I Am Inflexible
June 9, 2010 9:25 PM   Subscribe

I have been very inflexible since I was a small child. Is it possible for someone like me to become more flexible?

I'm a 28 year-old woman and have often wished I could be more flexible. I watch dancers on TV and am awed by their being able to move in ways that I can't even imagine my body doing. While I don't bother wishing I could move like that, it would nice to be more flexible than I am and feel more freedom in the way I move.

Even when I was in high school, when I tried to improve flexibility on my own just by holding basic poses that made me feel a stretch, I never felt like I became any more flexible. Worse, if I did this for a few days in a row, it would just start to hurt in a bad way, again while my flexibility didn't seem to improve at all. I never felt like I was pushing myself that hard, and I'd only do it for a couple minutes each day, so it quickly got frustrating and I'd just drop it after a few days. That still happens now.

I took a yoga class in college, thinking it would help, and had bad results with that - even the most basic moves hurt. I couldn't do child's pose, which is supposed to be relaxing. It hurt my hip/thigh joints on both sides and was horribly uncomfortable. The best my yoga teacher could do was have me do child's pose while lying on my back. No one else in the class had this problem. I have had physical therapy treatment for other issues (my wrists are too flexible) and my physical therapist acknowledged my flexibility is very poor for someone my age. But I haven't felt it's enough of a problem to go back to physical therapy to concentrate on that.

Is it possible that it's simply impossible for me to become much more flexible than I already am, given the issues I've had? If not, are there any online exercise videos or techniques that people who've been in this situation would recommend?
posted by wondermouse to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I too have this problem. I was actually kicked off a dance team in 8th grade for being unable to do the splits - and I had been trying all summer to do them. The other girls made fun of me, but the fact was, none of them had ever had any real difficulty doing the splits, and I'd worked hard at it and just could not do it. There are some things that are no big deal for me - touching my toes comes to mind, and pretty much anything with my arms - but the splits are a nonstarter, and I can't turn out my toes very far at all.

For me, I think it just comes down to anatomy - I have a congenital deformity in my kneecaps, and it makes a lot of things just generally tougher for me. Perhaps you have a similar thing going on. I think a physical therapist could probably help you, but it may not be worth your while. One thing you might look into is a single session with a personal trainer to see if they can pinpoint what the issue is and tell you how to strengthen or stretch other muscles to compensate. A personal trainer figured out that I could fix a lot of issues by beefing up my hamstrings well before a doctor ever said any such thing.
posted by little light-giver at 9:38 PM on June 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

You don't seem to mention whether you've tried stretching. By that I mean, I'm not sure what you mean by "holding basic poses" and I'm not sure what you did in your yoga class, but just plain stretching would be the obvious thing to become more flexible. Like this stuff.
posted by creasy boy at 9:58 PM on June 9, 2010

IME yes you can become more flexible but it doesn't last. You have to keep practising the stretching constantly to maintain it.
Most people I've know, without having to do any exercise or stretching could get pretty close to their toes if I asked them to try to touch them - without any extra effort, I can just about touch my knees. With daily practice for a few weeks I've been able to just touch the top of my foot but only for a few seconds - its a real stretch, stop doing it for a while and all that progress is lost.
posted by missmagenta at 10:16 PM on June 9, 2010

Stretching and yoga won't help. A recent study showed that, in general, stretching and yoga didn't increase joint flexibility, longterm. (Interestingly, it also showed that tightness increased long-distance running efficiency, without injury risk, but that's another discussion.)

What they will do is warm the muscles up. If you are prone to cramps, or are usually poorly exercised, they can prevent injury from sudden intense use (like a hike, when you rarely do long walks).
posted by IAmBroom at 10:45 PM on June 9, 2010

Flexibility is pretty much genetic and forcing yourself to stretch beyond your natural limits is going to lead to pain and injury. What you can do is improve your balance and even out your muscle groups, which will make you seem more flexible. A lot of women have grossly uneven quads and hamstrings for example
posted by fshgrl at 12:05 AM on June 10, 2010

I Disagree with IAmaBroom. Yoga will help you. The Secret is finding the right teacher who goes at your sppeed emphazing that there is no competition. You mentioned above that you were "the only...." so what? This is about you not them. Maybe your inflexability is not only in parts of your body. Again Yoga will help. Anyway It's fun!
posted by adamvasco at 12:18 AM on June 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have had physical therapy treatment for other issues (my wrists are too flexible)...

On the basis of this statement I would say no, there isn't much you can do about it, and what's more, it would probably be unwise to try.

Elastin gives connective tissue its ability to stretch, and its ability to restore itself to its former shape after being stretched. You seem to be having difficulties forward and back, and my fear is that any success you might have stretching things out would lead to more problems such as you are having with your wrists.

Elastin is known to be deficient in various hereditary syndromes, for example Williams' syndrome, and this deficiency can lead to heart problems in some cases.

