Improved flexibility is a common goal for many Pilates students, especially for my 40+ clients. They know that staying flexible in their muscles and mobile in their joints will bring about numerous benefits; improved posture, ease of movement, competitive advantage, reduced chance of injury and physical independence as we age.
I often get asked for stretches to target specific areas such as ‘how do I stretch my tight hamstrings?’. I’m always happy to share stretches like this but that’s not often the real issue. Many factors influence your flexibility and mobility:
- Your posture – an anterior pelvic tilt will cause hamstring issues as they attach to the pelvis and will be permanently lengthened
- Your bio mechanics and the natural limits of your range of movement
- Strength of your muscles and joints – weak muscles and joints will cause others to become over active and tight
- The quality (hydration, elasticity) of your fascia – the connective tissue that wraps like a web around your muscles, bones, organs etc
- Beyond formal exercise – what you spend your time doing for the other hours a day that you’re not formally exercising (NEAT)
- Regularity of your stretching & strengthening – to counter any sedentary behaviours
So bearing in mind the above, my top tips for becoming more flexible and mobile are:
- Set realistic goals – do you really want to do the splits or is it about improving and maintaining a comfortable level of flexibility and mobility that enables you to do the things you love
- Understand your posture and bio mechanics – do you have any postural imbalances or deviations you’ve picked up over the years that might be causing an imbalance or limit to your movement – I recommend you see a Level 3+ Pilates instructor or physio for this. Work on improving this first before incorporating stretch and mobility drills.
- Strengthen and stretch – Everything in our bodies is connected so focus on full body stretching and strengthening to enable your body to operate in harmony rather than fixating on one part of your body that is ‘tight’. Ensure that you have an exercise style in your workout programme that doesn’t just strengthen but stretches as well for example Pilates or Yoga.
- Myofascia – you may be experiencing limitations to your quality of movement if your fascia needs attention. A sudden increase in movement, trauma, or lack of movement can all impact your fascia. Think stretching and gliding on spiky balls and foam rollers to improve the quality of your fascia.
- Move regularly – Can you build daily stretch breaks and more incidental movement into your daily routine so that your muscles and joints don’t get ‘stuck’ in set movement patterns. A couple of exercise classes a week can’t undo hours and hours of sitting at a desk where as regular 5 minute stretch breaks every hour can really help.
- Hydrate and eat well for good muscle and joint care. Think Calcium, Vitamin D, Protein, Omega-3 Fatty Acids and H20
And when you do stretch…….
Be in the movement & in the moment – work to your end range of movement so that you can seek gradual improvements week on week (without pushing beyond your limits). You need a good neuromuscular connection to ensure you’re maximising the quality of the movement, staying in control of the exercise, so stretch and strengthen mindfully.
Breathe – by breathing calmly and steadily you’ll shift into your parasympathetic nervous system where your body is more relaxed and able to work with you deeper into the stretch
Break out of set movement habits by incorporating variety into your stretches your body doesn’t get used to the same patterns and remember consistency is key. It takes time and consistency to increase your range safely and effectively.
Enjoy the release but stay safe – finding stretches that unlock tension and new movement patterns is intensely rewarding. Remember though it is possible to overstretch so listen to your body, work within your limits, explore and have fun.
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