While some limbs or joints can become subject to frustration, there are others that we don’t even truly pay attention to. If I compare how often I’ve thought about my ankles compared to my hamstrings, it’s a 0 to 100 equation. Think about it: which limbs frustrate you? Are you focusing on your entire body, or just on a few single parts?
The key to flexibility
The key to great flexibility is opening up your entire body, from head to toe. The good thing is, as soon as you discover that flexibility – and with that, good posture – is gained from head to toe, you’ll spot many new opportunities to throw in an extra stretch. Here, I share my most surefire ways to improve flexibility (and they’re easy, too!).
1. Lengthen your spine
When: implement in your bedtime routine.
What: stand on the floor and stretch your arms out as far as you can, look up.
Lengthening your whole body right before or after bed might feel rather cliché as this is a typical bedtime routine shown in movies. Still, it’s not shown for no reason! At night, we tend to get curled up in a ball with, as a result, a somewhat compressed body that longs to be lengthened. One of the most important ways to improve flexibility is, thus, proactively stretching out. During the day, gravity gets ahold of you and tries to pull your body more down. That’s why it can also feel very relieving and liberating to do this exercise just before bed. It’s effortless, too.
How to lengthen your spine
Stand hip-width apart and raise both arms sideways toward the sky. Clasp your hands together and turn the palms of your hands outward while you keep pushing the heels of your feet into the floor. Feel the stretch in your spine, from your tailbone all the way up to your neck. Try to lengthen through each segment of your spine (lumbar spine, thoracic spine, cervical spine). Keep your shoulders down, and don’t collapse in your neck while looking up.
2. Loosen up your calves
When: while brushing your teeth.
What: stand on a yoga block with your feels off the block.
This might be the simplest exercise out there, as the only thing you need to do, is standing still – a perfect task for when you’re brushing your teeth. Consecutively, now you have multiple occasions to do this stretch during the day.
Start working your calves
Stand on a yoga block or half yoga block, depending on how tight your calves are. Mine are pretty tight, so I cut a yoga block in half (lengthwise) and keep a few of them scattered throughout the living room. Stand with the ball of your foot on the block (a sturdy hardcover book will also do fine) and your heels on the floor. Keep the stretch for as long as you like. If you have the stamina, you can throw in an ankle rotation afterward by drawing small circles in the air with each foot. Alternate while standing or move your ankles simultaneously while sitting.
3. Flex your hips
When: while waiting (for train, plane, bus, carpool buddy, anything, actually).
What: lower into a yogic squat, if needed, wall-assisted.
Do you know how some people just happen to be able to drop to the floor in a yogic squat? Yup, that’s not me 🙂 Nevertheless, I enjoy opening up that entire related area of the lower back, glutes, groin, hips, and legs’ backside. This is the trick that works for me.
How-to assisted yogic squat
If you cannot do a yogic squat without your heels coming off the floor, try lowering down with your back towards a wall (this can also be the façade of a building if you are waiting outside). Or, use anything infrastructure: street light poles and fences, also do the job. Hold the object with your arms stretched out, just below shoulder height. Clasp your hands firmly and lower down. Keep for as long as you are waiting, or for as long as feels comfortable. For me, this is one of the most satisfying ways to improve flexibility. If you keep your chest open, shoulders down, and neck long, you’ll really feel that focused stretch in your lower back and hips.
4. Open your shoulders
When: while sitting in a meeting.
What: grab elbows or clasp your hands behind your back.
If you pay attention to the chairs you are sitting on, you might notice that most of them have a slight curve forward. This allows for a comfortable yet, hunched sitting position. Even though a rather slouched position might feel relaxed at that moment, it could trigger future problems with your posture. Try to go against that forward movement by actively opening your shoulders while sitting in a chair.
How to do the shoulder work
You might sit up straight to allow for a shoulder opening described in my post 3 exercises for open shoulders: develop good posture and prevent pain. Or, you could try to reach around the backrest of the chair and clasp your hands behind. The beautiful thing about this opening is that you can literally do it whenever, wherever. The only prerequisite is that you need to be sitting, and most probably you’re doing that a lot 🙂 And while you’re standing, there’s always a shoulder-opening yoga pose to practice (there are plenty of those, too :)).
5. Move your head
When: while in a phone conversation with a friend.
What: move your head up and down, from your chin (almost) touching your chest to looking up toward the sky.
