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Why Are Some People More Flexible than Others?

Ever wonder what makes some of us more flexible than others? Our genetics, age, habits, and more all influence how far we can bend without breaking.

By Cody Cottier; Medically Reviewed by Dr. Ahmad Talha Azam
Feb 20, 2024 4:00 PM
Woman doing splits on steps, Berlin/Germany
(Credit: PPAMPicture/Shutterstock)


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If you’ve ever watched a gymnast effortlessly sink into splits, or seen a prostrate yogi arch their back forward until they feet land inexplicably on either side of their head, then you’ve witnessed a painful truth: Flexibility is not distributed equally.

That’s not to say rigidity is a life sentence — just because you can’t touch your toes today doesn’t mean you never will. There are indeed reasons behind the huge variation in suppleness, but they are (at least to some degree) under our control.

What Is Flexibility?

In a nutshell, flexibility is about range of motion — the ability of joints, muscles and connective tissues to perform the full scope of their natural movements smoothly, without pain. To do that, they must be able to contract and, perhaps more importantly, lengthen on command.

Often a lack of flexibility boils down to stiffness or tension in the muscles. And tension, as physical therapist Phil Page writes, “is usually inversely related to length.” That is, the shorter the muscle fibers, the higher the tension, the less flexible the body.

For many people muscle shortening is a long process, worsening over months or years of disuse. That’s why those who spend most of their time sedentary — at a desk, on the couch — are particularly susceptible.

Read More: The Mind and Body Benefits of Yoga That Are Backed by Science

What Determines Flexibility?

The way we talk about flexibility often gives the impression that it’s an abstract concept, some limber essence innately dispersed throughout the bodies of a lucky few. But, in fact, it’s grounded in specific places: joints, along with the muscles and connective tissues surrounding them. We all share the same basic anatomy, and we can all work within it to cultivate flexibility.

Amy Goh, a contortionist and author of the Bendy Diaries blog, is eager to dispel the myth that her ability can be explained away as an inborn quality. “I think that this idea is quite reductive,” she writes, “because it presupposes that there is only one factor [behind flexibility].”

In reality a person’s age, gender — researchers have found that women tend to be more flexible than men — habits and life history also play important roles.

Genetics are partly responsible, no doubt; they determine the structure of each person’s joints, which affects flexibility. But you can’t chalk it all up to good genes. It’s like the golfer who sinks a hole-in-one only to be congratulated on his luck. “The thing is,” he responds, “the more I practice, the luckier I get!”

Read More: How DNA and Training Impact Athletic Build

How Can You Become More Flexible?

The antidote, as you may have guessed, is to lengthen our muscles. Maintaining a generally active lifestyle helps with this, but the surefire method to improve flexibility has always been stretching.

There are three basic types of stretching: static, like a runner lifting their leg and holding it behind them; dynamic, like the same runner actively swinging their leg through its full range of motion; and pre-contraction stretching, which involves both contracting and stretching a muscle.

All of these methods, by repeatedly lengthening muscles and boosting our tolerance for the discomfort, can improve flexibility.

That said, it’s difficult to prescribe a training regimen that will work for everyone. A common recommendation is to perform two or three sets of static stretches for 10-30 seconds per muscle (ideally every day), but the details depend on each individual’s situation and needs.

Read More: Health Is Not Defined by Fat and Skinny. Test These Metrics Instead

What's the Best Way to Stretch?

Scientists have also found that people who stretched for a full hour each day wound up significantly more flexible than those who stretched for 10 or 30 minutes, according to a 2023 study published in the International Journal of Exercise Science.

For years, experts considered it essential to stretch in preparation for activity. But over time studies have shown that we had it backwards: We need a little light activity, like walking or jumping rope, to warm up our muscles before we stretch. That way they’re primed for the movements to come, and less likely to be sprained.

How Long Does It Take To Become Flexible?

If you’ve been stiffening up for a while, don’t expect to bust out challenging yoga poses (or reach the upper kitchen shelves, as the case may be) overnight. It takes consistent work across weeks or months to reverse the effects of inactivity, according to physical therapist David Nolan of Massachusetts General Hospital in an article in Harvard Health Publishing, “and you'll have to continue working on it to maintain it."

It’s worth noting that some exercise scientists have questioned the importance of flexibility, noting that — in contrast to cardiovascular endurance and other pillars of fitness — there’s little data linking it to better health outcomes. That said, a certain level of flexibility is obviously necessary for everyday movements, and depending on your goals it may be essential.

Read More: Your Gym Teacher Was Wrong — You Don't Have to Stretch Before Working Out

Does Getting Older Make You Less Flexible?

We all start out as babies, tumbling around like infinitely flexible tubs of jello. But inevitably, as we age, we lose the elasticity of youth. Despite our best efforts, muscles and connecting tissues simply get tighter over time. One study from 2013 found that, for both men and women, hip and shoulder mobility decline a few degrees each decade between ages 55 and 86.

That reduced range of motion goes along with a gradual muscle shrinkage, known as sarcopenia, that begins around age 30. After that, muscle mass decreases by 3-8 percent per decade, and the process speeds up later in life.

But we’re not doomed — there are ways to hold stiffness at bay. Besides static stretching, other practices like yoga, pilates and strength training can help keep you pliable well into your golden years.

And, despite their grim statistics, the authors of the 2013 study came to an optimistic conclusion: “Whereas age may be associated with a decline in flexibility,” they write, “older adults still maintain the ability to improve flexibility.”

Read More: 20 Things You Didn't Know About ... Yoga

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