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How To Become Flexible: A Practical Guide

Becoming Bendy

Flexibility is one of the most underrated physical abilities a traceur can have. There are plenty of videos focusing on a traceur’s upper body strength or ability to do flips, but rare indeed is the video that shows a practitioner doing splits, or even deep stretching.

This doesn’t make sense. As traceurs, aren’t we always trying to push our limits – and isn’t flexibility a way to do that? A useful and impressive way, at that. So why not develop it? Every traceur should be mobile. Even powerlifters and bodybuilders can benefit from it. With that in mind, how does one go about becoming bendy?

Note: This tutorial is written by a traceur, for traceurs. However, the stretches listed are useful to anyone, regardless of sport or discipline.

General

This is an entirely practical guide to flexibility. If you want a few hundred more stretches to do and scientific details on how stretching works, check out Jujimufu’s three-part flexibility tutorial. If you just want to know the most efficient way to become flexible, keep on reading.

Another note: Again, there are hundreds of other possible stretches, but I know these are effective from personal experience, as I do them regularly.

Why?

You should become flexible because…

  • It will save you from injury.
  • It will help tricking immensely; crane leaps and precisions will be much easier.
  • It adds a whole new dimension to your movement.
  • It’s easy, fun, and impressive, so why not?

How?

You should never feel actual pain for any of these stretches. For the muscle/tendon stretches, a burning feeling lets you know that you’re doing it right. For joint stretches like the side split progression, the feeling is odd. It’s uncomfortable, but not really painful. If a stretch ever genuinely hurts, then STOP! “No pain, no gain” does not apply to flexibility training.

When?

I like to stretch right before bed. It’s relaxing and that’s generally when I’m the most limber. Sometimes I’ll set my laptop on the floor and sit in front of it doing hamstring stretches.

If you’re actively trying to develop flexibility, I suggest stretching for between ten to twenty minutes a day. If you’re just trying to maintain your current flexibility, 10 minutes every other day should be fine, although stretching a little every day is better.

How Long Will It Take?

Flexibility isn’t something that happens overnight, nor is it like a move that can be landed if you just try hard enough.

I’ve been stretching seriously since August of 2010. It took me about two months of 10–20 minutes of solid stretching every day to be able to achieve a full forward split, albeit one that was still hard to do and had to be supported with my hands. For an ability that looks so difficult, two months is not a long time at all. It may take you a longer or shorter time to achieve your flexibility goals, depending on your age, genetics, and how much you stretch, but I would be very surprised if took a reasonably fit person more than 6 months to achieve a forward split.

Now that you know the context for the stretches, let’s get to them! How about working our way from the top down?

Shoulders

Shoulder dislocations

Don’t let the name fool you, shoulder dislocations are actually good for your shoulders. They can be done with a broom handle, a resistance band, or even just a rope (I use tubular webbing). The basic movement is shown in the video above, but the stretches goes as follows:

  1. Hold a broom/dowel/resistance band/rope in front of you, with your arms spread fairly far apart; think wide-grip push-ups or wide-grip pull-ups.
  2. Rotate your arms over your head until they are behind your back, adjusting the width and positioning of your grip so as to not cause undue shoulder pain.
  3. Bring your arms back around to the original position.
  4. Repeat.

Simple but effective. I like to do these as a warm-up before pull-ups or kong vaults.

Spine

There’s not as much need for traceurs to have extreme spinal flexibility, but it can still be quite useful – handstands and handsprings come to mind. Bridges are good for backward flexibility, and sitting side twists are good for side-to-side flexibility. Side bends, which we’ll get to in a moment, also stretch the spine.

Bridges

Bridge

The bridge technique is obvious. Gymnastics WOD has a good series of videos on bridge progressions. Note that when you bridge, you don’t want to bend only at the lower back, as that will quickly lead to pain and then injury. Focus on your shoulders and upper back as well.

Side Twists

Back twist

I didn’t actually go to Oxford. Sadly.

Side twists are probably the easiest stretch on this list. Sit in a cross-legged position (or any other position that holds your legs in place). Sit up straight and slowly turn as far around as you can; slowly, or you may strain your back. I like to do these as a warmup before tricking.

