11 flexibility exercises to stretch nearly every muscle in your body

When crafting a fitness routine, cardio activities and strength training are often put at the top of the to-do list. And rightfully so: To stay on top of your health, you’ll want to engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity and do two days of resistance training each week, as recommended by the US Department of Health and Human Services. But what about flexibility exercises?

But that doesn’t mean they should be the only component of your regimen. In fact, flexibility exercises — moves that improve the range of motion of the muscles and connected tissues at a joint — are just as important. Yet, they’re often neglected, says Jess Fallick, an NASM-certified personal trainer and SLT master instructor.

Here, experts break down why flexibility training shouldn’t be overlooked and share tips on how to incorporate it into your routine. Plus, you’ll find 11 flexibility exercises you can start adding to your daily movement practice ASAP.

The benefits of flexibility exercises

Mastering stretches may seem like NBD, but having flexibility is a key component to injury prevention, says Lindsay Monal, R.Y.T., a yoga teacher at YogaRenew Teacher Training. “If you’re not flexible, you’re more prone to injury,” she says. “If someone goes to pick something heavy up and they’re not bending their knees or not flexible in their spine, they [might] throw out their back.”

Engaging in regular strength and cardio work, which centres on contracting (read: shortening) muscles, while skipping flexibility exercises (which lengthen the muscles) can also up your risk of injury, adds Fallick. “Your muscles will end up imbalanced,” she explains. “It can cause other joints and muscles to overcompensate for the ones that are too tight or too short and never have the opportunity to lengthen, which ultimately leads to strains, discomfort, and injury.”

Not to mention, keeping your range of motion up to snuff can improve your everyday life. “Having flexibility in your body is going to make you be able to move more freely throughout your life,” says Monal. “You’re able to reach down and pick up your kids or grab the groceries…You’re not gonna feel uncomfortable sitting at your kid’s baseball game.” You’ll also be able to bend down and tie your shoes, throw a ball to your pup, and grab a box of cereal off the top pantry shelf without feeling uncomfortable, adds Fallick.

What causes inflexibility?

If you’re short on flexibility, a lack of physical activity is likely to blame, according to the experts. “Society is set up in a way where you’re sitting down most of the time — you’re sitting at a desk, sitting in your car,” says Monal. “And that can really negatively impact your flexibility.” The cliché “use it or lose it” most definitely applies; if you’re not regularly moving your muscles and tissues through their full range of motion at a joint, you’ll become less flexible over time, says Monal.

Ageing can also curb your flexibility, adds Fallick. “As your body gets older, you end up losing a lot of water and hydration in your tissues and spine, which increases stiffness in your joints and creates a loss of elasticity throughout the muscle and surrounding tissue,” she explains.

Luckily, flexibility is a component of fitness you can train and improve. Even if you’ve never been able to touch your toes or typically struggle with certain poses in yoga classes, you can give your flexibility a boost with the right stretches and targeted movements, says Monal.

The best flexibility exercises for your entire body

flexibility exercises
Image Credit: The Lazy Artist Gallery/Unsplash

Ready to take your flexibility to the next level? Pick a few of the flexibility exercises below, which are recommended and demonstrated by Monal, that target your desired muscle groups and practice them as frequently as you can, she suggests. As a general rule of thumb, aim to perform your go-to flexibility exercises at least once a day, says Monal. “The more you do them, the more your body will be able to progress,” she adds.

FTR, you should put as much care and effort into your flexibility exercises routine as you would with your strength and cardio workouts. Before diving into the stretches, warm up your muscles and improve blood flow to them by taking a hot shower or moving through a few active stretches (think: lunges, shoulder rolls, spinal twists), according to the experts.

When you tackle the flexibility exercises themselves, remember to hold the stretch steady (read: don’t bounce, or quickly move in and out of the stretch) for 15 to 30 seconds, relax for a breath, then repeat the stretch two to four more times, suggests Fallick. If you experience any sharp, shooting pain or numbness, or you’re not able to comfortably breathe, take it as a sign that you’ve gone too far into the stretch and ease up a bit, adds Monal.

Translation: Don’t force your body into any position, even if you think it’s what you’re supposed to be doing, as doing so tends to lead to injuries, says Monal. “Get rid of this idea that there’s a perfect, successful-looking pose,” she says. “You don’t necessarily need to touch your toes — it’s great if you can and you should work toward that, but if you can’t do that, you shouldn’t feel shame or guilt.”

