- Benefits of flexibility exercises
- Flexibility Tests
- Sit-and-reach Test
- Overhead Wall-Facing Squat
- Shoulder flexibility test
- Internal/External Rotation test
- These Tests Will Measure Your Flexibility from Head to Toe
- The importance of assessing flexibility
- Flexibility vs. Hypermobility: How Flexible Is TOO Flexible?
- Varying Ranges of Motion
- How Too Much Flexibility Hurts Us
- What About Hypermobility?
- Moving with Integrity
- 1. Foundation
- 2. Awareness
- 3. Breath
- 4. Balancing Muscle and Stretch
- 5. Ahimsa
- The 4-Stretch Test to Tell If You’re Dangerously Inflexible
- Yoga for Flexibility: 9 Best Yoga Poses to be More Flexible
- Why Is Flexibility So Important
- How Does Yoga Help Improve Flexibility?
- How Long Does it Take to Become More Flexible?
- What are the Best Yoga Poses for Flexibility
- Reclined Hand to Big Toe Pose (Supta Padangusthasana)
- Eye of the Needle Pose (Sucirandhrasana)
- Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
- Crescent Lunge (Anjaneyasana)
- Pyramid Pose (Parsvottanasana)
- Half Moon Pose (Ardha Chandrasana)
- Garland Pose (Malasana)
- Half Lord of the Fishes Pose (Ardha Matsyendrasana)
- Cow Face Pose (Gomukhasana)
- All the Yoga for All the Flexibility
- Modified Sit And Reach Test
- Trunk Rotation Test
- Groin Flexibility Test
- Goniometer Testing
Benefits of flexibility exercises
Activities that lengthen and stretch muscles can help you prevent injuries, back pain, and balance problems.
A well-stretched muscle more easily achieves its full range of motion. This improves athletic performance — imagine an easier, less restricted golf swing or tennis serve — and functional abilities, such as reaching, bending, or stooping during daily tasks. Stretching can also be a great way to get you moving in the morning or a way to relax after a long day. Activities such as yoga combine stretching and relaxation and also improve balance, a wonderful combination.
However, note that experts no longer recommend stretching before exercise. Newer recommendations suggest that you start your workout routine with a warm-up, such as an easy walk or a sport-specific routine, such as serving some tennis balls and practicing ground strokes before a match. This gets blood and oxygen flowing to your muscles. After five to 10 minutes of warm-up, your muscles are warm and supple. This is a good time to stretch. You can even do your flexibility exercises as a post-workout cool-down.
To get more tips on starting a successful exercise program, buy Starting to Exercise, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
The benefits of exercise extend far beyond weight management. Research shows that regular physical activity can help reduce your risk for several diseases and health conditions and improve your overall quality of life. Regular physical activity can help protect you from the following health problems.
- Heart Disease and Stroke. Daily physical activity can help prevent heart disease and stroke by strengthening your heart muscle, lowering your blood pressure, raising your high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels (good cholesterol) and lowering low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels (bad cholesterol), improving blood flow, and increasing your heart’s working capacity. Optimizing each of these factors can provide additional benefits of decreasing the risk for Peripheral Vascular Disease.
- High Blood Pressure. Regular physical activity can reduce blood pressure in those with high blood pressure levels. Physical activity reduces body fat, which is associated with high blood pressure.
- Noninsulin-Dependent Diabetes. By reducing body fat, physical activity can help to prevent and control this type of diabetes.
- Obesity. Physical activity helps to reduce body fat by building or preserving muscle mass and improving the body’s ability to use calories. When physical activity is combined with proper nutrition, it can help control weight and prevent obesity, a major risk factor for many diseases.
- Back Pain. By increasing muscle strength and endurance and improving flexibility and posture, regular exercise helps to prevent back pain.
- Osteoporosis. Regular weight-bearing exercise promotes bone formation and may prevent many forms of bone loss associated with aging.
- Self Esteem And Stress Management. Studies on the psychological effects of exercise have found that regular physical activity can improve your mood and the way you feel about yourself. Researchers have found that exercise is likely to reduce depression and anxiety and help you to better manage stress.
- Disability. Running and aerobic exercise have been shown to postpone the development of disability in older adults.
Keep these health benefits in mind when deciding whether or not to exercise.
Flexibility is a key area of fitness. Being flexible can improve your performance in all types of exercise, and the American College of Sports Medicine recommends stretching every day to improve your flexibility.
The benefits of flexibility are numerous: less back pain, increased range of motion, injury prevention, improved circulation, less stress, and better posture.
Understanding your limitations can help you push past them to improve your flexibility and, ultimately, your performance.
Here are just four ways you can self-test your flexibility.
How it works
This simple assessment is recommended by the Mayo Clinic as a way to measure the flexibility of the back of your legs, hips and lower back. You’ll need some sticky tape and a measuring stick.
How to do it
Place the yardstick vertically on the floor and at the 15in mark, place a long strip of tape perpendicular across it. Sit on the floor so the heels of your feet just touch the tape. Slowly reach forwards as far as you can and hold the position for at least one second. Repeat this two more times and record the distance of the three reaches. You may well not be able to reach past your feet, in which case, it counts as a negative score.
What your results mean
According to the Mayo Clinic, for a good level of flexibility men aged 25 should be able to reach to 19.5 inches and women should hit 21.5 inches. Men aged 35 should reach 18.5 inches and women 20.5 inches. At the age of 45, men should aim to reach 17.5 inches and women 20 inches.
