Flexibility is one of the most sought-after qualities that can be expressed by the human body. Nothing else displays a sense of health like effortless access to deep stretches and ranges of motion. Unfortunately, our modern lifestyles and even our exercise routines can leave our bodies with severely blunted flexibility and painful, creaky joints.
Many factors affect flexibility. Our daily postures and lack of exercise certainly contribute to tight muscles and joints. But even those of us who are regular gym-goers may be suffering from limited ranges of motion and poor flexibility. Living and exercising in small ranges of motion leaves countless muscles unable to access their inherent length.
New research is emerging that suggests that the nervous system is the primary regulator of how much range we can access with our muscles and joints. Our bodies learn to protect the ranges that they feel comfortable with and the nervous system locks into what it feels are “safe” ranges. With years of poor posture, limited range exercise, or no exercise at all, we have left our nervous systems with no choice but to lock our bodies into a tight box of movement. This understanding of the nervous system’s role in creating new ranges and protecting old ones is critical in the approach to create new levels of flexibility in the body. Breathing becomes a critical component of flexibility training as the breath-body connection is how we send the signal to our nervous systems to relax and allow new range to be accessed.
This concept gives tremendous validation to practices such as yoga, ones that apply significant breathing connection into stretching practice. However, with our busy lives, yoga is a hard-sell considering the amount of time necessary to access a yoga studio and/or a qualified instructor. While well-worth the time, it is also a great tool to be able to stretch effectively and develop a flexible supple body at home or as a supplement to your normal gym routine.
Along with flexibility will come greater ease in all other activities and, in particular, better postures during strength training. Having improved flexibility will translate to more effective training no matter what goals your fitness program may have. Here is a list of stretches and breathing patterns that will give your flexibility a major jumpstart and send you on the way to greater range of motion.
The lizard stretch is an all-in-one hip-opener. It will stretch the chronically tight musculature of the groin and adductors as well as the glutes and low back.
- Place one leg forward on a flat foot and your opposite leg back with instep flat on the floor
- Your hands and arms should be inside your front foot on the floor
- Slowly lower your torso toward the floor until your elbows are flat on the ground next to your front foot, or, to a depth that feels like a mildly uncomfortable stretch
- Once end range is achieved, begin breathing deeply through the belly and diaphragm on a cadence of eight-count in and ten-count out.
- Hold this end range or gradually increase as time unfolds
- Hold for two minutes on each side
The Straddle Stretch is a fantastic exercise for opening the hips and creating flexible hamstrings and lower back.
- Take a seated position on the floor with your legs opened wide in front of you
- Your legs should open to the degree that your back can still stay flat while sitting upright
- With your hands on the floor for support in front of you, slowly lean your torso forward until a mildly uncomfortable stretch is felt in the groin and adductors
- Once end range is achieved, begin breathing deeply through the belly and diaphragm on an eight-count in and ten-count out.
- Increase the end range and/or explore leaning toward each leg as time unfolds
- Hold for two to three minutes
The Frog Stretch is legend among regular flexibility practitioners, not only for its effectiveness, but also for its uniquely deep level of hip opening. The Frog will access your body’s internal hip range of motion, which doesn’t get accessed in everyday life too often, but is critically important for having healthy hips and proper pelvic function.
- Kneel on the floor with your knees slightly wider than shoulder width
- Place your lower leg in line with knees behind on floor
- Turn your toes outward (away from your body) to each side so that the inside of the foot is flush with the floor
- With your bodyweight supported on your hands or elbows in front, slowly sit your hips back between your knees toward your feet
- Sit back until a mildly uncomfortable stretch is felt in the hips
- Breath deeply with same pattern as described above
- Increase the range gradually, or, pull in and out of the stretch for repetitions if the discomfort is too great to relax into
- Hold the pose for two minutes
The pigeon stretch is the other side of the coin to the frog stretch as it accesses the hips’ external rotation ability. This stretch is fantastic for the glutes and hips as well as the lumbar spinal musculature.
- Place one leg on the floor with the knee under the shoulders and the lower leg as close to perpendicular to the torso as possible
- Your trailing leg should be straight behind your body with the instep of your foot flat on the floor
- Start with your torso upright over your front leg and weight in your hands for support
- slowly lower the torso toward the floor and attempt to place the bodyweight in the elbows if your range allows or until a mildly uncomfortable stretch is achieved
- breath deeply with the same pattern as described above
- increase range gradually toward the floor or in any direction that increases the sensation as time unfolds (*Try holding for 2 minutes each side.)
Wall Supported Hip Flexor Stretch
This variant of a hip-flexor stretch will place a strong opening force on the hip flexor and psoas muscles as well as the front of the quadriceps. It’s fantastic for helping with poor posture and may be my top pick for the most effective stretch if limited to one choice.
- Stand facing away from a wall. Kneel down close to the wall, with a pad or mat underneath you for comfort, if desired.
- Your other leg should be forward at a 90 degree angle with the foot flat on the floor; this will also provide balance
- Place your hands inside your front leg with your torso low toward the floor to start
- Slowly start to straighten your torso to an upright position by pressing your hands into the ground and eventually onto your front knee
- As your torso moves upright and a mildly uncomfortable stretch is felt in the front of the hip and thigh of the back leg, hold
- Breathe deeply with the same pattern as described in previous exercises
- Gradually increase the height of your torso and even explore reaching the same arm as the back leg toward the ceiling
- Hold for two minutes, then switch sides
Any of the above stretches individually is incredibly effective at developing new range of motion. As an entire workout, however, they will serve to better each other. Set aside some time after your workout, or on a rest day, and stretch out!