Actionable insights to help you set expectations when starting any sort of flexibility training or stretching. How long does it take to increase flexibility? Let’s discuss.
Reviewed by Brian Richards, CPT, CSCS. Last updated 16th December.
Some people seem to be naturally flexible, while many of us feel like we’re just born “stiff”. However, higher flexibility is only a result of investing time in achieving it, just as with any fitness goal.
Many people wrongfully believe they’d need years to see a significant change. However, just a month of consistent stretching will noticeably increase your flexibility. You only need to use proper stretches and be consistent and the results will soon come.
To better understand how long does it take to increase flexibility and what you need to do to speed up the process, we’ll go through scientific studies and share practical tips you can start using today.
How Long For Increased Flexibility?
There’s a large body of study that explored the efficiency of stretching and how long you need to become flexible.
One of the pioneering researches was published in the Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research, titled “Effect of Frequency of static stretching on flexibility, hamstring tightness and electromyographic activity”
The research focused on the number of stretching sessions done weekly, and how frequency impacts flexibility gains. There were 31 participants with tight hamstrings who were divided into three groups:
Group 1: stretched once per week
Group 2: stretched three times per week
Group 3: stretched five times per week.
The program lasted one month and the participants were guided by physical therapists to correct their form. They found all groups improved flexibility though there was a large difference between group 1 and group 3. There was no significant difference between stretching three and five times per week.
This study shows that you will see significant increases in flexibility in one month, and that consistency is more important than the number of weekly sessions.
Another study confirms these results. It’s titled “Long-term Stretching Program in Older Active Adults Increases Muscle Strength” and was published in 2014 in the Journal of Exercise, Sports & Orthopedics.
This study focused on whether the same increases are possible in healthy older adults aged between 67 and 80 years. They targeted all major muscle groups and performed stretching exercises five times per week. The subjects have increased their flexibility by 31% in the first year, but all participants started to show first changes as soon as after 3 weeks of training.
We went through a variety of other studies, and all showed similar results – if you stretch consistently, you will see increases in flexibility in the first month, regardless of your age.
What Type Of Stretching Is Best For Flexibility?
Stretching is generally divided into three categories – static, dynamic and PNF (contracting a muscle).
Static stretching has shown to be most effective in increasing flexibility. It shows the biggest effects when stretches are held between 15 and 30 seconds. Contracting a muscle immediately before stretches can further increase the progress. Studies also showed the intensity of contraction of 20% to 60% of maximal contraction is just as effective for increasing range of motion as techniques that contract the muscle close to 100%.
While studies show that children don’t react differently to shorter or longer stretching protocols – they’ve found that older adults respond better to 60-second holds when compared to shorter durations. The best type of stretches can also depend on the sex – men and adults under 65 years see greater increases with the PNF technique, while women and adults over 65 benefit from static holds.
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends static stretching for most individuals at least two times per week. They suggest holds between 15 and 30 seconds which should be repeated up to 4 times, or until you reach 60 seconds on a specific stretch.
With these findings in mind, there are two types of stretching you can do to increase flexibility:
Static or passive stretching encourages you to move the muscle to its maximum range of motion. In this position, you feel a slight sensation but no pain. Hold the position for 15 to 30 seconds, release, and repeat for up to three more times before you move to the next stretch. Always warm up your muscles before static stretching as stretching cold muscles could lead to injury.
It’s possible you notice your body starts to tighten when you first start stretching. It’s an effort from your body to protect you. Try to relax and breathe deeply and the muscles will slowly begin releasing and you’ll be able to go deeper in the stretch, without using force.
Though static stretching is the most common type of stretching used for flexibility, more and more people believe PNF is more effective. This was also shown in the 2014 issue of Journal of Sports Medicine and Fitness which revealed that PNF increases flexibility more and faster than passive stretches.
To do PNF, you need to interchangeably contract and relax the muscle as you are stretching. For example, if you are in a forward fold and trying to stretch your hamstrings, you contract the hamstrings for 5 seconds, release for 5, then again contract the muscles and alternate until you reach 30 seconds. Repeat for 2-3 more times.
Regardless of the stretching type you do, discipline is what will determine your flexibility increases. Be persistent, even if you don’t see significant increases right away. If you are consistently stretching every week, your body will adapt and you will start noticing changes, just as with any other type of exercise.
How To Speed Up Flexibility?
In general, people start seeing first results after three to four weeks of regular stretching. Significant increases such as reaching the splits may take more than a year.
Besides being consistent and choosing a proper type of stretching, here are some additional things you can do to speed up the process.