I think you should look into that, one of these days.
posted by jamjam at 12:19 AM on June 10, 2010

I have some philosophical objections to Yoga, and while I don't want to be too much of a nay-sayer here, suffice it to say: Yoga is profoundly misunderstood in the West. Yoga is supposed to be a spiritual art dedicated to destroying your body in order to free your mind from this limited husk called the body. It is true asceticism, denial of the body and negation of the flesh; it's not meant to nurture or heal you. True Yogis would probably either laugh or cry to know that their teachings are being used in the name of "health," which was in fact the opposite of their aim. And it's not really surprising to me that you'd find it painful, awkward, or uncomfortable; even aside from your own difficulties, that is what Yoga is supposed to be. So apparently you were actually doing Yoga right – because the pain and discomfort should give you an opportunity to free your mind from the form of the body through contemplation.

(Of course, other people may have their own interpretations, and if Yoga does you some good, well, there's nothing wrong with that, is there? I mean no offense to anyone who loves Yoga; this is just my own opinion.)

In any case: I've always felt more personal connection to Tai Chi, and it's a discipline that's really helped me loosen up a lot. I find that looseness of muscles and joints tends to start with the spine; the spine is central to almost everything else in your body, and once it's loose and freely moving, your whole body begins to feel better. Tai Chi is a practice of creating absolute softness in the body, since, as the principle has it, 'absolute softness is conducive to absolute hardness.' I think this is true in many ways; you can't really be strong unless you have a certain amount of looseness.

If you don't want to study a discipline, Tai Chi is still pretty easy to get into a bit. Chi Gung (or Qigong) is a series of brief exercises based on the Tai Chi movements which are customarily done before practicing the routine, but which you can do on your own. You can find even find guide videos on the internet which you could follow along with if you wanted. (They always have awful music; I don't know why. I just ignore it.)
posted by koeselitz at 1:22 AM on June 10, 2010 [10 favorites]

I've been able to touch my toes for the first time in my life this past few weeks.

2-3x gym sessions and a spin class a week since January. I do free weights, a little running and rowing, mostly cycling for aerobic and finish with some simple stretches.

No Yoga, I too find it very frustrating and painful. One thing I've figured out on my exercise journey so far is that if you don't like it, you're not likely to do it, so find something you do like.

Not sure whats changed. I'm leaner and fitter with more muscle but it could be that I'm regularly exercising and I'm all warmed up when I bend now.
posted by Ness at 2:56 AM on June 10, 2010

I took Yoga for three years from a wonderful instructor. My gym offered classes three times a week that they outsourced to a local teacher. When I started, I had persistent back problems (herniated two discs) that were due to short hamstrings yanking on my pelvis. When I started, when I did a forward fold, my fingertips made it barely past my knee.

I had to modify a lot of the poses to compensate for my horrible flexibility. I used props to help out. Slowly, but surely things loosened up. I learned better body awareness. I remember the day that I touched my toes - it wasn't woo-hoo elation, just a smile of warmth because I knew I was going to get there.

She practiced Hatha Yoga and had studied at B. K. S. Iyengar's school. Her practice was distinctly missing the spiritual, meditative aspects and focused on the mechanical aspects of Yoga.
posted by plinth at 3:18 AM on June 10, 2010

PNF Stretching
Basically, you stretch to your comfort limit (such as a hamstring stretch); then contract the muscle (hamstrings which are fully extended), hold , move the joint through it's range of motion (bend the knee, no longer stretching), then repeat. It's amazing how this can almost immediately change your range of motion.

Resistance Stretching is basically, coming under a load (weight) at your stretched position.

You have to be careful while stretching - first, it's easy to damage the muscle as you're moving into a new range of motion where the muscle isn't strong. This is your joint system at it's limits; never move through pain. Strengthening the muscles in these vulnerable positions is a preventative to injury. Second, you must warm up first; light warming up activities thicken the tendons and gets blood into the joint systems.

Last, hyper flexibility leads to joint laxity. You'll notice that only kids (or people who started as kids) can do a split. Your grandparents can't; joints lose flexibility with age.
posted by filmgeek at 3:46 AM on June 10, 2010 [4 favorites]

Yoga did not work for me. It made me weaker and it hurt. Relax into Stretch by Pavel Tsatsouline made my hips and knees hurt too.

What finally worked were these:
http://www.magnificentmobility.com/ (dynamic stretching)
http://www.easyvigour.net.nz/fitness/h_gluteus_maxintro.htm (looks insane but actually had good advice that I couldn't find anywhere else)
http://www.amazon.com/Starting-Strength-2nd-Mark-Rippetoe/dp/0976805421 (you can only safely increase your flexibility if you increase your strength at the same time. finally learned that. you can only lift weights properly if you have flexibility in the right proportions. this is awesome ground truth. this is the book I use.)
Lift weights and walk a lot in these:
http://www.vibramfivefingers.com/ (KSOs are the most comfortable. this will change your body alignment, and make you stretch a bunch of different things like your calves.)
Also, find shoes or flip-flips with negative heels.
Lastly, your diet may need some work. Play with this: http://www.amazon.com/Thrive-Nutrition-Optimal-Performance-Sports/dp/0738212547/ (your body will flex better if you're getting the right nutrients.)

