Gaining flexibility is easy. At least that's what I told myself when I set out to touch my toes at age 22, after four long years of college spent running, using the elliptical, and biking all over campus. I had aches and pains in my legs and back, so I decided it was time to loosen up my muscles and joints. No big deal.
But after three months of stretching every morning, my body was more rigid than ever, and my back had developed unfamiliar twitches and aches. It was only when I started doing yoga at night that I started to see a real change, which I later learned was because I was finally approaching stretching correctly.
I'm not alone in that experience—plenty of people have attempted to get more flexible and had it backfire on them. Here's what most people do wrong:
1. They don't warm up.
When you're stretching, your muscles should always be warm—which is why doing forward folds as soon as you get out of bed isn't ideal. In fact, stretching cold muscles can result in strain. "Warming up can be as simple as cat/cow or jumping jacks," says yoga instructor Mary Dana Abbott, while dancer and fitness instructor Alicia Archer adds, "Simple muscle activations are great to get the body’s temperature high enough to begin stretching with a lower risk of injury."
2. They're impatient.
No, you won't be able to do the splits within a week or even a month—but that's OK. "I cannot stress this enough," says Alicia. "Depending on what you're working on, some stretches can prove to be very intense. If performed without the proper technique, they could lead to injury. Changing your body's range of motion takes time—nothing should be forced. One cannot expect full range of motion in their shoulders when they just started to chip away at those tight joints. Take it a day at a time. Miracles only happen with consistency."
3. They forget to breathe.
The breath/body connection is a huge one—and one that many of us forget about. "This is an obvious one, but when in the moment we often hold our breath," says Alicia. "The breath is how your body communicates with the nervous system. It is what tells it to release and relax. When the breath is held, muscles stay contracted, and space cannot be created in the body. I like to breathe in four counts and out four counts. That ensures that I am not rushing and the body has a chance to acclimate."
4. They overstretch.
For me, the idea that I could overstretch seemed impossible. The more stretching the better, right? Wrong. "You want to find a balance. Vary the body part you are stretching and the types of stretches that you do," says Mary Dana. "For instance, alternate days between shoulders and hips, especially if you are doing deep work. Also, mix it up between dynamic and static stretches. The best way to do this is to add yoga or Pilates to your routine."
5. They fold from the lower back.
This is a common mistake, so take note: You should always fold from your hips, not your lower back. "Make sure you put at least a small bend in the knees to train the body to fold at the hip joint," says Mary Dana. "Rest your torso on your thighs and straighten legs by pressing into the feet while lifting up backs of thighs. Do not let your torso round away from your thighs in any forward bend; it causes the head and the hamstrings to work like ropes, playing tug of war with your back."
"People often forget our backs start at our tailbones and hinge from their waist instead of their hip joints," yoga instructor Kristin McGee adds. "Our spine has a lot of mobility and flexibility, so when we engage our abdominals and lengthen through our spine, we gain more flexibility."
6. They forget to stretch after they do cardio.
Whether you're running, biking, or even walking briskly, stretching afterward is vital. "These simple movements will keep your body happy and if you don't do it, you could undo all the work you do in your longer stretching/yoga sessions," says Mary Dana.
Take it from me: A few months of stretching the right way can make a world of difference.