Most workouts involve a mix of strength and cardio. Maybe you do a dynamic warm-up, then a total-body workout or a quick HIIT routine, and possibly a quick cool-down. Sounds nearly perfect, but here’s the thing. There are three basic components to physical fitness: strength conditioning, aerobic exercise, and flexibility. You might be working on the first two, but chances are you’re not giving that last one enough attention.
Flexibility is obviously important for some people (looking at you, Misty Copeland and super-bendy yogis), but what benefits does flexibility have for the average person?
“Flexibility leads to a reduction in injury as well as increased performance,” says Karena Wu, physical therapist and clinical director of ActiveCare Physical Therapy in New York City. When you gain flexibility, “your speed might be better when it comes to sports, and strength and endurance will be the best they can be,” Wu says.
But it’s tough to develop flexibility—especially when you’re stuck at a desk all day. “Even if you work out every day, but there’s only a three-minute stretch at the end [of your class], that’s not enough,” says Jackie Dragone, barre director for Flex Studios in New York City. Plus, age is working against you. “You lose water content throughout the body [as you get older], and if you sit all day, the muscles will shorten up,” Wu says. Tight hamstrings and hips, anyone?
Luckily there is a straightforward solution. You need to spend more time stretching. And that’s where this list comes in handy.
How it works: Just about everyone should be able to do these seven basic stretches, which Wu and Dragone developed. Use them as an at-home test to find your own strengths and weaknesses, then focus on the areas that need it most. Ideally, do all seven every day or at least during your post-workout cool-downs.
Try to hold each stretch (on each side) for 30 to 60 seconds, keeping your breath steady and slow throughout. The entire routine should take 6 to 7 minutes.
The 7 Essential Stretches
1. Forward Fold
How to: With legs straight, fold forward at the hip and try to touch fingertips to ground.What it stretches: Hamstrings and back of legs.The goal: You want your fingertips to graze the floor or be just around your ankles, Dragone says. If you’re not very flexible, bend knees to get your fingers to the ground and work toward straightening legs over time.
2. Side Stretch
How to: With feet together, right hand at side, and left hand overhead, inhale deeply. Exhale as you bend to the right, allowing right hand to slide down outside of right thigh. Keep hips square (don’t stick out left hip) and do not tilt forward or back. Repeat on the other side.What it stretches: All of the muscles along your side, quadratus lumborum (part of your core muscles), and external obliques.The goal: Ideally, your right fingertips reach the outside of the right knee, Wu says, and same for the left side.
3. Seated Figure-4 Stretch
How to: Sit on the edge of chair and cross right ankle to rest on left thigh. Gently press right knee toward ground so shin is parallel to floor. Repeat on the other side.What it stretches: The muscles around your hips: psoas, piriformis, other deep gluteal muscles, and even some of your hip extensors.The goal: Work to get your top shin parallel to the floor, Dragone says.
4. Thread-the-Needle Stretch
How to: Start on all fours. Take right arm and thread through opening between left arm and left thigh. Allow upper torso to naturally rotate to the left and come to rest on back of right shoulder. You can modify this move by dropping your hips to your heels to feel an even deeper stretch.What it stretches: You’ll feel this all over your upper and middle back, plus in your shoulders. (It’s a great go-to after a stressful day sitting at a desk.)The goal: Try to get your shoulder to rest comfortably on the ground, opening up the entire upper back.
5. Cobra Pose
How to: Lie facedown and place hands near shoulders, palms on the floor. Press up, extending arms fully, and allow back to naturally arch. Look straight ahead (not up) and maintain a level chin. What it stretches: Pectorals, shoulders, and neck.The goal: Aim to straighten arms without feeling compression in low back.
6. Half-Kneeling Triplanar Stretch
How to: Place left knee and right foot on ground and set hands on right knee. (Grab a towel or some extra padding for your left knee if it’s more comfortable.) Shimmy left knee back a few inches and lean forward, ensuring right knee does not go over right toes. Try to make a straight line from left pelvis through left thigh and feel the stretch all along the front of your left leg and hip. Repeat on the other side.What it stretches: Hip flexors. (They’re a group of muscles that need extra love, since they’re often stuck in a bent sitting position all day and tend to tighten up after running or cycling.)The goal: You want to be able to fully extend your hip, creating a straight line from hip to thigh to knee.
7. Assisted Chest Stretch
How to: Find a door or window frame, or the corner of a wall. Stand close to the edge of the frame with feet hip width and core engaged. Lightly hold the edge of the frame with left hand at shoulder height and rotate away from the frame to open the front of your chest. What it stretches: Pectorals, shoulders, and upper back.The goal: Try to rotate enough so that your arm is behind you. If you simply feel a stretch holding your arm out to your side, it’s likely that your pectorals are tight and overworked (possibly sitting all day with hunched posture). Focus on having better posture throughout the day, keeping shoulders pushed down and back. (Here’s how you should be sitting at your desk.)