Before doing any stretching, you should warm up until you're sweating freely. Never stretch before going to bed, leave a few hours of light activity. Better to stretch as early in the day as possible so lymphatic waste can drain.

Lastly, try to use your full range of motion in daily life. Squat over the toilet; don't sit. Reach your hands above your head. Wash your back in the shower using only your hands. If you're like me, you didn't use your full range of motion during daily life, so gaining flexibility was a losing battle. Yeah, it's not fair, but I guess our genetics are different.
posted by zeek321 at 4:46 AM on June 10, 2010 [4 favorites]

Former dancer here who struggled with flexibility for years.

There are some areas where you will be able to improve flexibility, and some you will not. This is assuming a standard, but non-flexible physique with no medical issues.

I would expect with frequent and serious stretching, large muscle groups, like the backs of your legs, quads, and abs can be made more flexible. With more 'bony' areas, like the hips and back, you pretty much won't get beyond what you start with. Hips in particular can really cause a lot of pain if you try to do things you aren't meant to...hence why some girls will NEVER be able to do a 'middle' split. Your hip rotation is limited by your anatomy, and while some degree of extra flexibility can be obtained through stretching, your turnout is what it is. Ditto with spine flexibility. Some people can literally arch their back to the degree that their head hits their butt. I have a moderately flexible lower back and fairly inflexible upper back, and no amount of stretching or training was able to change that.

For specific exercises, I recommend looking at pilates or ballet-based workouts. These emphasize long, lean, strong muscles.
posted by tryniti at 6:31 AM on June 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Water aerobics and water dance! I've never tried but I know they work well to help older people develop better strength and flexibility, it might work well for you too. You might also try to dance as much as possible. Put on whatever music turns you on and just move to it, any way you can.
posted by mareli at 6:35 AM on June 10, 2010

Stretching can work, if you do the right stretches for your body, and do them every day. I've become dramatically more flexible in certain specific ways, since making it a daily practice to do all of the stretching exercises my physical therapist assigned me. Doing these stretches before I go for my evening walk means I no longer wake up in pain at 5 am every morning, which was a real problem for me without the stretching. It's almost entirely useless to be able to touch my toes, after being unable to do so all my life due to tight calves and hamstrings, but it's an interesting side effect.
posted by Ery at 6:44 AM on June 10, 2010

The one time I was able to touch my head to my knees (doing a seated forward bend) was after consistently doing dynamic stretches for a few months.

I'd also recommend going to a physiotherapist or similar to see if they can help. Mine pointed out to me that the way that I move generally placed excessive reliance on my hamstrings (basically I'm not using my butt at all) and this was why, no matter how much I stretch my hamstrings, they stay 'short': I'm contracting them all the time. So she gave me some exercises to start getting my butt in on the action and it's definitely making a difference. Anyway, that's me and unlikely to be your problem too but an expert could possibly help.

Reading this thread I've stretched my arms and done twists and stood up a few times. :)
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 7:53 AM on June 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't abandon yoga after one class because you had to do child's pose on your back. I had to do that too, for other reasons, and after a few weeks of practice, I was fine. Every beginner has to do some modifications and is initially sore and a little uncomfortable. I found that yoga increased my flexibility greatly, but I do it every week, sometimes several times a week (along with strengthening and cardio stuff). A friend who is incredibly inflexible and can't tolerate yoga loves hot yoga, because the heat allows her to bend. You might need a physical therapist to give you exercises that are tailored to avoid pain. Stretching for a few minutes a few days in a row shouldn't hurt -- maybe talk to your doctor at your next check-up before embarking on a flexibility program. I know you asked for online recommendations, but you might need to get started with something in-person so you can figure out whether there is a medical reason for the pain you experience, and if not, put together a program that doesn't hurt and figure out which muscle groups need particular work.

Whatever you do though, it's going to be a do-it-all-the-time-for-the-rest-of-your-life thing, not a do-it-once-or-twice-and-feel-a benefit-right-away thing.
posted by *s at 8:01 AM on June 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the responses, everyone. I'm thinking I'm just one of the unlucky ones who will never gain much more of a range of motion than I already have. I have wondered if this is a symptom of a larger problem - my jaw is loose too - but everything I've been tested for has come back normal, and I don't have any of the learning disabilities or distinctive facial traits that are usually associated with chromosomal abnormalities. Overall, I've never presented with any major medical problems. So I don't know what to think, if this is something I should worry about or not.

I'll probably ask my doctor next time I see him if he thinks we should look into this too-flexible/unflexible issue, but until then I guess I'll just do what I do, and focus more on building strength as opposed to flexibility, since I'm lacking in that department also.
posted by wondermouse at 10:02 AM on June 10, 2010

« Older Has nothing changed in the past 8 years?   |   Find this dress. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.