment, but even 10 minutes a few times a week can make a difference.

If you already have an exercise routine, try adding a short session of breath work and dynamic stretching before a workout and static stretching afterward.

You may also consider making stretching part of your morning or bedtime routine.

How to maximize your training

To get the most out of your flexibility training, keep these factors in mind:

  • Aim for 3 days a week of flexibility training to start. A 10- to 15-minute session that combines breath work, static stretching, and dynamic stretching will be efficient and manageable.
  • Hold or perform each stretch for 15 to 30 seconds. Relax and repeat.
  • Perform dynamic stretches before strength training and cool down with static stretches after. Static stretching is typically safer and more effective when performed on warm muscles.

Breath work

Proper breathing is an important part of all exercise, especially stretching.

The foundation of breath work — diaphragmatic breathing — is intended to teach you how to breathe more effectively and with less energy.

It also engages and strengthens your diaphragm and core muscles. If your diaphragm and core aren’t strong, stretching and strength training will be more difficult.

Diaphragmatic breathing

Mastering diaphragmatic breath is a great first step to getting in tune with your body and increasing your flexibility.

How to:

  1. Stand or sit in a chair. Place your hands on either side of your rib cage.
  2. Inhale through your nose, filling your lungs with air and feeling your rib cage expand.
  3. Begin to exhale through your mouth, engaging your core and pelvic floor muscles as you push the air out.

Seated inhale and exhale

Build on diaphragmatic breath by adding movement with your arms.

How to:

  1. Sit cross-legged with your arms down at your side.
  2. Inhale and bring your arms up overhead.
  3. Exhale and return your arms back to start.

Seated side-to-side stretch

Build on diaphragmatic breath again and start to stretch your torso with a side-to-side stretch.

How to:

  1. Sit cross-legged with your arms down at your side.
  2. Inhale and bring your right arm up over your head to the left, stretching your right side.
  3. Exhale and return back to start.
  4. Inhale and repeat with your left arm.

Cat-Cow

This yoga move stretches your spine and core and opens your chest.

How to:

  1. Start on all fours with your wrists stacked directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips.
  2. Inhale and arch your back, turning your face toward the sky and allowing your stomach to drop toward the ground.
  3. Exhale and round your back, allowing your head to drop and feeling the stretch. Turn your face toward the sky, allowing your stomach to drop toward the ground.

Lying twist

Focusing on your breath in the lying twist will allow you to sink deeper into the stretch.

How to:

  1. Lie on your back on the ground.
  2. Bring your arms out to form a T and twist your lower body to the right side, bending your left leg and allowing your left knee to rest on the ground.
  3. Keeping your shoulders on the floor, turn your head to the left.
  4. On each exhale, allow your body to relax slightly deeper into the stretch.

Static stretches

One great way to improve flexibility is static stretching, which is where you come into a stretch and hold it without movement for a certain period of time.

Even adding static stretching into your routine on its own can make a powerful difference in how your body feels.

There are a few things to keep in mind while performing static stretches:

  • Warm up beforehand. Spend 5 to 10 minutes on a low-intensity warmup, such as walking, to get your muscles warm before diving into a static stretch routine. Stretching cold muscles can increase your chances of injury.
  • Don’t bounce. While it may be tempting to go up and down quickly in the stretch to go deeper, this can risk injury to your muscles. Instead, hold at the point of tension for 15 to 30 seconds, then relax and repeat.
  • Don’t push too far. Stretch to the point of tension, then stop there. Overexerting can cause injury.
  • Remember your breath. Be aware of your inhale and exhale pattern, practicing diaphragmatic breathing whenever possible.

Forward Fold

A basic Forward Fold will stretch the entire back side of your body, including your calves, hamstrings, glutes, and spine.

How to:

  1. With your feet close together, bend forward at your hips, bringing your head to your knees and your hands on or toward the ground.
  2. Without locking your knees, lengthen your legs as much as possible.
  3. If needed, bend your knees slightly to allow your hands to touch the ground. You can also place a yoga block or other prop in front of you and allow your hands to rest there.

Seated torso stretch

This move — also called the seated pretzel stretch — will provide a nice lengthening of your spine as well as stretch your glutes.

How to:

  1. Sit on the ground with your right leg extended and your left leg crossed over your right with your left foot on the floor.
  2. Twist your torso toward the left, using your right hand against your left thigh for resistance.
  3. Breathe into the stretch, allowing a deeper twist on each exhale.

Figure-four

Release tight hips and glutes with a figure-four stretch.

You can also perform this stretch while standing, though it requires quite a bit more balance. Stay on the ground until you’re comfortable.

How to:

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground.
  2. Bring your right ankle to your left knee, allowing your right leg to rest there, bent.
  3. Placing your hands on the back of your left leg, gently pull your left leg toward your chest, feeling a stretch in the right hip and glute.
  4. Repeat on the other leg.

Kneeling hip flexor stretch

If you sit most of the day, tight hip flexors are probably your nemesis.

Stretch this area at the front of your hip to ensure mobility for the long haul.

How to:

  1. Assume a lunge position with your right leg forward, ensuring your right knee is over your right foot.
  2. Allow your left knee to rest on the floor.
  3. Place both hands on your right leg for support and keep your back straight.
  4. Gently lean backward until you feel resistance, hanging out here to feel the stretch.
  5. Repeat on the other leg.

