Not all of us are inherently flexible. Although women tend to have greater range of motion than guys do, many of us who lift, run, bike, and enjoy other repetitive-motion activities are simply tight, especially in key areas like the hips, hamstrings, and shoulders. And that’s too bad, because being flexible not only helps improve performance but also improves daily function.
“We acquire tension throughout the day based on movement patterns, stress, exercise, and other factors,” notes Hakika DuBose, owner of Kika Stretch Studios in New York. “Over time, these tight, contracted muscles can lead to headaches, back pain, and imbalances in the body.”
It doesn’t take a lot to make you feel better. Just a few minutes of stretching a few times a week can be enough to improve your range of motion and reduce tightness. But what type works best for you? Consider this quick guide to see which flexibility exercises you might want to incorporate into your regular routine.
Best for: Maintaining strength while increasing flexibility.
WHAT TO KNOW:
Designed for CrossFitters, these “range of motion workouts of the day” (ROMWOD) go deep—very deep. They are based on a yin yoga practice, which espouses holding a stretch for anywhere from three to five minutes, breathing evenly throughout.
“These are perfect for active recovery or for a rest day when you want some more relaxation,” says Ryan Schultz, owner of romwod.com. Breath work is also key in deepening the stretch. “These are not meant to be high-intensity moves like a yoga flow, it’s just the opposite—they are meant to be calming and restorative.” You can find the workouts across various platforms at romwod.com.
Dragon (Targets: hips, quads)
- Begin on all fours, then step left foot between hands.
- Walk left foot forward until knee is just above heel and slide right knee behind you as far as you can.
- Keep hands on either side of left foot or on thigh and press top of right foot into the floor. If you need more cushioning, place a folded-up mat or towel below back knee.
- Hold here for up to 3 minutes, then switch sides.
Best for: Relieving stress and tightness.
WHAT TO KNOW:
With assisted stretching, a coach helps push you through your full range of motion to achieve gains you might not normally get on your own. Some assisted stretching programs utilize the breath to help enhance the stretch, breathing for several seconds when you’re near the end of your range of motion. “When you exhale deeply, your body comes into a fuller state of relaxation, so you get an even deeper stretch,” says DuBose. Assisted stretches are also great for targeting harder-to-reach spots like the upper back and the piriformis (the deep muscle between your glutes and hamstrings).
Leg Crawl (Targets: hamstrings, lower back)
Give yourself your own assist with this seated leg stretch.
- Sit on the floor with legs extended, toes facing ceiling, one hand on either side of legs.
- Drop your head, then slowly walk fingers along the legs, keeping head forward and shoulders relaxed.
- When you get to your farthest point, hold for about 10 seconds, breathing evenly
Best for: Long-term improvements in flexibility.
WHAT TO KNOW:
Static stretches are often what we think of when it comes to doing a stretch, holding a specific position for a set amount of time. “The main benefit of static stretching is that it’s effective at creating permanent increases in range of motion and flexibility,” says Brad Walker, an Australian trainer and creator of stretchcoach.com. Static stretches should ideally be held for 30 to 60 seconds and for no less than 10 seconds, he advises, and repeated two to three times. To improve range of motion, stretch four to five times a week. “Never push yourself beyond what is comfortable—only stretch to the point where you feel tension in your muscles, not pain,” says Walker.
Rotation Stretch (Targets: back)
- Sit on floor with legs extended.
- Cross bent right leg over left leg, placing right hand on floor behind you.
- Turning from your torso, bring shoulders to right side; use your left arm against the outside of your right thigh to help increase the stretch.
- Hold for 30 to 60 seconds; switch sides and repeat.
Best for: Getting you ready for your workout.
WHAT TO KNOW:
“Dynamic flexibility refers to your absolute range of motion that can be achieved with movement—or how far we can reach, bend, or turn using velocity,” says Walker. Dynamic stretching is an effective and functional part of a warmup routine. However, dynamic stretches are generally less effective than static stretches for improving overall flexibility. Do your dynamic stretches for about two to three minutes toward the end of your warmup, advises Walker. Keep in mind that the movements should be controlled, keeping the bounces and swings within your comfort level.
Standing Twist (Targets: core, lower back)
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, arms crossed over chest.
- Slowly rotate shoulders and upper body from one side to the next, moving from the torso.
- Repeat for 20 to 30 seconds, alternating sides.