Over the years, I’ve been asked many, many times about the timeline for improving flexibility. Mostly, these are patients whose pain relief hinges on improving their mobility or range of motion.
The timeline to improve flexibility varies, with noticeable progress often occurring within a two to three weeks of consistent stretching, up to a few months. Significant improvements may sometimes take several months, depending on individual factors and dedication.
It’s a common goal among my patients, regardless of their goals. The journey to greater flexibility is unique for each person and depends on various factors. Let’s delve into the key aspects that determine how long it takes to become more flexible.
How long to improve flexibility? It depends…
It’s been said that the correct answer to every question is, “it depends.” Depends on what? In the case of improving flexibility, here are some of the big factors that will affect how long it takes you to see progress:
Genetics (and bone structure)
One of the initial factors affecting your flexibility journey is, quite literally, your genetic makeup.
For example, an athlete came for physical therapy, complaining that he was unable to improve his hip mobility. Upon investigation, it appeared that the individual had very deep hip sockets and likely would never have elite hip mobility, simply due to his bone structure.
This young man had felt as if he’d been banging his head against the wall for years, when in reality he had likely reached his genetic potential for hip mobility long before he came to us.
In short, genetics play a significant role in determining your natural flexibility range. While it’s impossible to discuss the genetic variances of every joint in a single article, the best way to determine your individual genetic potential is likely just to speak with a physical therapist who is used to examining the mobility of individuals’ joints.
While this isn’t everyone’s favorite to talk about, it’s impossible to ignore. Body composition plays a role in flexibility by default. Those carrying around excess adipose tissue (body fat) will naturally have their flexibility affected around certain joints.
This is especially true around those portions of the body where we tend to store fat, aka the hips and torso. If this is the case, it may not be your muscle fibers themselves causing the issue: this tissue can literally stop us from achieving a full range of motion.
One of the orthopedic surgeons we used to work with here in town often stressed to us that patients had a certain body fat requirement before he would operate – it’s that big of a deal.
So … what to do? If you’re struggling with flexibility, you may find that a basic weight loss diet (and exercise plan) goes a long way toward facilitating your goals of becoming more mobile.
When I say “starting point,” I essentially mean: how flexible are you currently?
This can affect is in a couple of ways, some of which are counter-intuitive.
If you’re fairly flexible to begin with, then it may take you longer to increase your flexibility since you’re naturally starting closer to the limits of your genetic potential.
If you’re fairly inflexible to begin with, then you may notice big improvements quickly, but it may take you a while to see the practical benefits of those improvements (improved mobility and strength).
If you’ve been around one of our offices for any length of time, you’ve heard us harp on this one in different ways.
Typically, it comes out as various permutations of: make sure you’re doing your Home Exercise Program daily!
The most beautifully written flexibility and mobility program will be rendered inert if the patient doesn’t follow through. At the risk of stating the obvious, no program works if we don’t do it. Because of this, I firmly believe that the consistency of the individual actually matters more than almost anything else.
How to speed up the process of improving flexibility
Just like with strength training, mobility training, and stability training, there are certainly ways to do it wrong. While “optimal” can often be a moving target in the context of physical programs, we do have good data on what is most optimal in the context of improving flexibility:
Static stretches and PNF stretches work best
Different types of stretching impact our flexibility differently:
- Static stretching is “holding” a stretch (think the runner’s hamstring stretch)
- PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretching is similar to a static stretch, but we’re using some sort of outside assistance, like a partner or a resistance band to deepen the stretch
- Dynamic stretches are stretches that involve movement into and out of the stretched position
- Ballistic stretching is when the individual ballistically moves the joint in such a way that inertia drives the stretch
In short, the data we currently have suggests that both static stretching and PNF stretching techniques are superior to ballistic and dynamic stretching for improving flexibility.
The literature is inconclusive as to whether PNF is better than static, although logic would presume that a deeper stretch would lead to improved flexibility. However, upon investigation of the literature, we find that some studies find PNF leads to greater outcomes, some find static stretching leads to better outcomes, and others find no significant difference between the two.
While we do use PNF techniques frequently in the office, we also understand that it’s not possible for our patients to use PNF-style stretches on their own at home for every joint.
Duration of stretches
Beyond the type of stretch performed, the next obvious question is: how long should you hold a stretch to improve flexibility?
This is a common question. The current literature suggests that a duration of 30 seconds per stretch is optimal, and that increasing the duration of the stretch to 60 seconds doesn’t yield further flexibility benefits.
Aim for three to four “sets” (holds) per muscle group. However, it’s essential to avoid overstretching, which can lead to injury. Consult a professional to tailor the duration to your body’s needs.
Frequency of stretching
As mentioned earlier, consistency is key to maximizing improvements. Current literature shows an improvement in flexibility outcomes with higher frequency stretching routines and short sessions.
Six days per week is likely the most optimal, and this is consistent with most of the home exercise plans that we write for our patients.
We generally ask our patients to do their home exercises once per day. Aim to incorporate stretching exercises into your routine at least five to six times a week if you’re shooting to improve flexibility.
Remember that flexibility is only one component of health
We brought it up in our article about flexibility and mobility, and we’ll bring it up here as well: remember that flexibility isn’t everything. In fact, as we discussed in our article on kinesio tape for lower back pain, sometimes extra flexibility is the opposite of what we want!
In order to be functional and pain-free, what we really need is mobility. Mobility, defined as our “ability to move” into the positions that our daily lives call for, is a byproduct of being flexible and having the requisite muscular strength, simultaneously.
Being strong and stable in, for instance, a deep squat position, or deep knee bend, or an overhead reaching position – this is what is truly required.
Flexibility is a foundational attribute of being healthy, but we recommend not getting stuck in an endless loop of “working on flexibility” and neglecting other areas (like our athlete friend, discussed earlier in the article).
So, how long does it take to get more flexible?
In conclusion, the timeline for improving flexibility varies from person to person, but typically we’ll notice improved flexibility within the first 2-3 weeks of consistent flexibility training.
With time and effort, the muscles and joints will respond. Embrace the journey, celebrate achievements, and seek professional guidance when needed.