How to improve
Make sure you warm up beforehand, as it will make your stretching session much more effective. If you have trouble getting your legs straight, persuade a friend to hold your knees down. To significantly improve your flexibility, do hamstring and glutes stretches one to two times a day.
Overhead Wall-Facing Squat
How it works
Flexibility is also about being able to hold a range of poses, and this test illustrates your ability to hold a squat as you stand right in front of a wall – which is much harder than it sounds.
How to do it
Stand to face a wall with your toes two inches away from it. Raise your arms above your head and pop a squat. The key here is to not touch the wall with your hands as you sink and hold the pose.
What your results mean
If you can do this test without touching the wall (or falling over) then you have a good level of flexibility.
How to improve
If you struggled with this test, it’s worth going back a step and focusing on the mechanics of your movement–concentrate on your motion and posture. Additionally, try to incorporate Cossack squats five days a week (to build strength and mobility) and daily light yoga into your routine to help loosen up your muscles.
Shoulder flexibility test
How it works
Just as the name suggests, this test assesses the flexibility of the shoulder joint, which is particularly crucial for injury prevention. You need either a long stick or a towel and a tape measure.
How to do it
Hold the towel or stick in front of you, hands wide apart and palms facing down. Lift the object over and behind your head, while maintaining your handgrip. Repeat the movement, moving your hands closer together each time until you can no longer complete the motion. Measure the minimum distance between your hands
What your results mean
There is no numerical scoring for this test, but you should be aiming to have your hands as close together as possible by the end.
How to improve
If you’re lacking shoulder flexibility, try focusing in on your back muscles when you train. You should also try some shoulder flexibility exercises several times a week. Give 5-10 minutes of daily foam rolling a go, too.
Internal/External Rotation test
How it works
This tests the rotation in your shoulders and requires no equipment whatsoever.
How to do it
Kneel down on the floor and sit on your shins. Pull your right elbow as far behind the back of the head as possible. Extend your left arm, tuck it behind your back and try to touch the fingers of your right hand with your left across your shoulder blades. Repeat this again on the other side. You should ideally be able to grab hold of your fingertips, but if not, it can help to use a strap or band for the lower hand to take hold of as you reach around.
What your results mean
The more flexible you are the more contact you’ll be able to make between your hands. As you do this exercise, try to ask yourself where you feel this stretch the most, whether there’s any pain and if there’s a difference in performance when you swap sides.
How to improve
You’ll need to start working out your triceps and lats. Foam roll those areas two to three times a week, and always make sure you stretch these areas before and after your workout.
These Tests Will Measure Your Flexibility from Head to Toe
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. And while it’s important to squeeze in some stretch time after every workout, know that not everyone is capable of performing the backbend that fitness influencer is posting about—or even touch their toes.
“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—work your way through these five flexibility tests that gauge your elasticity from head to toe. (BTW, flexibility is different than mobility.)
Flexibility Test for Your Hamstrings
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.
- It’s best if you’re at least able to touch your shins, and then work toward being able to touch your toes, says Cruikshank.
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.
Flexibility Test for Your Hip Rotators
This is a big one for those who sit at a desk all day, 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 recommends this test:
- Start lying on your back, with the left foot on the ground and right ankle resting gently on top of the left knee.
- Lift the 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, That’s a big indicator that your hips are really tight, says Cruikshank. To work on it, she suggests placing your left foot against a wall for support and finding a comfortable distance that allows you to feel tension without pain (which means the stretch is working).
Flexibility Test for Your Outer Hips and Spine
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.” (Related: What to Do When Your Hip Flexors Are Sore AF)
Flexibility Test for Your Shoulders
“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 if you’re in need of some regular stretching, try this test:
- Start standing with feet together and arms down by your side.
- Bring your hands behind your back and aim to grab the opposite forearm.
- You should be able to at least reach mid-forearm, though touching your elbows is even more ideal, says Cruikshank. 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. (Add these active stretches to your routine too.)
Flexibility Test for Your Spine and Neck
“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?
- You should be able to look 180 degrees, says Cruikshank, 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.”
The importance of assessing flexibility
Flexibility is the ability to move the body parts through a wide range of motion without undue strain to the articulations and muscle attachments. Maintaining a reasonable degree of flexibility is necessary for efficient body movement. Being flexible may also decrease the chances of sustaining muscle injury or soreness and low back pain. Proper muscle balance, in which agonist and antagonist muscle pairs maintain appropriate ratios of strength, flexibility, and length to one another, is important for avoiding musculoskeletal injury. Flexibility assessment and exercises are crucial for lengthening muscles that are too tight.
Muscle Injury and Soreness
To move body segments, the muscles opposite those performing the movement (antagonist muscles) must lengthen sufficiently. Tight muscles, tendons, and ligaments limit lengthening of the antagonist muscles and thus reduce the range of movement of body segments. Soreness or injury may result when tight muscles are subjected to strenuous physical activity.
Low Back Pain
Low back pain is one of the most common complaints among adults in the United States. Low back problems
- account for more lost work hours than any other type of occupational injury, and
- are the most frequent cause of activity limitation in people under 45 yr of age in the United States.
