I’ve always had a weird relationship with flexibility. My ankles bend so easily that I can sit in a deep squat as just a relaxing way to rest. I got into Olympic weightlifting without having to spend a single moment worrying about my shoulder mobility. And yet: I cannot touch my toes. Or at least I couldn’t until recently.
I’ve had so many eye-opening moments in fitness that I now seek out ways of disproving my own opinions. I used to skip cardio, which I absolutely hated. But the more cardio I did, the better my lifting got, proving through anecdote what I already knew science supported: that cardio does not kill your gains, but in fact can be the key to getting more of them.
And now I’m questioning one of my even longer-held beliefs: What if stretching is actually good for you? As I’ve written before, I don’t really stretch, ever. I have the mobility I need, and I don’t need any of the specific types of mobility that I don’t have. (I have also tried to become more flexible in the past, and gave up because it never felt like I was getting anywhere.) But I have to admit, it would be cool to be able to do splits. It would be amazing to take a wide stance for sumo deadlifts.
So I’m embarking on a month-long experiment in which I stretch regularly — four out of five days so far this week. I’ve been studying before-and-after pictures on the flexibility subreddit, so I understand that it may well be a year or two before I can make it into a full split. But I suspect that I’ll be able to see some improvement in the first month, and it’s time to find out for sure.
How I improved my hamstring flexibility in three minutes
With those modest expectations, I started looking up stretching routines. And one of the first things I found was a three-minute video that people said improved their ability to touch their toes instantly.
I tried it. At the beginning, I was able to juuust barely get my fingertips to my toes. By the end, I had fingers fully on the floor, and I could get my palms down with just a slight softening of the knees.
It’s a bit of a parlor trick; I didn’t physically lengthen my muscles in three minutes, nor will my newfound mobility be permanent. (It fades within minutes to hours, depending on what you do with your body in that time.) But it provides a glimpse of what is possible.
The video asks you to squeeze your knees together, with a ball or block in between your legs. (I used a firm throw pillow.) If you’ve ever been in a yoga class where the instructor asks you to “activate your inner thighs,” you’ll know the motion. Propping up your toes or your heels will also change which muscles you’re using to stand there bent over.
These actions help you stretch through a principle called reciprocal inhibition, in which your body will relax one muscle to let another muscle contract. For example, if you pull your quads tight, that helps your hamstrings relax. (It’s the same mechanism that lets you release a calf cramp by contracting the muscle on the front of your shin.)
Simply gaining those few inches of mobility felt like a hell of a breakthrough. I know that lasting flexibility will take more work to achieve, but that was a fun and encouraging start. If you’ve never been able to touch your toes, give this video a try. And tune in next week, when I’ll give my first update on how my full stretching routine is working out.