If you’re active, you likely set aside time for aerobic exercise to improve your heart health. You may even carve out a few hours a week for strength training to build or maintain muscle mass. But how much time are you devoting for flexibility training?
Though often neglected, improving your flexibility is a crucial part of maintaining an overall healthy body, according to the American Council on Exercise. Regular stretching can help improve your posture, relieve muscle tension and may even reduce your risk of injury.
Even if you dreaded the sit-and-reach test in elementary school PE class and still struggle to reach your toes during a yoga class, don’t totally abandon this stretch just yet. Take note of your sticking points (ex. chronically tight hamstrings or stiff hip flexors) and listen to your body.
And if you can’t figure out exactly what your hang up is, these tips from Samuel Chan, physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments in New York City, will help you improve your flexibility and finally touch your toes.
If You: Feel Tugging in the Back of Your Legs
You Might: Have Weak Hamstrings
Sometimes weakness in the body can be misconstrued as poor flexibility, Chan says. In some cases, feeling a tugging or tightness on the back of your legs as you reach for your toes may actually indicate weak hamstrings, rather than a lack of flexibility.
Incorporating hamstring-strengthening exercises can help you improve your range of motion. “Loaded mobility and strengthening can yield good, long-lasting changes in your flexibility and decrease sensations of ‘tightness,'” Chan says.
One exercise to try in the gym is the Romanian deadlift, he says. Throughout the majority of this exercise, your hamstrings work eccentrically, meaning they lengthen to lift the weight. As a result, your hamstrings stay under tension longer, which strengthens them.
And don’t forget to foam roll after you work out! Foam rolling your hamstrings (and legs in general) can help promote blood flow to these muscles, promoting relaxation and flexibility, Chan says. Try to devote 60 to 90 seconds of foam rolling for your hamstrings after you exercise.
- Stand with your legs at about hip-width apart. You can either hold a pair of dumbbells at your sides or a barbell in front of you, gripping the bar with your hands about shoulder-width apart.
- Shoot your hips back and bend your knees slightly as you hinge forward, keeping a flat back.
- Lower the weight(s) toward the ground, keeping it/them close to the body. You should feel a stretch down the back of your legs as you lower the weight.
- Once your upper body is parallel to the ground, reverse the motion and bring your hips forward, returning to standing.
If You: Feel Tightness in Your Hips
You Might: Have Tight Hip Flexors
If you’re not already overwhelmed by all the reasons why sitting for hours isn’t healthy, here’s another: tight hips. Your hip flexors, a group of muscles at the front of your hips, adapt to being in a shortened position after long bouts of sitting.
When they’re chronically shortened, your hip flexors pull on your pelvis, causing it to tip forward (also known as an anterior pelvic tilt). An anterior pelvic tilt then places tension on your hamstrings even before you begin to reach for your toes, Chan says. That doesn’t leave much room for stretching if your hamstrings are already at their limit.
If possible, stand up and move around more frequently throughout the day for at least a few quick minutes, he says. Consider setting an alarm on your phone or fitness tracker that reminds you to stand up every hour or so. Or consider investing in a standing desk to give your hip flexors and chance to lengthen.
And make sure to stretch your hip flexors properly. Even a simple kneeling hip flexor stretch is a good way to maintain mobility.
Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch
- Kneel on the ground with your right leg out in front of you, bent at 90 degrees. Place the left knee on the ground for support.
- Tuck your hips slightly and begin to lean into your right knee. You should feel a stretch along the front of your left hip.
- Sit here for about 30 seconds, then switch sides.
Read more: 7 Dynamic Stretches to Improve Hip Mobility
If You: Feel a Pinch in Your Lower Back
You Might: Have Poor Nerve Mobility
Your muscles aren’t the only potential hindrances to touching your toes. If you begin to feel a pinch in your lower back that shoots down your legs, you may be experiencing tension in your nervous system, Chan says.
Ideally, our nerves should be able to slide and move independently from other muscles and tissues surrounding them. But poor nerve mobility can cause tension in this movement, which starts in your lower back or in the back of your legs. Mobility exercises, like an active hamstring stretch, can help alleviate this tension.
Another thing to keep in mind when it comes to your sciatic nerve is your posture, Chan says. “Since the sciatic nerve comes from the spine, sitting posture is very important — make sure to have your lower back supported!” If you’re sitting for a long time, keep a pillow on your chair for some added support.
Active Hamstring Stretch
- Lie on your back with your legs straight out and arms at your sides.
- Raise your right leg up toward the sky, keeping it straight and grab the back of your thigh with both hands.
- Slowly pull your leg toward you until you feel a stretch on the back of your leg.
- Keeping your knee in place, facing the ceiling, lower your heel toward the ground and then raise it back up.
- Lower and raise the bottom part of your leg several times to loosen the hamstring, then switch legs.