Torso / Obliques

This is actually a pretty important, and very overlooked aspect of flexibility. Torso flexibility is a must for aerials and au batidos (as shown in the first picture of this article), and nearly all twisting movements. Side bends help a lot.

Side Bends

Side bend

See that face? That’s my “the wind is blowing in my eyes and the sun is blinding me” face.

Stand up straight and bend to one side. Then stand up straight again. Repeat.

Bonus effect: stronger obliques.

Hips / Legs

Hips forward, legs back split progression.

Wide split

This was by far the stretch I did most frequently when I started flexibility training, and remains the number one stretch I do. It’s easy to scale for your current flexibility, easy to perform, and it hits the hips and the hamstrings at the same time. Highly, highly recommended.

PVC/foam rolling.

PVC pipe rolling

As odd as it may sound, rolling your hips with PVC pipe or a foam roller helps hip mobility quite a lot. Lie on the pipe or roller and roll it up and down the joint. This makes side split progressions much more comfortable by the process of myofascial release.

Butterfly position.

Butterfly position

This will open up your legs and hips like nobody’s business. Get in the position shown above. Keeping an arched back, lean forward like you’re trying to touch your nose to your feet. While you’re doing this, draw your heels ever closer to your groin. Push down on your knees with your hands and feel those hips open up.

Outside crescent kicks.

Outside crescent kicks are great for increasing the dynamic (in-motion) mobility of your hips. You don’t need to focus too hard on the form as shown in the video, and you don’t need to kick particularly fast; you’re not doing the kick as a kick, you’re doing it as a hip-stretching exercise.

Warning: They will also make you quite sore the first few times you do them. PVC/foam rolling immediately afterward is a good idea.

Side split progression.

Side Split

Adjusting the stretch so that he insides of your ankles are on the floor is what makes the stretch focus on the hip joints. Resting on your heels is easier, but the stress is placed on your hamstrings. Because of this, the side split may take longer to achieve than the forward split.

Toe Touches.

Toe touches

Toe touches

Actually touching your toes is optional, but it’s a convenient way to measure your progress.

These are the standard hamstring stretches you always see recommended for hammie flexibility. Yawn-inducing, but effective. I still prefer the pushing-the-hips-forward stretch, mainly because it hits the hips at the same time.

If you do the one-legged variations, make sure you do equal amounts of stretching per leg. Lopsided flexibility is just strange.

Knees

Ass to Ground Bodyweight Squat

The knees are the bane of many a traceur. Just about any bad landing will place more stress on the knees than anywhere else, which is why it’s important to condition your knees to be able to take that kind of stress – because it will happen. You will land a front flip or jump in an ass-to-ground squat (ATG) at some point. Therefore, do a lot of ATG bodyweight squats as preparation. This video has a very good explanation of the basic bodyweight squat. If you cannot perform the ATG squat, squat down as deep as you can with good form and hang out there, like I’m doing in the picture.

Aim to be able drop into a one legged squat position (also known as a pistol squat). If you can perform a freestanding pistol squat without support and without pain, you’ll be in good shape regarding both knee flexibility and leg strength.

Pistol squat

Ankles

Titanium Ankle Exercises

While these exercises are meant more to condition your ankles, they help mobility as well.

Rotations.

ankle rotations

Slowly but forcefully move your ankles around in circles. Curl your toes, point them, curve them inward, curve them outward, pull them back towards your shin. Since you’re probably sitting, try it right now! (Unless you’re at a standing desk.) These stretches are especially good to do at work or in school, when you’re spending most of the day sitting anyway. A flexible shoe that lets your toes point freely, like Feiyues or Puma Faas 500s, will make these much easier.

Wrapping things up…

Whether you’re primarily a traceur, freerunner, tricker, bodybuilder, or powerlifter, there is absolutely no reason to neglect flexibility training. It’s easy, it’s useful, it’s fun, and it’s impressive. What’s not to like?

–Alan

Aerial

Flexibility in motion.

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  • Silasklug

    I already had my wallet out by the time I finished reading the title. This is great and I look forward to improving my flexibility. Tanks as always. Flexibility has always been my weakest point, so I look forward to improving with the help of this article.                                                                                           Still waiting on the females in parkour article you promised us so long ago…

    • AlanSchex

      Glad you liked it!