Muscular deficiencies, including lack of abdominal strength, have been recognized as important considerations in physical medicine regimens to treat back pain. The abdominal muscles play a major role in preventing excessive anterior or forward tilt of the pelvis, and strong abdominal musculature appears to play a very important role in supporting the trunk in postures often considered compromising to the low back. In forward-leaning postures, strong abdominal muscle contraction can appreciably increase intra-abdominal pressure; this appears to create a splinting-like effect on the trunk, which in turn decreases the stress placed on intervertebral discs.
Two groups of antagonist muscles (the hip flexors and the hip extensors) are also associated with low back pain; the former tilts the pelvis anteriorly and the latter tilts the pelvis posteriorly. Here the concern is lack of extensibility or too much tightness in the pelvis rather than lack of strength. Extreme shortening of either group can have a deleterious effect on the functioning of the low back (Howley and Franks 2007).
Flexibility measurements include flexion and extension movements. No general test is available that provides representative values of total body flexibility; tests are specific to each joint and muscle group and area of connective tissue. Because flexibility is joint specific, determining the range of motion of a few joints does not necessarily provide an indicator of flexibility in other joints.
The most accurate tests of flexibility are those in which a goniometer is used to measure the actual degrees of rotation of the various joints. A goniometer is a protractor type of instrument used to measure the joint angle at both extremes in the total range of movement. The double armed goniometer has two arms that attach to two body parts, with the center (fulcrum) of the instrument over the exact center of the joint tested (ACSM 2010b). The arms are aligned along the long axis of the bones of the adjacent segments. It can be challenging to maintain the arms of the goniometer along the bones of the segment, however, this is critical to the reliability and validity of the assessment. In addition, it is important to isolate the joint movement by stabilizing the body while moving the joint.
Because hip flexors and hip extensors play a critical role in supporting a person’s posture and avoiding low back discomfort, assessing flexibility of these muscle groups is important. Therefore, included are two simple tests that can provide information about the flexibility of these muscle groups.
Flexibility vs. Hypermobility: How Flexible Is TOO Flexible?
Here’s a quick quiz for you:
- Do you find that you experience daily tightness and inflexibility in your body?
- Do you feel it’s a struggle on your mat to stretch your muscles?
- Do you feel as if you have muscular strength but lack flexibility?
- Can you easily touch your toes and fold forward?
- Do you often take the advanced variations of poses presented in class?
- Do you sometimes find yourself sagging in your joints when practicing yoga?
These are all questions around your degree of flexibility. The first three questions center around someone who is muscular but lacks flexibility, and the second three questions are focused on someone who is very flexible.
You might think that one of the goals of yoga practice is to increase your flexibility. True, but there is a degree of flexibility beyond which we start to actually lose the value of being flexible and start to risk injury. This is the difference between being “flexible” and being “hypermobile.”
Varying Ranges of Motion
Children are born with a great deal of flexibility, and this naturally decreases as they grow, along with their joints, muscles, and bones. As we age, there are a number of changes in the body, possible injuries, and the presence of unhealthy patterns of movement that can all create more or less flexibility.
Furthermore, there are some people who are just more flexible than others. You can think of flexibility as a “range of motion” measurement—this is how a physical therapist or physician would assess your joints during an exam.
This range is a continuum, with someone very inflexible on the one end, someone who is quite flexible on the other end, and most of everyone else in the middle. There is a healthy “range of motion” that clinicians consider “normal” and people fall inside or outside that number.
How Too Much Flexibility Hurts Us
Many people practice yoga because they want to increase their flexibility. But is it possible to be too flexible? The answer to this is not necessarily “yes,” but you can certainly say that a high degree of flexibility coupled with a low degree of awareness may increase one’s chance of injury.
Joints are the places in the body where two bones connect and are held together by ligaments. Ligaments are bands of fibrous tissue that can’t be regenerated if they break or snap off of one of the bones they were designed to support.
For this reason, it’s important that we treat ligaments with care and to support the joints with strong muscle. We also need to keep them moving to prevent scar tissue and other obstacles to healthy movement from forming.
What About Hypermobility?
Some people are “hypermobile.” This is usually something inherited, and is highlighted by joints that move well outside the normal range.
While some yoga students are used to making the appropriate pose modifications to deal with hypermobility, others might also be used to practicing with an emphasis on pushing the body to the furthest range of every muscle, because of a lack of awareness and compassion for the body.
In these cases, often the muscles, tendons, and ligaments are now stretched beyond a point where they can recover to a normal holding position.
Moving with Integrity
So, what can we do as yoga students to gain flexibility without increasing the risk of injury? We need to bring more integrity into our movements. In general, “integrity” refers to “adherence to principles, the state of being whole or being in sound and unimpaired condition.”
We can see how this would apply to yoga poses; we want to practice while adhering to principles of alignment, and we want to bring a certain kind of “wholeness” to the pose, rather than sagging in certain spots, or pushing to the fullest extent in other areas.
Here are five ways we can practice with integrity and prevent leveraging our hypermobility, which can potentially lead to injury.
A steady foundation will create less of an opportunity to sag in the joints. This might mean shortening our stance, using blocks, or working with a wider stance. It might also mean ensuring we use principles of alignment, like stacking the joints for stability.
When we’re not paying attention to our body in a pose, we risk sitting in our joints and practicing the same old way we always have, which might be the root of the problem. Awareness means we’re noticing how far we’re going in the pose and listening for the body’s reaction.
