Health Answers

How much can you really increase your muscle flexibility if you have naturally tight muscles?

By Courtney Humphries
June 21, 2010

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Q. How much can you really increase your muscle flexibility if you have naturally tight muscles?

A. Anyone who’s been to a yoga class knows that some people seem to slip painlessly into forward bends and twists, while others struggle against stiff muscles that refuse to yield. Does practice help, or are some people destined to never be pretzels?

Dr. Paul Weitzel, a sports medicine orthopedic surgeon at New England Baptist Hospital, says, “There clearly is a genetic component to everyone’s fundamental flexibility, but within that you can have a range of improving your flexibility.’’ After all, not everyone has the body to become a champion runner, but with practice everyone can improve their pace.

Weitzel says that we all have a baseline level of tightness and flexibility, and with some effort, we can improve that fundamental level by about 20 or 25 percent. Beyond that, genetics generally limits our ability to keep improving. But he says it’s to everyone’s benefit to improve flexibility within their limits.

The best approach is slow, steady stretching three or four times a week. Making it a routine is critical, Weitzel says, because muscles and tendons respond to the stresses in their environment and need regular stretching to stay flexible. Avoid bouncing motions and strive for balance between different body parts. Weitzel says it’s important to stretch both sides of the body, such as the quads with the hamstrings, and the back with the abdomen.

Stretching should never cause more than slight soreness. “You have to try to know your body and trust your instincts,’’ he says. Most important, don’t let envy over another person’s flexibility lead you to push beyond your limits. Both extreme tightness and flexibility can create health problems; while people with very tight muscles are more prone to muscle pulls, hyper-flexible people have to worry about more joint pain and injury.

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