1. Triangle Pose (Trikonasana)

After spending eight-plus hours sitting in front of your computer screen, turn to this flexibility exercise to open up and stretch nearly every muscle in your body, says Monal. “This posture helps to strengthen the legs, core, and ankles while stretching the obliques, shoulders, hamstrings, ankles, and feet,” she notes.

A. Stand with feet together and arms at sides on a yoga mat, body facing the side of the mat. Step both feet out to sides so lower body forms a triangle and toes face forward. Lift arms at sides and raise to shoulder height so upper body forms a “T.”

B. Turn left foot 90 degrees to the left so toes point toward the top of the mat and turn right foot in slightly.

C. Hinge at hips to stretch left arm over left leg, bending slightly and extending left arm as close to left foot as possible. Then, rest left hand on left leg, ankle, or foot.

D. Twist ribcage slightly to the right and gaze up toward the ceiling, staying long through right side of body.

Hold for 3 breaths. Switch sides; repeat.

2. Pyramid Pose (Parsvottanasana)

If you’re dealing with tight AF hamstrings, this flexibility exercise is for you. “It’s a great posture to increase flexibility in the hamstrings, calves, hips, and spine, but [it] can be tough if you’re newer to stretching,” says Monal.

A. Stand at the top of the yoga mat with feet together and hands resting on hips. Step right foot back about three feet behind body and ground through right heel.

B. Keeping hips squared with the top of the mat and hands on hips, lengthen through spine and crown of head.

C. Maintaining length in spine, hinge at hips to fold trunk forward, allowing hands to rest on legs, yoga blocks, or floor around left foot.

Hold for 3 breaths. Switch sides; repeat.

3. Wide-Leg Forward Fold (Prasarita Padottanasana)

This flexibility exercise helps stretch your entire lower body, including the ankles, calves, hamstrings, groin, and hip, as well as the spine, says Monal. But if you want to open up your upper body too, clasp your hands together behind your back to loosen up your chest and shoulders, she adds.

A. Stand with feet together and arms at sides on a yoga mat, body facing the side of the mat. Step both feet out to sides so lower body forms a triangle.

B. Draw shoulder blades together to lift heart and interlace fingers behind back, then lengthen torso through spine and crown of head.

C. Hinge at hips to fold forward and lower upper body toward the floor, simultaneously allowing clasped hands to draw up toward the ceiling.

Hold for 3 breaths.

4. Cat & Cow (Marjaryasana & Bitilasana)

“Practiced together, Cat and Cow poses are a great way to connect with your breath while stretching the whole spine, chest, and shoulders,” says Monal. “This is a great warm-up before any type of physical activity, or even just after a long day of sitting, that will increase the flexibility of your spine and decrease tension in the upper and lower back.”

A. Start in a table-top position on the floor with hands stacked directly under shoulders, knees bent and stacked directly under hips, and feet hip-width apart.

B. On an inhale, lift the tailbone, draw shoulder blades together, and gaze forward for cow pose. Back should be arched and belly lowered toward the floor.

C. On an exhale, tuck tailbone, spread shoulder blades apart, and gaze toward the floor for cat pose. Back should be rounded and belly lifted away from the floor.

Continue for 3 breaths.

Optional: Tuck toes under as you inhale during cat pose and press the tops of your feet down into the ground during cow pose for an added stretch in the feet and ankles.

5. Crescent Lunge (Anjaneyasana)

This flexibility exercise targets the hip flexors, quadriceps, and ankles, and by clasping your hands behind your back throughout the lunge, you’ll also open up your chest, says Monal.

A. Start in a table-top position on the floor with hands stacked directly under shoulders, knees bent and stacked directly under hips, and feet hip-width apart.

B. Keeping hands and right knee resting on the floor, step left foot forward and place it on the outside of left hand.

C. Lift both hands up off the floor and, placing hands on left thigh for balance as necessary, return trunk to an upright position. Left knee should be bent at a 90-degree angle and in line with left ankle.

D. Once balanced, extend arms behind back and interlace fingers. Draw shoulder blades together while lifting heart. Drop hips down and press forward.

Hold for 3 breaths. Switch sides; repeat.