Our breath is one of the keys to staying aware in every pose. Holding the breath can be a sign we’ve pushed too far, while heavy breathing may be a sign that we’re working too hard.
4. Balancing Muscle and Stretch
Every pose has a range within it of both strength and flexibility. Practice balancing both, just like a scale that is working towards evening out.
When we practice with a non-harming attitude, inspired by the Yamas found in the Eight Limbs of Yoga, we’re practicing for health and not for competition. This naturally leads to greater balance and less risk of injury.
Our practice is about striking a balance, both in our bodies and our minds, which work in conjunction with one another. As we bring greater awareness to the mat, we increase the overall balance in our poses from the inside out.
The 4-Stretch Test to Tell If You’re Dangerously Inflexible
These four stretches are exactly what Walter Norton, Jr., director of training at the Institute of Performance & Fitness in North Reading, MA, uses to gauge every new client’s flexibility—whether they’re a pro athlete, a celebrity or an average person looking to improve their fitness. Find out what your performance says about the state of your body.
What you’re testing: How flexible each hip is on its own
How to do it:
1. Start in a pushup position, with your hands directly underneath your shoulders.
2. Bring your left foot alongside your left hand and put your right knee on the floor.
3. Dip your left shoulder towards the floor as you try to go deeper into the stretch. Hold for 2 breaths.
4. Return to starting position and repeat on the other side, then continue for a total of 3 reps on each side.
You’ve got a problem if: There’s a big difference between how close to your hand you can bring the foot on one side compared to the other side.
The danger: A lack of flexibility often stems from a lack of strength, says Norton, Jr., meaning your less flexible hip is weaker than the other. Not only can that create serious balance issues, but other parts of your body may pitch in to compensate, too, working in ways that they’re not meant to work and leading to muscle fatigue in those areas. Both of those problems increase your odds of injury. Take weakness in your right hip, for example. It could mean you rely more on your left leg as you’re going about your day. Over time, if you don’t work to correct this, you may have more wear and tear on your left knee and ankle.
What you’re testing: Hamstrings and calves
How to do it:
1. From a pushup position, slowly start walking your feet toward your hands, taking tiny steps so your butt gradually goes up in the air.
2. Walk your feet as far as you can without bending your knees.
3. Take 3 breaths, then walk your hands forward until you are in pushup position again.
4. Repeat 3 times.
You’ve got a problem if: You can only take a few small steps, or you can’t get your feet past the spot where your knees were in the pushup position.
The danger: Tight calves and hamstrings are a sign that your range of motion in your legs isn’t what it should be. Norton, Jr. often sees this in treadmill runners, who tend to reach out with their feet instead of lifting their knees, overextending the muscles in the back of the leg. Limited range of motion also makes your back a prime target for injury, since your body will naturally take the path of least resistance as you go about your day, meaning instead of bending down to pick something up the proper way, you’re more likely to bend over and put unnecessary strain on your back.
The Hip Shifter
What you’re testing: How well your hips can move together
How to do it:
1. On a soft surface, kneel with your knees spread as wide as they comfortably can, then lean forward and put your weight on your forearms.
2. Keeping your forearms on the ground, push your butt back and sit back into your hips (picture the movement of a porch swing). Hold for 2 breaths.
3. Come back to start and push your butt back again, aiming to go a little bit deeper.
4. Repeat the stretch 10 times.
You’ve got a problem if: Your butt is barely moving when you try to sit back the first time and you make hardly any progress after the 10th time, or you can’t get your knees wide enough to do the stretch at all.
The danger: When both hips are tight, chances are you’re tight everywhere. And that signals that you’re way too sedentary, since frequent and varied movement helps all of your joints move more fluidly, including your hips, says Norton, Jr. These are the types of problems you’d expect to see in elderly people whose main form of movement is standing up and sitting down, he adds. Flexibility concerns aside, a sedentary lifestyle is also linked to a host of health problems such as heart disease and high blood pressure.
The Bretzel Lean
What you’re testing: Glutes
How to do it:
1. Sit with your legs spread wide out in front of you and your knees bent.
2. Lean as far as you can to your right, trying to bring your right knee to the ground while keeping your knees spread. As you lean, twist your torso and bring your hands to the ground on the side of your right leg.
3. Once you’re as far to the right as you feel you can go, try to lower your chest to the floor and stay there for 3 breathes.
4. Return to the starting position and repeat on the left side.
5. Do the stretch 2 times on each side.
You’ve got a problem if: You can’t get your leading knee close to the floor, or you can go much deeper into the position on one side than you can on the other.
The danger: When your glutes are tight, your back picks up the slack of their limited range of movement, and the resulting back pain can affect every move you make. While most people have one glute that’s stronger, and thus more flexible, than the other, you should be able to get equally as far into the stretch on both sides (you’ll just feel it more on one). If you can’t, that’s cause for worry, because just like with the Spider-Man stretch, serious weakness on one side leads to compensation elsewhere in your body and potential injury.
Get More Flexible
These problems sound complicated but the fix is simple: Move more and move in different ways. If you’re sedentary, just walking more will help. If you’re a regular at the gym but struggle with flexibility, add in exercises you don’t normally do, like swapping a stationary-bike session for a bootcamp class. This will help improve your range of motion and you’ll notice that, in time, these stretches will get easier. Do these stretches 3 to 4 times per week as you increase your activity level and make an effort to vary your workouts more. At the one-month mark, you’ll see improvement.