Warm up: Muscles need to be warm before you are stretching, or you could otherwise injure and tear them. A great warm up would be 5 to 10 minutes of light cardio. It’s also great idea to add stretching after a different exercise you regularly do, for example weight lifting. It’s a fantastic way to release muscles after a workout and it will also be easier to build a consistent habit of stretching.
Don’t Rush Anything: As counteractive as this tip may sound, going into stretching slowly will accelerate your results. By not doing too much too soon you are allowing your muscles to relax and go deeper into the stretch, and you will avoid injuries that would prevent your form stretching all together.
Nutrition: Most of us know the importance of a diet when we’re strength training or trying to lose weight. But it’s just as important for optimal flexibility increases. Drinking enough water and taking enough potassium and sodium will prevent cramps and help muscles to relax. Protein will boost muscle recovery. Essential fatty acids help to lubricate your joints which is another factor important for range of motion. You can also try using natural muscle relaxants if you experience a lot of tightness.
Foam Rolling: Foam rolling is an increasingly popular practice that works by removing fascial adhesions. These are areas where the fascia, or connective tissue that binds the muscle fibers, is damaged and reduces flexibility. Foam rolling also helps to remove knots and can speed up recovery and prevent soreness. You could incorporate foam rolling after you warmed up and before you begin stretching.
Dynamic Stretching – Although dynamic stretching has shown to increase range of motion only to individuals who are already flexible, it can be a great supplemental exercise. Dynamic stretching means you are doing a body weight movement like a squat or lunge through a full range of motion. It can help to prepare and activate proper muscles before your passive stretches. It can also help with tighter areas where you experience pain when trying to perform a long static hold.
Benefits Of Increased Flexibility
The number one reason why increasing your flexibility is beneficial is that it allows you to perform everyday activities with ease. This function naturally deteriorates as we age, so by stretching regularly we are able to increase and maintain a healthy range of motion.
But there are many other things that happen as a result of flexibility increases.
Lower Risk Of Injury. This benefit is particularly noticeable in those who usually do only strength training. Strength workouts tighten and shorten the muscles, which can deteriorate the range of motion, and create imbalances. As a result, you don’t properly activate correct muscles when doing a movement, and this can lead to injuries in the lower back, shoulders, neck and knees. Regular stretching balances your body and significantly reduces your risk of injury from doing physical activities.
Increased Circulation: Heart strength is crucial for circulation, but our vascular system is much more complex. It expands through our entire bodies and is impacted by movement – and lack of it. Tightness in certain areas can also mean your circulation in these areas is impaired. Stretching can release these areas and improve overall circulation in your body.
Reduced Pain: As we age, many of us begin to experience chronic pain, especially in the lower back and joints, as well as increased muscle soreness and cramping. There are many causes for these issues, but they’re commonly a result of sedentary lifestyle and a decreased range of motion. For example, lower back pain is often caused by tight hamstrings and hip flexors and stiff shoulders can cause neck pain. By stretching your muscles, and balancing strength with flexibility, your pain will decrease.
Sit Comfortably: If you are traveling a lot or working a desk job, it can become very uncomfortable to sit long hours. This is hugely a result of decreased mobility, and once it increases, it will be much easier to be still in the same position for long periods of time.
Healthy Nervous System: Similarly as circulation, our nervous system is affected by our movement and lack thereof. Shortened tissues can block the nerves, and decrease their ability to work properly. When you increase your flexibility, you will notice increased proprioception or the sense of self-movement – also known as our “sixth sense”. The greatest increases are usually noticed in the wrists and hands, shoulders and feet.
There are many reasons why increasing flexibility is great for you – and they go way beyond being able to do the splits. The fact that we can experience noticeable changes within a month is great news, especially because stretching only three times per week is enough to reap all these awesome benefits.
Is It Possible To Increase Flexibility?
Yes. Stretching helps to improve flexibility. Static stretches work best for that, meaning you are holding a single position for more than 15 seconds and repeating the same pose until you reach 60 seconds. Longer, relaxed stretches held for more than 120 seconds can boost the health and elasticity of muscle connective tissue, which also significantly contributes to flexibility gains.
How Long Will It Take To Learn The Splits?
This highly depends on how your body is built and your starting point. More flexible people may reach the splits in a couple of weeks while most will need months and even years to get there. If you want to reach the splits, it’s important not to force it, as it’s really easy to get injured that way. If you are injured – you won’t be able to perform the stretches and it will completely cease your progress. Instead of pushing your body, be consistent and work on your splits a couple of times per week to gain the fastest results.
Flexibility increases after around three to four weeks of regular stretching. Studies repeatedly show that stretching three times per week provides optimal results. The best stretches for flexibility are static holds and PNF stretches.
Consistency is the most important factor of gaining flexibility. If we don’t build discipline and a regular stretching routine, we won’t progress and maintain our results.