A couple weeks ago, I sent out a newsletter in which I talked about the secret to flexibility being no secret at all, but simply commitment over time to work and consistency. In other words, there are no magic tricks or secret formulas or fancy gadgets that will suddenly increase your flexibility without any work. I think a lot of people waste inordinate amounts of time reading, watching videos, planning programs in their heads, and doing everything other than actually stretching, and find themselves, unsurprisingly, just as inflexible as they’ve always been month after month and year after year.
One of the readers of my newsletter pointed out that it’s much easier to maintain flexibility than develop it, and that the real secret was maintaining the natural flexibility of childhood into adulthood. Of course this is true, but it’s not very helpful to adults who didn’t have the foresight as 5-year-olds to stick with regular stretching for the next few decades.
Another pointed out that an athlete should have an appropriate degree of flexibility for his or her chosen sport, no more and no less. This is also true, and something I’ve been writing about since at least 2006 in this article
; it’s also discussed in great detail in my book, Olympic Weightlifting: A Complete Guide for Athletes & Coaches
. My point is that I’m not overlooking this part of flexibility; I’m just not talking about it right now. I’m talking about getting more flexible and assuming that one is doing so appropriately.
I can recall several years ago reading an article that claimed it was impossible for adults to increase flexibility. This is memorable to me because it was such an absurd notion; I see adults in my gym every day getting more flexible when they put in the work. I think this conclusion is the product of inflexible people getting frustrated and discouraged because they don’t see stunning, dramatic changes in flexibility after a couple days of stretching or knotting themselves up with elastic bands.
As an adult myself (at least biologically), and having slacked on my own formerly great flexibility for the last few years, I decided to run a little n=1 experiment on myself to see how long it would take, and what it would take, to get myself back to being able to do the front splits, something I was last able to do about seven or eight years ago.
The trick, though, was that I didn’t want to have to invest much time or effort into it. I have plenty of other things to keep myself busy. I wanted to test the idea of frequency and consistency being enough with nothing but simple, common stretches and not a lot of time or brain power. I didn’t want to use bands, PNF tricks, or anything but basic, static stretches that can be done by anyone.
Here is what I did:
May 20 2013
June 8 2013
Foam Roll Frequency:
1 time/day, 5-6 days/week
Foam Roll Duration:
approximately 10 passes
1-2 times/day, 5-7 days/week
Foam Roll Series:
1. Upper back
2. Lateral glutes
4. Quads (lateral to anterior)
1. Lying hamstring (straight knee)
5. Modified Pigeon Pose
6. Modified Hurdler’s Stretch
7. Front Split
That’s it. During this time period, I would break from working around 11, spend a little time doing this flexibility work, some ab work and some shoulder pre-hab work. After I trained in the afternoon/evening, sometimes I would stretch again depending on how much time and energy I had; this was maybe every other day.
Last Saturday after I trained, I did my stretching series and when I got to the front split, I was there again. Was it a perfect split position? Not really, but good enough for my purposes--my front hamstrings were pressed flat against the mat. That’s about three weeks of not much work and effort. Now, I’ll be fair and concede that I have historically been more flexible than the average person, and I did have this level of flexibility previously. I have no doubt that allows me to get this kind of improvement more quickly and easily than someone who has never been very flexible, but I also feel that letting that flexibility go for almost 10 years was a pretty good reset.
The point is that while you may not respond quite as quickly as I did, you will respond, and if you’re not getting more flexible, you’re doing something wrong—and I’d be willing to bet that’s not being consistent enough for long enough. Knuckle down and put in the work and time.
Things can't improve if you don't work on them. Keep working and you will get at least some benefit.
Agreed, which is why I recommended foam rolling before stretching - this is the practical alternative to having a manual therapist work on you 7 days/week.
Don't give up hope. Just like with anything, consistency and persistence will pay off eventually.
Hard work is ALWAYS needed. A good method is needed as well, and traditional static stretches simply do not work for the majority of people.
It's also pretty clear that it's not a quick or easy process. Obviously the less flexible you are to begin with, the more work and the longer it will take to reach a given level of flexibility. No surprises there. You can quit and get zero more flexibility, or you can stick with it and get more, even if it's not as much as you want as quickly as you want. Up to you.
I would argue that there isn't a single flexibility study that proves anything other than that it's not easy to do conclusive studies. I covered this in detail in an article years ago. Huge amount of contradictory results in a wide array of test subjects, protocols and circumstances.
However, in the 17 years I've been in this industry, I have seen plenty of flexibility improvement in non-naturally-flexible adults as the result of static stretching in addition to other training, so quite honestly, I don't particularly care whether or not research "proves" anything one way or another.
I started with competitive acrobatic rock and roll as an adult and was really inflexible back then. But in the early 90's there wasn't much theory about it. So I started stretching regularly, daily, trying to achieve e.g. splits. After few months I was just a little bit more flexible. I mean, my muscles were, but the shape of my hips joints didn't alow me to go lower. I developed a chronic pain in my hips - even walking was painful. I first thought that it was from overtraining rock and roll kicks, but after few months of reducing stretching, the pain was gone.
I am not advising not to stretch. Stretching for dancers is useful. But do not expect to achieve full splits, if your skeleton doesn't allow you!
It's not just my opinion, physio experts would also agree with me.
Butterfly and Straddle