By Samantha Lefave for Fitness Magazine.
Whether you’re a regular yogi or someone who struggles to remember to stretch, flexibility is a key component of a well-rounded fitness routine. So it’s important to squeeze it in. That said, everyone’s range differs. “Different people have different bone structures, so nobody is going to feel the same stretch the exact same way, and not everyone is going to naturally have the same range of motion and that’s okay,” says Tiffany Cruikshank, founder of Yoga Medicine and author of Meditate Your Weight. “The most important part is that you are taking the time to stretch, and that you maintain that sense of elasticity and pliability in the muscles.” To see where you’re at—and where you may need to focus your practice—go through these five tests that test flexibility from head to toe.
Most people think it’s best to test your hamstring flexibility while standing, but Cruikshank says doing so while lying on your back isolates the hamstrings so they don’t get assistance from the hip flexors or spine. Start lying on your back with legs straight out. Lift one leg up into the air, then see how far you can reach up your leg while keeping your back and head on the floor. Cruikshank says it’s best if you’re at least able to touch your shins, and then work toward being able to touch your toes.
If you can’t, grab a yoga strap to wrap around the base of your foot, and use the straps to help slowly guide you deeper into the stretch. Hold the stretch for 1 to 2 minutes on each side, practicing daily to help you become more comfortable in the position.
This is a big one for those who sit at a desk all day (so, a lot of us), as the external rotators of the hips become very tight—even more so if you add a regular running routine on top of it. Cruikshank says to start lying on your back, with your left foot on the ground and right ankle resting gently on top of the left knee. Lift your left leg up off the ground and try to reach for your hamstring or shin, bringing it in closer to your chest; you’ll start to feel tension on the outside of your right hip. If you’re unable to reach your hamstring, Cruikshank says that’s a big indicator that your hips are really tight. To work on it, she suggests placing your left foot against a wall for support, finding a comfortable distance that allows you to feel tension without pain (which means the stretch is working).
While Cruikshank says it’s difficult to test your spinal flexibility on its own, you can give it a go if you double up with a hip test, too. (And who’s going to say no to multitasking?) Lie on your back and bring both knees into the chest. Then, keeping your upper body flat on the ground—it may help to stretch your arms out to each side—slowly rotate both knees to one side, getting as close to the ground as possible. The goal is to be able to reach the same distance from the ground on both sides, otherwise it could indicate an imbalance.
As you lower down, if you feel more tension in the hips, that’s your cue that the area is tight. You should focus on releasing tension in the area, says Cruikshank. Same goes if you feel it more in the spine (just remember to keep your back flat on the ground while you rotate your knees from side to side). As for how low you can go? “If you’re nowhere near the ground, then that’s something you need to work on for sure,” says Cruikshank. “Find some pillows or blankets to support your legs while you settle into that position for a few minutes each day, gradually removing the support as you progress closer to the ground.”
“This is an area where people get really tight, whether you’re running, cycling, spinning, or even lifting weights,” says Cruikshank. “It’s a significant limitation to be tight in the shoulders though, so it could be something you want to focus more attention on.” To find out, start standing with feet together and arms down by your side. Bring your hands behind your back and aim to grab the opposite forearm. Cruikshank says you should be able to at least reach mid-forearm, though touching your elbows is even more ideal. Think about broadening your chest as you perform the stretch, or pushing your chest forward while keeping your abs tight and posture tall. “That way you’re stretching the chest, arms, and shoulders, rather than just the arms alone,” she says.
If you’re unable to reach your forearms or clasp hands, Cruikshank suggests using a yoga strap or dish towel to assist you until you get closer to your goal. Practice it a few times each day, holding the stretch for 1 to 2 minutes each time.
“The neck and spine tend to get really tight nowadays, especially if you’re a desk warrior and an athlete—posture isn’t always kept at the forefront,” says Cruikshank. From a seated cross-legged position, slowly rotate to one side and look behind you. How far around can you see? Cruikshank says you should be able to look 180 degrees, though it’s not uncommon to find your limit is less than that due to tension in the neck. To help release that, practice this same stretch a few times throughout the day, even when you’re in that desk chair (you can grab the sides or back of the chair for assistance). Just remember to keep your hips and pelvis facing forward, she says. “Your lower body shouldn’t move; this is all about relaxing into the seated stretch with a neck twist to release where a lot of tension is held when we get stressed out.”
Click here to watch the instructional video by Fitness Magazine.