6. Neck Stretch

Despite being the most flexible part of the spine, your neck may feel pretty stiff nowadays, thanks to ceaseless screentime, says Monal. “Simple neck or shoulder rolls are a great way to increase flexibility in the neck, and this gentle neck stretch is a great addition to your daily, work-from-home flexibility routine,” she adds.

A. Sit cross-legged or in another comfortable position on the floor or in a chair.

B. Drop left ear toward left shoulder, then place left hand on top of right ear, allowing weight of hand to gently open up neck. Extend right fingertips to the floor, a block, or the seat at side.

C. Relax jaw and think about drawing right shoulder down and back while maintaining a straight spine.

Hold for 3 breaths. Switch sides; repeat.

7. Reclined Hand to Big Toe Pose (Supta Padangusthasana)

Runners, this flexibility exercise — which targets the groin, hamstrings, glutes, and calves — is for you, says Monal. “In this variation, I keep my hands resting behind my thigh, but as you gain flexibility, you can inch your hands up your leg, eventually reaching up to hold your foot or big toe,” she adds.

A. Lie faceup on the floor with legs extended and arms resting at sides. Hug right knee to chest, then clasp both hands behind right thigh.

B. Slowly extend right leg up toward the ceiling, keeping hands clasped behind thigh and bending knee slightly if necessary. Flex through right foot, drawing toes toward body and pressing heel toward ceiling. Keep head and shoulders relaxed and resting on the floor.

Hold for 3 breaths. Switch sides; repeat.

Optional: For an added stretch, loop a strap, belt, or towel around your heel. Hold onto the ends of the strap and use the resistance here to open up your hamstrings.

8. Reclined Pigeon (Supta Kapotasana)

Also known as the figure four stretch, this flexibility exercise helps relieve tightness in the lower back, hips, and glutes, says Monal.

A. Lie faceup on a mat with arms at sides, knees bent, and feet resting flat on the floor a few inches in front of butt.

B. Bring right knee up to chest, then use hands to guide right ankle in front of left thigh near knee. Rest right ankle on left thigh.

C. To deepen the stretch, clasp hands around the back of left thigh, then lift left foot off the floor while hugging left knee toward chest. Right knee should open out toward the right side, stretching hips and glutes. Keep hips and shoulders grounded on the mat.

Hold for 3 breaths. Switch sides; repeat.

9. Happy Baby (Ananda Balasana)

This flexibility pose may feel a bit silly, but it’s perfect for creating flexibility in the hips and groin, says Monal. (P.S. the stretch also helps relieve gas and GI discomfort.)

A. Lie faceup on a mat with arms at sides and legs extended. Gently draw knees to chest, then reach hands between legs and grab hold of outside of feet or ankles.

B. Spread knees apart, flex feet, and press into hands, simultaneously pressing shoulders and tailbone into the mat. Gently rock from side to side.

Hold for 3 breaths.

10. Supine Twist (Jathara Parivartanasana)

This flexibility exercise is Monal’s favorite way to stretch the spine, lower back, hips, shoulders, and torso — just what your body needs after a long day of WFH.

A. Lie faceup on a mat with arms at sides, knees bent, and feet resting flat on the floor a few inches in front of butt.

B. While pressing shoulders into the mat, draw both knees up to chest, holding fronts of knees with hands.

C. Let knees slowly fall to the floor on right side, simultaneously extending left arm out to left side. Keep gaze focused on the ceiling or toward left hand.

Hold for 3 breaths. Switch sides; repeat.

11. Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana)

This flexibility exercise is ideal for stretching the chest and shoulders, says Monal. Plus, the glute bridge loosens up your hip flexors while strengthening your glutes, hamstrings, and pelvic floor, as Shape previously reported.

A. Lie faceup on a mat with arms at sides, palms facing down, knees bent, and feet hip-width apart, resting flat on the floor a few inches in front of butt.

B. Keeping core engaged and tailbone tucked, exhale and slowly push through both heels to lift hips off the floor. Lift hips up as high as possible. Keep neck long and chin slightly tucked toward chest.

C. To deepen the stretch throughout the chest and shoulders, clasp hands together under butt and reposition upper back to draw shoulder blades closer together.

Hold for 3 breaths.

This story first appeared on www.shape.com

(Credit for the hero and featured image:The Lazy Artist Gallery/Unsplash)

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