      It’s coming soon…

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  • socratesknevel

    Awesome tips! I’ve been working on hamstrings for so long, I went from being able to reach from my knees to very close to my toes at the end of a month by stretching ~1 hr a day!! Right now I can touch my right toes… Yeah it is weird…

  • Dizz

    Hey, I’ve been free running for a while now, but I’m pretty much all self taught. One thing I had a really big problem with was during my backflips (back then they were whips) I would always throw my head back and strain my neck pretty bad. Would stretches help out with that? (you didn’t include any neck stretches)

    • AlanSchex

      I think a better thing to do would be to try to minimize the neck-whipping – stretches and a long, thorough warm-up will help a little, but in the long term, a straighter form will be better for your neck and back.

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  • Sidplace

    This is great. Thank you for putting together a clear and concise set of stretches both beginners and advanced can use. I’ve been searching the web for awhile and this is hands down the best.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ayoopretty.williams Ayoo Naya Williams

    i still need more help like instructions

  • Whitney

    I’m curious how you are able to squat with your heels on the ground. Everytime I try to do what you do in the two pictures I end up falling on my butt. How do you keep your balance?

    • AlanSchex

      Lean forward more, and pull back with your shin muscles. It’s difficult, but should be doable without too much effort.

    • Lauren


      How to do the Asian squat.

  • jerrika

    teach me

  • http://www.facebook.com/danielle.medina.127 Danielle Medina

    OMG HES FLXIBLE

  • Jojo

    Thanks so much! I’m trying to get super flexible for cheer leading. I’m going to try holding for 10 minutes too. Thanks!

  • http://twitter.com/astarlia Coquine Gourmand

    Hey I just wanted to say that I really like this article and your site.

    • http://twitter.com/astarlia Coquine Gourmand

      Hey so I have a question? Do you warm up before you stretch? If not why not, a lot of stuff I’m reading seem to say it’s a good idea but I’m just wondering bc you don’t mention it.

      • AlanSchex

        Not really. I start out light with these stretches, going to maybe half of my ROM (range of motion). I progressively increase the stretch until I’m at my max ROM, then do a few sets of holding that stretch. You could warm up with some dynamic stretches like kicks, or do a few minutes of cardio. It can’t hurt, although I personally do not find ‘warming up’ necessary.

        Glad you like the site!

  • cat

    Wooow!!! You reallly inspired me!! I’ve been stretching for 4 years now, but still isn’t able to do a full split. I’m like 5 inches from the ground!! Aha.

  • I like to stretch

    Hey, congrats for the site! Some questions: can you do the frogs position? If you do, then how long did it take for to achieve it? I’m having a lot of troublewiththis position.

  • I like to stretch

    That’s the frog position:

  • Kenny

    Wow!, that shoulder stretch scares me.

  • bt

    My goal in life is to do a split like the one you’re doing. I’m a little older (33), but I’m reasonably fit and I stretch for at least 40 minutes 5 times a week from yoga or stretch videos. I also take martial arts and a classmate told me to just sit in the split position all the time. But I feel feel like it’s too much. Any advice?

  • VED KRISHNA

    I LIKED YOUR FLEXIBILITY AND THE NICE PERSONALITY :)

  • VED KRISHNA

    THANKS VERY MUCH.WHEN I TRIED IT ONLY ONCE I COULD FEEL THE DIFFERENCE
    YOU ARE GREAT .LET GOD HELP YOU

    YOUR DICIPLE(VED)

  • Suvilove

    This seems like a lot of help thank you! Though after doing these the joints seemed to pop more than usual, is this bad? I’m a 15 year old girl.

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  • Pui Ho Lam

    How long do you hold each position?

    • georgy boy

      exactly! how long? how many times each?
      hello?
      anybody home?

      • hello

        hello?

        • meh

          not answering? why man? :(

          • a

            :(

            • mmads

              eat my shorts

  • a

    Hi

  • matthew coolbeth

    I’d be interested to hear about how flexible (or inflexible) you were before you started stretching on a regular basis.

  • Yash Mehta

    Alan,I read your article about becoming flexible.I’m about 18 years old.do you think if I follow your routine I’ll become flexible.i really need to become flexible and my hamstrings are very tight.i sometimes too get low back pain

  • Love Bandits

    FLEXIBILITY on point…work start immediately
    Nice Tuts man…Much thanks