Yoga for Flexibility: 9 Best Yoga Poses to be More Flexible
Flexibility could easily be described as both yoga’s blessing and its curse. On the blessing side, increased flexibility is an enormous benefit: it promotes the range of motion and joint health that help prevent back pain, repetitive-use damage, and sports injuries.
However, yoga is a lot more than flexibility. In fact, people that come to yoga with a lot of flexibility must be careful not to rush into advanced poses just because they can. Often, they need to work on their strength to compliment all that bendiness, build support muscles, and make sure that they are practising safe alignment.
Fear of flexibility, or, more specifically, a lack of flexibility, also keeps a lot of people out of the yogasphere (curses!). It’s a common misconception that you need to be naturally flexible to even attempt to do yoga. So let’s dispel that myth right now. Shout this from the rooftops: Yoga is not reserved for people who are already very flexible.
If you have tight hips, hamstrings, calves, shoulders, whatever, yoga is exactly what you need. Flexibility is not a prerequisite; it’s a result. The person touching their nose to their knees does not win (at yoga). The person who improves their flexibility safely over time wins (at life!).
Why Is Flexibility So Important
Flexibility is a key component of physical fitness. Cardio and strength training are on most people’s radar, but flexibility often isn’t until pain or injury arises. When they do, the treatment frequently involves stretching tight muscles that are limiting range of motion and putting stress on vulnerable areas like the joints.
We must also mention the mental benefits of increasing your flexibility. Flexibility is improved through stretching and stretching feels good. When you stretch, you relieve stress by releasing tension. Where the body goes, the mind follows. When you let go of physical tension, you also let go of mental tension. That’s one of the reasons yoga is so good at reducing stress, alleviating insomnia, and increasing a sense of well-being.
How Does Yoga Help Improve Flexibility?
Yoga is different from “just” stretching by virtue of its emphasis on safe form and the duration and variety of stretches that address both major muscle groups and deep-seated stealth muscles you might not even know you have (like the psoas and piriformis). The yoga difference can be described with three As: alignment, attention, and awareness.
Alignment is the precise way that each pose is done to maximise its benefits and minimise the risk of injury. This may include using props to support tight areas as they begin to open up. Practising with the insight of alignment helps ensure that you aren’t compromising one area of the body in an attempt to focus on another area. The experience of a good teacher helps bring alignment to the fore.
Attention means you are not zoning out or just going through the motions but rather feeling each pose to the fullest. This helps cultivate the body awareness to distinguish between the discomfort that may arise in using your body in a new way and the pain that is the body’s signal to back off. No one else is in your body so only you can make that call.
Awareness means that you remain completely focused on the present moment throughout your practice. Often the physicality of yoga asana practice is enough to keep us anchored in the now. We also learn to use the breath to return to the body in the present again and again. Awareness is one of yoga’s greatest tools because it takes us out of our monkey mind and allows us to reset, reducing stress and anxiety.
How Long Does it Take to Become More Flexible?
What’s the big hurry? As with all of yoga’s benefits, positive results come over time with consistent practice of a wide variety of postures. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll see improvement, but we hate to put any kind of timeline on it because there are too many variables. It depends on where you begin and what other things you do. (Running a lot often means tight hamstrings. So, weirdly enough, does sitting a lot.) How frequently you do yoga, what kind of yoga you do, your own unique physique, and so many other things also come into play. We can tell you this: Do yoga regularly and you will improve your flexibility. If you never start, you’ll never get results.
Yoga classes are the ideal place to work on flexibility because you’ll receive expert instruction on the safest ways to incrementally boost flexibility and how to use props when necessary. If you know you lack flexibility, you may feel some trepidation about attending a public class, perhaps wondering if you’ll be the least flexible person in the room. Here’s the thing: no one cares. No one is going to call you out and if they do, find another class.
What are the Best Yoga Poses for Flexibility
The best yoga poses for flexibility are those that are done regularly. We’ve already mentioned some of the major muscle groups where many people experience tightness. Hamstrings, hips, and shoulders tend to top the list so the following poses address those areas. Since yoga poses don’t usually work one area in isolation, however, you’ll also get the benefit of stretching the calves, quads, intercostals, and pectorals, just to name a few. When appropriate, we’ve included details on how to adapt the poses with props to make them more accessible and also how to amplify for a deeper stretch. Each pose is described individually but they are sequenced so you can also join them together to make a flow.
Reclined Hand to Big Toe Pose (Supta Padangusthasana)
There are numerous ways to adapt this pose, most notably by using a strap around the instep of the lifted leg. If you don’t have a yoga strap, any belt will do or just hold the back of your leg. Keeping your leg as straight as possible is the best way to stretch your groins, hips, hamstrings, calves. Don’t worry about how high you can lift your leg.
1. Begin by lying on your back with your knees bent and the soles of both feet flat on the floor.
2. Hug your right knee in towards your chest. Either take a yogi toe grip around the big toe or fit a strap around your instep.
