While we all want to be that enviable, limber guy or girl that always chooses the front row in yoga class and seems to know the poses better than the instructor does, there are also a multitude of health reasons to improve your flexibility. Expanding your full range of motion can help you drastically reduce the risk of injury from your regular workout or lifting routine, and, as you get older, you’ll find that being a little more flexible can help improve your function with everyday activities such as picking things up off the floor, walking up and down stairs, and getting up from deep couches as you age.
Flexibility is important, particularly as part of a strength training workout, because it elongates the muscles that are contracted, or shortened when they are engaged. Thus, stretching not only improves the length and balance if your muscles, but makes the workout itself more effective.
Before we get into individual flexibility and stretching exercises, it is important to emphasize that stretching and holding poses for 20-30 seconds, or static stretching, is less than optimal for improving range of motion, particularly when done before working out. This is because static stretches are passive, so the muscle is mostly relaxed during it. Instead, dynamic stretches, or stretches that use motion such as lunges and squats, engage the muscles’ full range of motion and both contract and relax the muscles. Here are some stretches to get you started:
1. Piriformis stretch
The piriformis is an internal hip rotator muscles, so this stretch focuses on the hips, back, and glutes, and can help to prevent or treat sciatica. Start by sitting on the floor with both legs extended. Cross your right leg over your left, and rest your foot flat on the floor next to your knee. Place your right and on the floor behind you, and place your left elbow outside the right knee to help you rotate. Press the legs together as you rotate to the right, and then repeat on the other side.
2. Seated Groin or Butterfly stretch
Sit on the floor and bring the bottoms of your feet together with your knees bent. Slowly bring the feet as close to the body as you can until you feel a stretch in your hips and inner thighs. As you progress, try bending forward toward your feet to deepen the stretch. This stretch is great for the hips, glutes, back, and thighs.
3. Lunging hip flexor stretch
This stretch is great for your hips, quads, and glutes. Kneel on your left knee with your right knee at a right angle. Flip your left foot so the top is flat on the floor. Lean forward and squeeze your butt as you stretch your left hip toward the floor. Hold for 30 seconds and then repeat on the other side.
4. Knee-to-chest stretch
This classic stretch stretches and relieves tension in the lower back, hips and hamstrings. Start by lying flat on your back. Bring one knee up to your chest, and then hold it there with your arms for 30 seconds while keeping the other leg straight. Release and repeat on the other side.
5. Wall calf stretch
Stand facing a wall and brace your hands against it. With both feet facing forward, step so that one leg is in front of you and one behind you. Bend the forward knee while keeping the back foot flat on the ground, and you should feel a stretch in the back calf. Hold for fifteen seconds and then switch sides.
1. Cow face pose (shoulder stretch)
This stretch is great for counteracting tension from slouching and poor posture, and stretches the triceps as well as the shoulders. It can be done either sitting or standing. Extend one arm upward and then bend it at the elbow so that your hand is behind you, as if you are scratching a difficult itch. Bend the other arm upward behind you, almost as an inverse of the other arm. Attempt to join your two hands, or simply rest them as close together as possible if you are not there yet.
2. Seated neck release
This neck-focused stretch can help to relieve tension from hunching over a computer and ease the rest of the spine along with it. Sit with your back straight, and drop your right ear to your right shoulder. You can deepen the stretch by gently pressing the head down with the right hand. Hold this for 30 seconds and then switch sides, or roll the neck to the other side for an added dynamic stretch.
3. Lying pectoral stretch
This chest and shoulder stretch is perfect for before and after doing an upper body workout such as push-ups or rowing. Start by lying flat on your stomach with your arms extended in a T shape. Push off the ground with your left hand, and bend your left knee for balance as you begin to roll to the right. Repeat on the right side.
4. Doorway arm and chest stretch
Stand in a doorway with your feet slightly away from one side of the door, and with one arm at your side and the other against the wall inside the door. Lean forward until you feel the stretch in both your chest and arm, and hold for fifteen seconds. Repeat on the other side.
5. Single-arm triceps stretch
This favorite of baseball and softball players is popular for a reason. Like the cow face pose, bend one arm up and behind your back. Grab the elbow with your other arm and gently press down to stretch the triceps. Hold and repeat on both arms.