Moving your head can be a wonderful way to release stored tension in the area of your neck. Our focus is often very much forward, so we don’t really use our neck’s range of motion. And that all while moving your head is one of the easiest things you can do. Next time you’re in a phone conversation with a friend, make it an active session by integrating some head movements. You can even do this movement in a formal setting like a meeting, as long as it’s no video call.
Ways to move your head
First, be sure to put the phone on speaker or wear headphones as your neck should be free. Now, move your head a few times up and down. Ensure to keep your neck long as you move your head fully up. Next, move your head from either left to right and hold for a few seconds on either side. As your neck is quite vulnerable, be extra mindful and cautious. Don’t circle or initiate any diagonal movements. Rather, move purely on a vertical or horizontal axis.
Go against forward head posture
Most of us nowadays tend to have forward head posture, or nerd neck, whenever we are not aware of our upper body posture. Learn how to go against forward head posture in this post to gain more flexibility and suppleness in your neck area.
6. Release your hamstrings
When: while reading or listening to a podcast in bed.
What: stretch out your legs straight up toward the wall, keep your feet flexed.
Did you know that the hamstrings are a known area to store heavy emotions? Think sadness, loneliness, or the fear of letting go. So, while you might be thinking your hamstrings are ‘just tight’, it might very well be that there’s some extra work to do here. That’s why your hamstrings actually need care and attention, no matter how much you’d like to avoid them completely if they are tight.
Effortless hamstrings stretch
Stretching your hamstrings with your legs against the wall is effortless compared to stretching while sitting up straight. Enter this stretch by lying on your side, pushing your bum against the wall (yes, that might feel awkward the first few times!), and wriggling your legs up while rolling over on your back. Scoot over if you’ve moved a bit so that your sit bones are as near the wall as possible. If your legs feel heavy during a longer read, move them around and get them back up.
Checklist: ways to improve flexibility
- Lengthen your entire spine, from the thoracic spine to the cervical segment.
- Loosen up your calves with the help of a yoga block.
- Flex your hips with an assisted yogic squat, and make sure to lengthen your hip flexors, too.
- Open your shoulders with an easygoing elbow hug (that you can do throughout the day!).
- Move your head and gain flexibility in the area of your neck.
- Release your hamstrings by stretching them effortlessly against the wall.
- Ways to improve flexibility in five words: lengthen, stretch, strengthen, and persevere.
Looking for more ways to improve flexibility?
Lo and behold, there are about a million ways to improve flexibility 🙂 The most important thing is to find the method that’s right for you right now. Once you’ve found a method that you feel might work, try to stick to it for a while. Provided that the method can be practiced mindfully, of course. It’s easy to get distracted and to mix various methods at once, but in my opinion, focus and commitment bring more. Yoga Journal published a handy guide, What Science Can Teach Us About Flexibility.
And even more ways to improve flexibility?
If you want to get rid of that incessant neck pain, read my post How to fix nerd neck: 7 harmful habits to get rid of right now. To improve your forward folds, check out this post (pssst: it includes many out-of-the-box unconventional tricks 🙂 Or, if you really want to take it up a notch, start following Micah Walters, probably the most flexible person I’ve encountered on Instagram.
Bonus for book worms: reading material about tight hamstrings
If you are in full exploration mode about your tight hamstrings, you might want to read this helpful article by Yoga International, called A different approach to relieving tight hamstrings. This article handily introduces various postural habits related to tight hamstrings and links further to more extensive reading material along the way. Yoga International is one of my go-to sources when researching ways to improve flexibility, insights on yoga therapy, and contextual info on philosophy.
Another bonus: everything you need to know on the forward fold
Are you looking to improve your forward folds? In my Ultimate guide on the forward fold. Paradoxically, it includes bending backward; you’ll read about all the means to improve your forward bends. Learn to work with the proportions of your body, find out what is limiting you, and discover change-invoking exercises to really take off with serious stretching.
Did you enjoy reading this post?
I sure hope you did 🙂 If you have any questions, recommendations, or experiences you want to share, I’d be more than happy to read your thoughts! You can leave your comment in the field below. Do you know someone who could benefit from these ways to improve flexibility? Feel free to share this post (via the URL bar or any of the social share buttons) and get the positive energy flowing!
Regarding any form of bodily movement or exercise, please note the following. If you are in severe pain or have a known condition, please consult with your treating doctor. Don’t continue to practice if you experience pain while doing so. Only practice for as long as it feels comfortable and practice mindfully. Be aware of how your body reacts.