3. Extend your right leg straight up toward the ceiling.
4. If you can, extend your left leg along the floor. It’s also ok to keep it bent.
5. Activate both feet (point or flex).
6. A hand on your left thigh can help remind you to keep that hip flat down on the mat.
7. Make sure to keep both the right femur (thigh bone) and the right humerus (upper arm bone) settled in their sockets.
8. After five to ten breaths, repeat with the left leg.
Eye of the Needle Pose (Sucirandhrasana)
This pose offers a wonderful way to stretch the hip flexors gently at first and then more deeply as flexibility becomes more available. If you are looking for more intensity, you can substitute in Pigeon.
1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and the soles of your feet on the floor.
2. Place your right ankle on the top of your left thigh, opening your right knee to the right.
3. Stay here or lift your left foot off the floor and start to bring your left thigh towards your chest. Reach your right hand through the gap between your legs to clasp your hands around the back of your left thigh (or around the front of the left shin).
4. Draw your left knee closer to your chest (which will cause your right knee to move away from your chest) while making sure that your sacrum stays anchored to the floor. You can also use your right elbow to nudge your right knee further away from your chest.
5. Keep both feet active throughout.
6. After five to ten breaths, switch legs.
Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
You didn’t think we’d leave out, Downward Dog, did you? This pose is good for everything, particularly stretching the hamstrings and calves along the backs of the legs.
1. Come to your hands and knees with the knees slightly behind your hips.
2. Curl your toes under and lift your knees from the floor.
3. Lift your seat to the ceiling by straightening your legs.
4. Pedal your feet one at a time.
5. Settle into relative stillness for a least five breaths while pushing strongly into the palms of your hands and maintaining the inverted V shape of the posture.
Crescent Lunge (Anjaneyasana)
Consider this a choose your own adventure type of pose. You can lunge deeply into the front hip or keep it more over the knee. Reaching the arms toward the ceiling also stretches the muscles between the ribs (intercostals). You can try reaching around for your back foot to add a quad stretch if you like. Pick a variation that works for you.
1. From Downward Facing Dog, step your right foot forward to the inside of your right hand. Give your foot some help if it doesn’t make it all the way to the front.
2. Lower your left knee to the mat.
3. Inhale to lift your arms overhead. Reach for the ceiling while simultaneously moving your shoulders down away from your ears.
4. For a deeper hip stretch, take your right knee forward a little or a lot.
5. If you want a quad stretch, lift your left heel toward your left glute. Reach your right arm behind your back to catch hold of your left foot or ankle. Draw your foot toward your butt.
6. Stay three to five breaths in your final version of the pose before switching sides.
Pyramid Pose (Parsvottanasana)
Another post that gets deep into the hamstrings and hips. Use props as necessary and remember that both hip points face the front of the mat in this posture.
1. From Downward Facing Dog, step your right foot to the inside of your right hand.
2. Step your left foot toward the front of your mat about five inches and out to the left side about 3 inches. (Distances may vary depending on your size and flexibility.)
3. Lower your left heel so that your toes are turned out about 45 degrees. (Use the 45-degree lines on your Liforme Mat.)
4. Straighten both legs, lifting your hips. If your hands come off the floor, take blocks underneath them.
5. If you need more stability, you can step your left foot farther out to the left side of your mat. Both hips continue to face the front of the mat
6. Inhale to come to a flat back. Exhale to lower your chest toward your right knee.
7. Repeat this process of lengthening on the inhalation and deepening on the exhalation for about five breaths. Then switch sides.
Half Moon Pose (Ardha Chandrasana)
Half Moon steps things up a bit by incorporating balance but it’s also an exceptional way to open the hamstrings (yes, again!), hips, ribs, and chest. If you are more of a beginner, you can substitute Triangle (Trikonasana) pose for a similar stretch with less chance of tipping over. A block also helps make this pose more accessible.
1. From Downward Facing Dog, step your right foot to the inside of your right hand.
2. Keep your right knee soft as you take your right hand forward about 5-10 inches (depending on your size). Come up on your right fingertips or bring the block under your right hand.
3. Bring your left hand to your left hip and lift your left foot off the ground as you straighten your right leg.
4. Stack your left hip over your right hip and lift your left leg to parallel to the floor, flexing the left foot.
5. Lift your left arm up to the ceiling and open your chest to the left side.
6. Take your gaze up to your left fingertips.
7. If you want a quad stretch, bend your left knee and take your left heel toward your glutes. Release your left hand and reach behind you to grab your left foot.
8. After around five breaths, try the other side.
Garland Pose (Malasana)
Squatting was once quite a natural way to sit but most of us have lost the habit and with it, the ease. If your heels come up a lot, take a rolled or folded blanket underneath them. You can also place a block under your seat for additional support if this squat is very intense for you.
1. Come to stand at the front of your mat with your feet about 12 inches apart.
2. Turn your toes out and bend your knees to assume a deep squatting position.
3. Bring your elbows to the insides of your knees and take your hands into Anjali Mudra at your heart. Use your elbows to gently push the knees apart.
Half Lord of the Fishes Pose (Ardha Matsyendrasana)
While it may seem like most of the action is in the upper body here, there’s a lot of passive stretching going on in the lower body too (especially in the hard to reach outer thigh, technically part of the glutes) so make sure to set it up carefully and keep the sole of your right foot in strong contact with the floor. Most of us don’t do much twisting in daily life so start gently and this will feel really good on your ribcage and back.
