Flexibility is an important component of overall fitness, yet it's generally the last thing on anyone's mind—that is, until they start experiencing joint and muscle pain. A stretch is often for a quick minute or two before their workout, but never the focus. It makes sense: before the workout you're eager to get to the main event and after you've given it your all, the last thing you want to do is spend another 20 minutes in the gym to stretch out.
You need to make time for it, though. Whether you take yoga classes, stretch during your workout or in front of the TV before bed, you must make time to work on your flexibility. The more flexible you are, the better you can prevent muscle strains and tears, preserve joint health, eliminate or prevent chronic pain, and improve your performance.
The hip flexors, the muscles that run along the front of the hip, and the hamstrings are notoriously tight areas that can effect the alignment of your entire body. Because we sit a vast majority of the day, these muscle groups are always in a shortened state, causing tightness and limited mobility in those areas while pulling our chests and heads forward. This, overtime, can lead to poor posture, back and neck pain and even migraines. Increasing your flexibility in these areas will have positive benefits over your entire body.
The hips and pelvis are complex joints that move in a variety of directions. To gain true flexibility in them, you must stretch the joints in a 360 degree range of motion with a variety of hip opening stretches. For best results, stretch every day after a light warm up. Your muscles are like taffy: warm taffy stretches, while cold taffy snaps. Ouch.
1. Kneeling Hip Flexor/Quad Stretch
This stretch pulls double duty, stretching the hamstring of the front leg, with a primary focus on the hip flexors and quad of the back leg. If you don't feel a direct enough stretch, try reaching back with your opposite hand and pulling your back toe up to your butt to deepen it.
- Kneel on the floor with both knees bent, shins on floor, hips fully extended.
- Lunge your right leg forward, foot flat on the floor directly under your knee, right knee bent at a 90-degree angle.
- Place your hands on your hips and keeping your chest high, move the hips forward keeping them square.
- Lean into the stretch, keeping your hips square and chest up. you should feel the stretch through both legs, but primarily down the front of the back hip into the quad.
- Hold for 30 seconds and repeat with other leg.
2. Forward Fold
This one is easy peasy and will leave you feeling energized all over as it brings fresh, oxygenated blood into your brain.
- Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, arms at your sides.
- Take a deep breath and as you exhale, bend forward at the hips, lowering your head toward floor.
- Continue to fold until your hamstrings resist, being sure to keep your head, neck and shoulders relaxed.
- You can hang here, feeling the stretch through the hamstrings and lower back, or for more a more intense stretch, wrap your arms around the top of your head, grabbing each elbow with the opposite hand to add more weight pulling you to the ground.
- Hold for 30 seconds, or feel free to slowly rock from side to side.
- Bend your knees and roll up slowly to return to standing.
- The slower you move, the less of a head rush you'll experience as the blood has more time to redistribute.
3. Butterfly Stretch
This classic stretch will hit the entirety of your abductors, or your outer thighs and your hamstrings, if your hammies are especially tight. If you find it uncomfortable, put a blanket under your butt to lift you up a few inches.
- Sit up tall on the floor with the soles of your feet pressed together, your knees bent and dropped out to each side.
- Keeping your back flat and your head high, grasp your feet or ankles with your hands, engage your abs, and slowly lower your torso toward your feet, leading with your chest instead of your forehead or nose.
- Continue to lean until you feel your abductors resist.
- Hold here for five breaths while you relax into the stretch and then try to stretch a little further.
- Slowly release and repeat.
4. Reclining Pigeon
This stretch is a modification of yoga's pigeon pose, which is done in a lunge position. It’s great for tight hips, targeting the IT band that runs along the outside of your hip down to your shin, and also works as a injury-preventive stretch for the knees.
- Lie face-up with your knees bent, feet flat on floor.
- Keeping your right knee bent, bring it off the floor and externally rotate the hip to place the right ankle on the left knee.
- Extend both arms and grasp the left leg right behind the hamstring.
- Keeping your shoulder and head in contact with the ground, pull the left knee into your chest until you feel a stretch along the outside of the right thigh. (You may feel a stretch without pulling at all.)
- Hold the stretch for 30 seconds, then switch sides.
5. Standing Inner Thigh Stretch
The inner thighs can be tough to hit, but this stretch allows you to pinpoint the right angle for you. You can turn this into a hamstring stretch, too, by straightening both legs and folding forward, like the forward fold, above.
- Stand with your legs extremely far apart, about as far as you can get, toes pointing forward.
- Once in place, bend your right knee, bringing your right buttock down toward your right heel until you feel a stretch in the left inner thigh.
- Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on opposite leg.