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I have terrible general flexibility, which both causes discomfort and affects my form when exercising (for example, I fall off balance any time I try and do a squat). This is something that I'd very much like to change, but in the past I've never been able to make a dent in it, so I'd like to try and be a bit more objective and scientific in my approach this time.

My question is, essentially - what is a reasonable schedule to gain flexibility for a given motion? I want to know this so that I can adjust my stretching to see what is and isn't working, and I want to give the stretching enough time to show noticeable improvements.

As a general guidance, I'm looking to know, essentially, whether my gains will be mostly front-loaded or should they be consistent throughout the improvement phase, and roughly (order of magnitude), how long should it take to go from poor flexibility (e.g. I'm about 20-25cm away from being able to touch my toes) to normal flexibility (e.g. touching my toes). One month? Three months? A year?

Edit: Doing a bit of reading, I think I should probably clarify that from what I can tell, I'd like to improve static-passive flexibility. It seems likely that I'll be able to consistently do static stretches, though I'm going to try my best to do PNF stretches.

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    Since flexibility is a very individual attribute (ie. it's related to several factors), I'm not sure anyone can give you an accurate answer without interjecting opinion. – rrirower Feb 3 '16 at 20:55
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    @rrirower hopefully someone knowledgeable of those factors will post an answer. – djechlin Feb 3 '16 at 21:12
  • @rrirower I agree with djechlin. I don't need a perfect formula or anything, which is why I want a rough baseline. In the same way that one could say it takes minutes to memorize a poem, hours to learn to juggle, and years to learn to fluently speak a language - obviously all of these depend on the specifics, but you can broadly characterize them as such. – Paul Feb 3 '16 at 22:02
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Flexibility is training just like any other training. There is no gene for flexibility. And, just like any other training, it will follow the same sort of timeline as any other exercise regimen. Nobody can tell you with any certainty how you will respond to stretching, unfortunately.

If you want to increase your flexibility, you need to be working all the major muscle groups in static stretches, each one held between 30-60 seconds for 2-4 reps. You want to do this when you are warmed up, typically you don't see as much gain and have a higher injury risk when aggressively doing static stretches on unwarmed muscles (And, there is some study evidence that static stretching before workouts negatively impacts strength/speed). Dynamic stretches are best before the workout.

If you are a typical adult, you've spent 8-12 hours a day sitting ever since you were 6 (School then college, then work). Your body is used to that. When you can't stretch past a certain point, that's your body reacting to new motion by limiting the distance in an effort to protect yourself. That's what you need to overcome.

Progress is going to be related to your background, much like any other exercise. If you were once flexible, you will return to it quicker. If you never were, it will take more time.

General timeline (And your results may VERY much vary) will somewhat mimic working out for the first time, so you want to follow the same kind of adaptation routine as you did when you first started working out.

Week 1 : Stretch 2-4 times per week, 20-30 mins per session. Don't push it too hard, and only 1 or 2 time reps per stretch. Expect resistance, discomfort, and possibly some DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness).

Weeks 2-4 : Stretching will become easier, you may notice some gains in distance. Keep the 2-4 times per week, you can gradually move up to 3, possibly 4 reps per stretch.

Weeks 5+ : Add days. Ideally you should be stretching the major muscle groups 4+ times weekly, with 3-4 time reps per stretch. Once you get to wherever you are happy, you can drop the days to 3-4x per week, 2-3 time reps per group for maintenance.

Depending on your goals, you can start looking at more advance/aggressive stretching techniques (Such as PNF stretching) after you've gotten accustomed to regular stretching on a regular basis. But, like anything else, if you don't keep to a regular routine you will lose the gains you made. And (to sound like a broken record) like working out, you will notice bigger gains in the beginning, and slower, more incremental changes as you go along.

  • Can you clarify what a DOM is? Also, are you saying that I likely won't see any quantitative progress for 2-4 weeks? – Paul Feb 4 '16 at 23:09
  • @Paul - To some extent, yes. You may notice some initial quick gains, but it's just like working out. You don't go from benching 135 to 200 in 2-3 weeks either. Again, your mileage may vary, you may notice some significant gains earlier, it all depends on how your body responds. Just don't think that you can really jam it on the stretches and gain quicker, this really is something that you can do some serious damage if you overdo it. – JohnP Feb 5 '16 at 3:14
  • Yeah, I'm not looking to rush things, I just want to know how long to wait without quantitative gains before I try switching up a routine. Like if I'm doing an exercise routine and I've seen no progress in 2 months, I'm probably doing something wrong. – Paul Feb 5 '16 at 3:31

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