1. Sit in cross-legged in Easy Pose (Sukhasana) with your right leg in front.
2. Bring your right foot to the outside of your left thigh with the right knee up and right sole flat on the floor.
3. Scoot your left foot to the outside of your right buttock with the outside of the left foot on the floor.
4. Inhale both arms up and exhale to twist to the right bringing your right hand to the floor behind you and your left elbow to the outside of your right knee.
5. Activate your left hand and press the right foot into your mat.
6. Take your gaze over to the right but remember that your twist doesn’t originate in your neck.
7. On your inhalations grow your spine long and on your exhalations deepen your twist by pressing your left elbow into your right thigh.
8. After five to ten breath like this, release and do the other side.
Cow Face Pose (Gomukhasana)
Another pose that takes the body to places we don’t normally go and therefore is a really good antidote to all the slumped over sitting we frequently do. This arm position can be quite challenging, so have a strap handy and get ready to stretch the biceps, pectorals, trapezius, and serratus anterior.
1. In a seated position, stack your right knee on top of your left knee at your midline with the feet reaching toward the opposite buttock.
2. Lift your right arm up to the ceiling and then bend your elbow so that your right hand come to your upper back.
3. Reach your left arm to the left and then bend your left elbow down so your left hand is reaching up the centre of your back.
4. The idea is for the hands to meet and clasp behind your back. If there is no way that is happening, use a strap between the hands or hold onto your shirt with each hand to create a bit of traction.
5. If your hands are connected, you can press your head into your right arm gently.
6. Keep hugging both elbows toward the midline for three to five breaths. Then release and try the other side.
All the Yoga for All the Flexibility
These poses are a good starting place but remember that it’s really the whole body and mind approach that makes yoga one of the most effective ways to improve your flexibility, as well as so many other aspects of your physical and mental health. The best yoga pose for flexibility is actually all the poses.
If you’re just getting started, be sure to check out our information for beginners and join us in this life-changing practice!
Photo by James Farrell
Trainer Larysa DiDio created these 10-minute sequences (adapted into Fit in 10, Prevention’s bestselling, first-ever strength training exercise DVD) that blend calming yoga poses with targeted stretching and meditation to increase flexibility while easing stress and pain. They also build balance and grace, which you don’t get with cardio and strength work, and will leave you with your most balanced body ever.
YOUR WEEKLY PLAN
MONDAY, WEDNESDAY & FRIDAY
Morning Refresh: Stretch out the kinks and start the day energized with feel-good standing postures that strengthen and tone, too. Hold each pose and stretch for 20 seconds.
Side Garland (Garland Pose into Side Bend)
Start in Garland Pose (feet slightly more than hip-width apart and toes facing out, palms in Prayer position). Hold 20 seconds, then stand up, straightening legs, and reach your left arm overhead as you lean your torso to the right, feeling a stretch along the left side of your body. Hold 20 seconds, then return to Garland Pose. Hold 20 seconds, then repeat the Side Bend on the opposite side. Repeat the entire series at least once more.
Inner Warrior (Warrior II into Inner Thigh Stretch)
Start with your feet parallel and one leg-length apart. Rotate your left foot out 90 degrees and your right foot in slightly, so your left heel is lined up with your right foot’s arch. Bend your left knee, bringing your thigh parallel to the floor (or as close to it as you can get) with your knee over your heel. Raise your arms to shoulder height, bringing them parallel to the floor, and gaze over your front fingertips. You are now in Warrior II position. Hold 20 seconds, then move into an Inner Thigh Stretch by leaning to the right, bending your right knee and dropping your hips as you straighten your left leg, lifting your left toes off the floor. Rest your hands on your right thigh. Hold 20 seconds. Return to start and repeat both poses on the opposite side. Repeat the entire series at least once more.
IT Tree (Tree Pose into IT Band Stretch)
Stand with your feet together, arms by your sides. Fix your gaze on a point on the floor or wall in front of you (this will help you balance). Then, moving slowly, place the sole of your right foot on your left inner thigh or calf, above or below the knee. Bring your hands together at your chest in Prayer position, standing tall with your shoulders over your hips. You are now in Tree Pose. Hold here 20 seconds, then move into an IT Band Stretch by crossing your right leg over your left and bringing your right foot to the floor outside your left foot. Flatten your back and lower your chest slightly toward your thighs, resting your hands above your right knee. Hold 20 seconds. Repeat both poses on the opposite side, then do the entire series at least once more.
Elevated Chair (Chair Pose into Chest Stretch)
Stand with your feet together, then bend your knees and sink your hips, coming into Chair Pose with your hands in Prayer position in front of your chest. Hold here 20 seconds, keeping your weight in your heels and your thighs pressed together. Then straighten your legs and place your hands behind your head, elbows out to the sides, as you rise on your toes and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Hold here for a few seconds, then lower back to Chair Pose and hold another 20 seconds. Repeat the series at least once more.
Running Plank (Plank into Runner’s Lunge Stretch)
Start in a plank position with your arms straight and your wrists directly under your shoulders. Keep your abs engaged and your hips in line with your shoulders. Hold 20 seconds, then step your right foot outside of your right hand, coming into a Runner’s Lunge. Hold 20 seconds, then return to the plank position. Hold 20 seconds, then repeat the lunge on the opposite side. Repeat the entire series at least once more.
MORE: Get Toned In Just 10 Minutes A Day
TUESDAY, THURSDAY, SATURDAY & SUNDAY
Evening Unwind: Let go of the day’s stress and ease aches with this calming routine that targets your legs, hips, and lower back.
