A basic rule of thumb for getting your body flexible and strong is to ‘stretch what is strong’ and ‘strengthen what is weak.’
This means muscles like the front of our hips, thighs and chest need to be stretched more often, so that the back of the body is moved. Why? Well, when you think about it, the daily movements we naturally do are generally ‘forward.’ Think: driving, computer work, lifting, using our phones, walking… the list goes on, really!
Improved flexibility comes from spending time doing a variety of stretches as often as you can. Years of habit needs to be reversed in order to gain ‘flexibility,’ so if this is a goal of yours, be patient and consistent with your stretches.
There are many factors that contribute towards flexibility, so keep in mind it will be different for you depending on your areas of tightness in the body, exercise habits and how long it’s been since you have stretched regularly.
Here are my picks for overall improved flexibility. I recommend warming up before you do them, never stretch with muscles cold. Then hold each one for around 20-30 seconds taking deep breaths.
You should feel a stretch, but never strain. And, when stretching, keep in mind the principle of ‘strengthening what is weak.’ To easily remember this, tighten and gently squeeze the muscle on the opposite side of the body to the muscle you are stretching. This gives you a stronger stability in the body, rather than just slumping down into a stretch. You will enjoy leaner, stronger muscles with greater flexibility if you do this.
1. Hip flexor stretch
An oldie but a goodie, stretching your hip flexors is a must! This version with the knee off the floor is a stronger stretch and effective if you are doing lots of exercise like running or cycling, but also great for sitting at a desk. Place your knee down at the back of you feel it’s too strong to begin with.
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2. Inner thigh ‘V’ stretch
This super effective stretch will target several muscles: inner thighs, lower back, hamstrings. The trick with this one is to keep your leg muscles strong and grounded (do not lift your bum off the floor) that way you have a strong posture to start with, making for a more effective stretching effect.
3. Side mermaid stretch
Tucking your legs back into a ‘triangle’ shape is the key to this stretch. If your knees are bad you can pop both legs forward instead, slightly bending the knees. Tip: always think of lifting ‘up’ out of your lower back and engaging your core muscles so you are not compressing into your spine when you reach over. A nice stretch for the side of the body and will help you open out your back, too.
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4. Dancer pose stretch
You get to target a few muscles here: front of the body, front of the hips, chest and shoulder, plus the spine. This can also help you work on balance. Being on one leg encourages the muscles to ‘switch on’ so will get that ‘strengthening’ effect we spoke of earlier. Try to lift your leg up high at the back, and then tilt forward once your balance is feeling steady. You can always hold on to something for support when starting out.
5. Forward fold
Stepping one foot in front of the other, with a slight distance between the feet (by the way you don’t have to do it on a ledge!) engage your core and stretch the arms sideways as you lean forward. You will stop at the point where your knees feel like they will bend. Avoid hunching your back. By going forward with a flat back you will strengthen your upper muscles and hamstrings. Keep thigh muscles flexed. Gently move arms upwards to also stretch the front of your chest.
Complete this routine at least five times a week, and it will only take you a few minutes. If you are very inflexible, you may want to repeat the stretches two or three times over with a one minute rest in between each one for faster and more effective results. Note: if you are recovering from any injury or ailment, seek the advice of your physiotherapist to ensure these stretches are suitable for you.
Need help with any of this? Head to Vanessa Bartlett’s website for more information.
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fitness | body+soul