Neck rotation

When stretching, it’s important not to neglect the head and neck area.

From “text neck” to a bad night’s sleep, prolonged unnatural positioning can leave you feeling sore and out of alignment.

How to:

  1. In a comfortable seated or standing position, place your right hand on the top left side of your head.
  2. Tilt your head to the right, allowing your left hand to gently deepen the stretch you feel along your neck’s left side.
  3. Repeat on the other side.

Chest stretch

Another culprit of sitting all day: a tight chest.

When your shoulders naturally round forward, your chest will take the brunt, so allowing for a nice opening stretch will ensure that you can continue to stand proud.

How to:

  1. Stand with your feet together.
  2. Clasp your hands, with arms extended, together behind your back.
  3. Begin to raise your arms up and bend forward at your waist, feeling the stretch in your chest.

Dynamic stretches

Another way to increase flexibility — and mobility — is by incorporating dynamic stretching, which is a movement-based type of stretching.

Instead of coming into a position and holding it, a dynamic stretch puts the muscles and joints through a full range of motion. This is a great warmup before a number of different activities.

Perform this sequence of five dynamic stretches, each for 30 seconds, to reap the benefits.

Front swings

Loosen up your hips with this move.

How to:

  1. Position yourself next to a wall or other stable surface, allowing your hand to reach out for balance.
  2. Begin to gently swing your outside leg front and back, aiming to swing your leg as high as it will go.
  3. Repeat on the other leg.

Side swings

Similar to front swings, side swings loosen up your hips by working in a different plane of motion.

How to:

  1. Position yourself near a wall or other stable surface, but this time, face it and put your hands against it for support.
  2. Give yourself enough clearance and, when you’re ready, begin to swing your right leg out to your side and back in. Aim to go as high as you can.
  3. Repeat on the other leg.

Lunge with a twist

Adding a gentle trunk rotation to your reverse lunge will allow for a nice stretch in the torso.

How to:

  1. Step back into a reverse lunge with your right leg, allowing your torso to twist over your left thigh.
  2. Come back to start.
  3. Repeat with the left leg.

Arm circles

Loosen up your shoulders and upper back with arm circles.

You’ll want to go both ways with the circles. You might find that one is easier than the other — that’s OK, and to be expected.

How to:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your arms down at your sides.
  2. With straight arms, begin to lift your arms up in front of you, then back behind your head, aiming to draw a circle with your fingertips.
  3. Try to keep your arms straight the whole time, and stick as close to your ears as you can.
  4. Repeat, going the opposite way with your arms.

High knees

Whether you step your high knees or keep one foot off the ground throughout, this move will get the blood pumping to your lower limbs while stretching your glutes, hips, and knee joints.

How to:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Drive one knee up and bring your foot back down to the ground.
  3. Immediately drive the other knee up, and repeat.

Strength training

Although you may think about stretching as a way to increase flexibility and mobility, strength training can also improve both — if done with proper form and the full range of motion, that is.

Stick with foundational movements (like the five below) and focus on form to give the muscles the best workout.

Squat

One of the holy grail exercises, a squat will get your lower body in tip-top shape.

How to:

  1. Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and toes pointed slightly out.
  2. Begin to sit back in the hips, then bend your knees to lower yourself down, almost as if you were going to sit in a chair.
  3. Allow your arms to come out in front of you in a comfortable way, and ensure that your knees don’t fall in.
  4. Stop when your thighs are parallel to the ground, then return to start.

Lunge with back bend

Add a gentle back bend to your lunge to further engage and stretch your torso.

How to:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your arms down at your sides.
  2. Lunge forward with your right leg, keeping your right knee over your right ankle.
  3. Bring your arms straight above your head and gently lean back, feeling a stretch in your core and hip flexor.
  4. Hold here for 5 to 10 seconds, the return to start.
  5. Alternate legs for the desired number of reps.

Single-leg deadlift

Stretch and strengthen the posterior chain — or the back of your body — with this move.

How to:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your arms down at your sides.
  2. Inhale and bend forward at your hips, allowing your right leg to come out behind you.
  3. Allow for a soft left knee, and ensure that your hips stay square to the ground.
  4. Repeat for the desired number of reps, then switch legs.

Dumbbell chest press

Stretch and strengthen your chest with a dumbbell chest press.

  1. Lie with your back on a bench and a dumbbell in each hand at chest level.
  2. Push the dumbbells up over your chest, ending with your arms directly over your shoulders at the top.
  3. Pause here, then release the dumbbells back to your chest, feeling the stretch at the bottom of the range of motion.

Common mistakes to watch for

With all stretching, it’s important that you listen to your body.

If you start to feel pain or significant discomfort, stop immediately. You could risk a muscle strain or even a tear.

Stretch just to the point of tension and hold there. With consistent practice, you’ll ease into your flexibility in no time.

The bottom line

Stretching just 30 minutes a week can dramatically increase your flexibility over time.

There are numerous benefits associated with good flexibility — the most important being your quality of life. And the great thing is, it’s never too late to start!


Nicole Davis is a writer based in Madison, WI, a personal trainer, and a group fitness instructor whose goal is to help women live stronger, healthier, happier lives. When she’s not working out with her husband or chasing around her young daughter, she’s watching crime TV shows or making sourdough bread from scratch. Find her on Instagram for fitness tidbits, #momlife and more.


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