Super Cat (Cat Pose into Superman Stretch)
Stretches and strengthens back
Start on all fours, with your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Inhale, then exhale into Cat Pose, rounding your back and pulling your belly to your spine, allowing your neck to relax. Hold 10 seconds. Return to start and simultaneously extend your right arm at shoulder height and your left leg at hip height. Hold 10 seconds. Return to start and repeat both moves on the opposite side. Do the entire sequence at least once more.
Lower-Back Cobra (Cobra Pose into Child’s Pose)
Opens chest; stretches and strengthens back
Lie facedown with your legs extended, the tops of your feet flat on the floor. Place your palms torso-width apart on the floor, your elbows bent and pointing behind you. Reach through your legs and press down through your hands as you start to straighten your arms and lift your chest, rolling your shoulder blades back and down. Hold 10 seconds, then slowly lower your torso back to the mat. From here, move into Child’s Pose, knees mat-width apart with your big toes touching behind you and your arms reaching forward, your forehead and palms resting on the mat. Hold 20 seconds. Repeat the entire series at least once more.
Forward Fish (Forward Fold into Half Lord of the Fishes Pose)
Stretches backs of legs; releases lower back
Start seated with your legs extended in front of you. Inhale and reach your arms overhead, then fold your torso forward, keeping your back as straight as possible. Hold 20 seconds. Lift your torso back over your hips, then place your left foot outside your right knee, left leg bent. Place your right elbow outside your left knee and your left hand on the floor behind you. Sit up tall and twist your torso to the left, pressing your right elbow into your left knee. Hold 20 seconds. Repeat both moves on the opposite side. Do the entire sequence at least once more.
Stretches hips, releases lower back, strengthens butt
Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Cross your right ankle over your left thigh, just above your left knee. Press your left heel down and lift your hips to knee height. Hold 10 seconds. Lower your hips to the floor, then place your right hand on your right knee and your left hand on your right ankle. Pull your right knee toward your left shoulder. Hold 20 seconds. Repeat both moves on the opposite side. Do the entire sequence at least once more.
Figure 4 Pigeon
Stretches hips, backs of legs; releases lower back
Start in a runner’s lunge with your right leg forward, right knee over right ankle and left leg straight. Walk your right foot toward your left hand, then drop your right shin and thigh to the floor to come into Pigeon Pose, making sure to keep your right knee in line with your right hip. Allow your left leg to rest on the floor with the top of the foot facing down. Hold 20 seconds, then transition to sitting with your legs extended in front of you. Bend your left leg and rest your left sole on your right inner thigh, letting the outer left knee rest on the floor (if your hips are tight, your knee may not meet the floor). Inhale and reach your arms overhead, aligning the middle of your torso with your right leg. Fold your torso forward, keeping your back as straight as possible. Hold 20 seconds. Repeat both moves on the opposite side.
MORE: Become A Runner In Just 10 Minutes A Day
Exercise Photos by James Farrell
Modified Sit And Reach Test
The sit and reach test is the most common flexibility test. It measures the flexibility of the lower back and hamstrings. It requires a box about 30cm (12 inches) high and a meter rule:
- Sit on the floor with your back and head against a wall. Legs should be out straight ahead and knees flat against the floor.
- Have someone place the box flat against your feet (no shoes). Keeping your back and head against the wall stretch your arms out towards the box.
- Have someone place the ruler on the box and move the zero end towards your fingertips. When the ruler touches you fingertips you have the zero point and the test can begin.
- Lean forward slowly as far as possible keeping the fingertips level with each other and the legs flat. Your head and shoulders can come away from the wall now. Do NOT jerk or bounce to reach further.
- Slowly reach along the length of the ruler 3 times. On the third attempt reach as far as possible and hold for 2 seconds. Have your training partner read the score. Repeat twice and compare your best score with the table below.
The following table is data from the American College of Sports Medicine (1995) for performance in the sit and reach test:
Alternatively you can get the sit and reach test including a protocol guide at Power-Systems.com
Trunk Rotation Test
This flexibility test measures trunk and shoulder flexibility. The only equipment required is a wall and a piece of chalk or pencil.
- Mark a vertical line on the wall. Stand with your back to the wall directly in front of the line. You should be about arms length away from the wall with your feet shoulder width apart.
- Extend your arms out directly in front of you so they are parallel to the floor. Twist your trunk to your right and the touch the wall behind you with your fingertips. Your arms should stay extended and parallel to the floor. You can turn your shoulders, hips and knees as long as your feet don’t move.
- Mark the position where your fingertips touched the wall. Measure the distance from the line. A point before the line is a negative score and a point after the line is a positive score.
- Repeat for the left side and take the average of the 2 scores and compare with the table below:
|Trunk Rotation Test|
Groin Flexibility Test
This flexibility test measures flexibility in the adductors. The only piece of equipment you require is a ruler or tape measure:
- Sit on the floor with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor and legs together.
- Let your knees drop sideways as far as possible keeping your feet together. The soles of your feet should be together.
- Clasp your feet with both hands and pull you ankles as close to your body as possible. Measure the distance from your heels to your groin. Compare the results with the table below…
|Groin Flexibility Test|
If you are about to start a flexibility training program, a goniometer is an ideal and inexpensive piece of testing kit. It is essentially used like a large set of compasses or protactor to measure joint angles.