Kate Swanson is an Australian writer and dancer with nearly 40 years' experience in ballet, jazz, flamenco, ballroom, Latin and bellydance.
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.
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.
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, 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.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
leskis on July 02, 2012:
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.")
Stephanie Marshall from Bend, Oregon on March 04, 2012:
Great hub, Marisa! Thank you for suggesting it as an answer to my question on yoga and flexibility. Cheers, Steph
Wayne David - Australia on November 09, 2011:
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.
LemonDrop on May 15, 2011:
Thanks, I can finally reach farther than my calves :D
Mr. Inflexible on April 20, 2011:
This is awesome. Thank you greatly!
Holle Abee from Georgia on September 24, 2010:
Great info here! I'm not nearly as flexible as I used to be.
lucy on September 24, 2010:
wow this actually really helped me im now in my right splits omg thank you so so so so so so muchhhhhh
Kate Swanson (author) from Sydney on August 01, 2010:
@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.
dancerr! on August 01, 2010:
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? :))
Clinton Walker III on January 16, 2010:
Many individuals take stretching properly for granted. It should be a part of any workout routine.
Gloria on January 04, 2010:
i needed to loosen up my legs and this really helped!! thanx!!
Ben on July 29, 2009:
I didn't realise how tight my right leg muscles were, hopefully my back pain will ease a little more from these stretches
xenophon on December 18, 2008:
Elisabeth Sowerbutts from New Zealand on November 02, 2007:
Thank you - this is really helpful for the naturally stiff of us!