How important is being flexible? It depends on your fitness goals
People in pursuit of fitness often allow flexibility to slip by the wayside to chase after other goals, such as building muscle, losing weight and improving health markers. We only have so much time to exercise, after all, and flexibility training doesn’t provide the same benefits as running or lifting weights.
While everyone needs a bit of flexibility, you may be surprised — and happy — to learn that you don’t need to stretch as much as you think. In this article, you’ll learn the benefits of flexibility (and the dangers of inflexibility), plus how flexible you really need to be.
Read more: Should you pay someone to help you stretch? I tried it to find out
While you certainly can work towards contorting yourself like the woman above, most of us never need to be that flexible.
How important is flexibility?
Flexibility is important — to an extent. It has been overhyped and glamorized in the fitness industry, however, and it’s become yet another seemingly unattainable fitness goal because contortionists on Instagram would have you believe that flexibility means bending yourself into a human scorpion.
If you are a nonbendy person, you’ll be happy to know you never, ever need to be that flexible unless you really want to. Everyone does need some level of flexibility, however, to avoid pain and injuries.
How flexible should you be?
Not to sound vague, but everyone should be flexible enough, and “enough” means different things to everyone. As a personal trainer, I’ve honestly found that this is the best way to put it. Everyone should be flexible enough to support their lifestyle and goals.
Not everyone needs the ability to do the splits, fold in half or contort their shoulders. Training for those feats is a waste of time if you just need to go for a run, drop into a squat or lift weights above your head. Common exercises do require flexibility, but not to the same degree as the splits.
Your level of flexibility should reflect your physical pursuits and, like everything else in fitness, flexibility is fluid and can change over time to reflect new goals.
You can also look at this from a daily functionality angle. Everyone should be flexible enough to complete activities of daily living without pain. Putting on socks, tying shoes, putting dishes away on high shelves and getting into your car all require some level of flexibility. If you’re not flexible enough to do these things without pain, it’s definitely time to start stretching.
Benefits of flexibility
It’s so easy to skip the cool-down portion of your workout, but dedicating a few minutes to stretching after you exercise can significantly improve your flexibility over time. When your muscles become supple, you’ll enjoy these benefits:
- Reduced risk of muscle and joint injuries
- Fewer daily aches and pains
- Ability to perform more types of workouts and exercises
- Improved posture
- Better technique and form while exercising
It’s worth noting here that studies have shown that stretching doesn’t reduce muscle soreness when performed right after a workout, contrary to popular belief. But postworkout is still a good time to stretch since your muscles are already warm from exercise.
What happens if you’re not flexible?
Picture an old, unused rubber band that’s been lying in a desk drawer collecting dust for years. If you try to use it, it’ll likely snap the second it’s stretched. It’s tight and brittle from disuse. A nice new rubber band stretches far beyond its static shape with no issues. This is the difference between inflexible and flexible muscles.
If you don’t stretch, your muscles shorten and tighten, which puts them at a higher risk for injury during movement. Muscle strains (aka pulled muscles) occur when a muscle gets stretched beyond its capacity. In severe cases, the muscle can completely tear. When your muscles are inflexible to begin with, it’s easier to sustain a strain.
There’s more to it than injuries, though. Limited flexibility can also lead to daily, whole-body discomfort and limit your ability to exercise and complete regular daily tasks. For instance, someone who is very inflexible might feel muscle pain when getting in and out of their car.
Inflexibility also leads to muscle imbalances. Take an office worker, for example. Office workers sit for many hours with their hips at a 90-degree angle. The quadriceps and hip muscles are shortened in this position, while the hamstrings are lengthened. Tight hip flexors then tug on the pelvis and lead to lower back pain.
If these dangers of inflexibility prompt you to start stretching, keep in mind that contortionist tricks won’t help any more than basic stretches — remember, you just need to be flexible enough.
Read more: The best desk workout equipment so you can exercise while you work
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.