Leg Stretches: Flexibility for the Inflexible!

Updated on February 24, 2017
Marisa Wright profile image

Kate Swanson is an Australian writer and dancer with nearly 40 years' experience in ballet, jazz, flamenco, ballroom, Latin and bellydance.

We can't all get as flexible as this girl, but . . .
We can't all get as flexible as this girl, but . . .

You Can Become Flexible!

Are you one of those people who has tried yoga and pilates to get flexible, and found you're so stiff you can't even get into the starting positions? Don't despair, you can get supple!

In fact, you may not be as inflexible as you think - or at least, not where you think. For instance, if you can't touch your toes, you may blame your hamstrings: but in fact it could be your back or glutes that are stopping you reaching the floor! The secret to effective stretching is to stretch each set of muscles separately, starting with the lower leg.

Calf stretch

Step 1 - Lower Back Stretch

Your hamstrings are the hardest to stretch, so we're not going to tackle them head-on! Instead we'll move to the opposite end of the hamstrings - your glutes and lower back.

Lie down on your back and hug each knee into your chest in turn. Pull the knee in as far as you can and hold it for a count of 5 to 10, then let go and do the other knee. Repeat until you can no longer feel a pull in your back. If you have a stiff back, you should do this stretch every morning, before you get out of bed.

The glutes are next. They're harder to stretch, especially if you have arthritic knees or cartilage trouble, because most glute stretches involve turning your leg out and pressing on your knee.

Step 2 - Glute Stretch

Glute stretch, the hard way!
Glute stretch, the hard way! | Source

The clip below illustrates a glute stretch which isn't so hard on the knees.

You'll need a foam roller to do this stretch. You can do exactly the same stretch without a roller, but in that case you'll need to bring the bottom foot in closer, and use your hand to press the raised knee outwards. I find that hurts my knee so it's not an option for me.

In any case, the extra pressure from the roller makes the stretch more effective, so I think it's worth the small investment. A roller can be very useful for several other stretching exercises, especially for loosening stiff shoulders.

Finally, the Hamstring Stretch!

Finally, you're ready to stretch your hamstrings. This looks like a simple exercise, but most people do it incorrectly. The problem is that there's a temptation to copy what you see in this exercise, not what you're being told to do.

You probably can't get your leg as high as the woman demonstrating. If you’re like most people, you’ll cheat by bending your knee slightly, because you're assuming you need to get your leg high. But in fact, that's not the objective at all!

Always listen carefully to what the instructor is telling you. In this video, the instructor tells you the knee must be locked (i.e. straight). So that’s the important thing to focus on, far more important than lifting your leg high.

Keeping your leg perfectly straight may mean you hardly lift it at all - but that doesn't matter. You'll get far more benefit from a low, straight lift than a high, twisted one.

You’ll often see this hamstring stretch done without a towel, using your hands to hold the leg or the foot. I strongly recommend using the towel, because it means you can relax your upper body, and you’ll be less tempted to twist yourself out of shape to reach your leg.

By the way, when you’re doing standing exercises, locked knees are generally not a good thing – in this exercise it’s fine, because your leg isn’t bearing any weight.

There is no fast track to flexibility – just dedication and persistence! Repeating the same stretches daily can be boring, so it's worth finding some alternative stretches to keep your workout interesting and challenge your muscles in different ways. However, the average yoga or Pilates DVD will be too advanced if you're not flexible. I recommend Yoga for Inflexible People, because it offers not just one, but three DVD's, with 35 useful exercises to add to your routine.


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    • profile image

      leskis 5 years ago

      What else has been helping is while streaching my legs I rub the back of my calves and thighs with warm olive oil.. it helps a lot.")

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 5 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Great hub, Marisa! Thank you for suggesting it as an answer to my question on yoga and flexibility. Cheers, Steph

    • profile image

      Wayne David - Australia 6 years ago

      As of yesterday I've embarked on a total fitness and stretch regime to conquer ITB syndrome. I'll also incorporate your advice and let's see what happens.

    • profile image

      LemonDrop 6 years ago

      Thanks, I can finally reach farther than my calves :D

    • profile image

      Mr. Inflexible 6 years ago

      This is awesome. Thank you greatly!

    • habee profile image

      Holle Abee 7 years ago from Georgia

      Great info here! I'm not nearly as flexible as I used to be.

    • profile image

      lucy 7 years ago

      wow this actually really helped me im now in my right splits omg thank you so so so so so so muchhhhhh

    • Marisa Wright profile image

      Kate Swanson 7 years ago from Sydney

      @dancerr, yes, older people are often inflexible, but young people can be, too!

      If you're working on your splits, I recommend myofascial release - it's not a stretch, it's a type of massage. Often dancers are already flexible enough, but need some extra help to get that final split.

    • profile image

      dancerr! 7 years ago

      so, these stretches ARE for the inflexible, not someone working on their last split because they have the other two!.. but i guess this would work for someone of the older generation? :))

    • profile image

      Clinton Walker III 8 years ago

      Many individuals take stretching properly for granted. It should be a part of any workout routine.

    • profile image

      Gloria  8 years ago

      i needed to loosen up my legs and this really helped!! thanx!!

    • profile image

      Ben 8 years ago

      I didn't realise how tight my right leg muscles were, hopefully my back pain will ease a little more from these stretches


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      xenophon 9 years ago

      very useful

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 10 years ago from New Zealand

      Thank you - this is really helpful for the naturally stiff of us!