how to reach my toes
October 10, 2011 7:08 PM   Subscribe

how can i become more flexible, physically?

what are some exercises i can do to make me more flexible?

i have been doing yoga for years, and i'd say about 3x/week in the past year. by the end of the class i can stand up and touch my toes, but it doesn't last very long. while sitting down and stretching my legs out in front of me, i can barely move my hips! is it my back? my legs? is my body just not made to do that? people tell me, just stretch your hamstrings, but how? for how long? how many times/week? obviously whatever i'm trying isn't working, so i'm looking for some more specific guidelines.

i had a spinal fusion a few years ago, but am fully healed and my doctor said that shouldn't affect my flexibility.
posted by sabh to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Get into your stretching position. Once you've reached your maximum stretch point, flex the stretched muscles as hard as you can for about 10 seconds. Release. You'll find you've increased your range by an additional centimeter or two. Repeat, and you'll make further progress, but with decreasing returns.

I think this technique is called "forced stretching", but it may go by other names as well.

Anyway, I'm not sure how to incorporate this into a long term program, but damned if it isn't nearly miraculous for the short term.
posted by holterbarbour at 7:30 PM on October 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

The thing about classes is that they do all kinds of asanas, each for a few minutes. That's great for general well-being but you can't concentrate on something you want to develop. I learned a lot of really cool and advanced asanas by focusing on them when exercising at home. It's hard to give precise answer in terms of how many times a week and how long because when you're well rested and have tons of energy you can exercise much more effectively and conversely if you're tired after a long day of work, you won't make as much progress.

But a good goal would be 45-75 minutes / day on average. Good luck and feel free to memail me if you need more specific advice.
posted by rainy at 7:30 PM on October 10, 2011

One stretch I loved that my rowing coach always had us do was to stand feet shoulder-width apart and reach toward your toes while keeping your back straight. It seemed to really focus the stretch on the hamstrings and calves.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 7:47 PM on October 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

There's a lot of good stuff at Mobility WOD - it's not just stretching, it's also some self-massage and range of motion testing to figure out what's up. (I can say that the lacrosse ball is the perfect, perfect tool - foam rollers are nice too, but if you have to pick one pick the ball.)
posted by restless_nomad at 8:06 PM on October 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

Your yoga teacher should be able to recommend specific stretches for you. You'll have the added bonus of being able to show him/her the places where you are stuck and would like more flexibility, and the safety of being shown exactly how to do something without hurting yourself.

Personally, I love pigeon posture for a good hip stretch, but I really feel like it's best to have someone teach it to you in person.

The best hamstring stretch I've ever found is Supta Padangusthasana.

The real key, though, no matter what stretches you choose, is to do them every day.
posted by looli at 8:19 PM on October 10, 2011

Can you get a one-on-one session with a yoga teacher you like and ask them to help you with this? They may be able to give you more specific instruction and help with poses than in a larger class.

I do pilates, which has done a lot for my flexibility. I'm not sure that it's different enough from yoga in terms of stretches to do something that yoga isn't, but you could give it a try and see.
posted by gingerbeer at 8:37 PM on October 10, 2011

Best answer: Static Stretching: NO.

Dynamic Stretching: Yes!

There's little real-world use for being a Stretch Armstrong, but stretching can be helpful for injury prevention.

Whatever you do, please, please, please warm those muscles up before you do anything else.
posted by alex_skazat at 8:47 PM on October 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

More often than not, sustained improvements in flexibility tend to come from integrating stretching into your daily life, not just stepping up the frequency of one's yoga classes (though an increase in dedicated training time will of course help, but only to the extent that everything you do in your non-training time countervails against any gains). Could you spend less time sitting? Can you address any compensation patterns in the ways you move? Are there any little tricks or exercises you can make into daily or hourly routines to preserve joint mobility? Where in your body are you weak, and what habits that degrade strength in those areas?

Be like a cat. Cats don't limit their stretching to yoga classes. Cats just stretch whenever the fuck they want to stretch, and that seems to do the job well enough.

You may also want to examine whether increasing your flexibility in the ways you desire is even in your best interests. It's all too easy to fall prey to the marketing ploys of yoga that seem to suggest there is no upper limit to flexibility and that more is always better. This is a fallacy that threatens your joints and your wallet. Consider that every joint in your body exists in a finely-tuned balance of flexibility vs. stability and toiling to increase the stretch reflex of a muscle that won't have it, without understanding exactly why it won't have it, is tremendously unwise. (e.g. hamstring length is related to pelvic tilt; if the pelvis is being pulled out of alignment by shortened anterior hip flexors, the hamstrings are already overextended and thus further stretching only potentiates injury - a good yoga teacher will address this, but not all yoga teachers are good, and even the good ones aren't half as well up on kinesthesiology as they ought to be.)
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 10:42 PM on October 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

I like KVB's answer - My mother told me to stretch like a cat when I wake up, and when I'm about to sleep sleep.

Also, I'd try some omega 3 fish oil. I know that sounds stupid (Oil -> joints, haha, we're not robots!) but actually, my joints stop creaking when I take fish oil. Google, there might be other supplements for it.
posted by Elysum at 11:25 PM on October 10, 2011

I was always the kid who basically failed the sit-and-reach test in gym glass. Not only could I not touch my toes, I could barely touch my mid-shins. But somewhere in my mid-20s I ran across a technique that worked wonders, to the point that I can not only touch my toes, but (if I've been diligent about stretching several times a week) I can rest my knuckles on the ground! Unreal. Of course the effects gradually disappear if I stop stretching for a couple weeks, but that's probably no surprise.

I always do this when my muscles are good and warm, usually after a jog or elliptical machine workout. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, and bend forward to touch your toes (or toward them!). You don't have to reach for them, just dangle from the hips. Breathe deeply and slowly. After about 10 seconds, while still dangling forward, shift your weight onto your toes -- don't go up on your tippy toes, just lean a bit so the weight is mostly on the balls of your flat feet. Keep breathing deeply, and count about 10 seconds. Then shift your weight back onto your heels, still dangling, still breathing deeply. Do these 10-second shifts forward and back a few times (I usually do 3 repeats each way), and you will find that you can reach further down each time. Even with a 3x/week stretching routine, I've made significant gains in how far I can stretch.
posted by vytae at 6:53 AM on October 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Odds are good that the reason you can make the stretch at the end of class is that the class relaxes a set of muscles enough to make the stretch, and otherwise, you're not getting the full benefit of the whole set- so your muscles just don't loosen up enough to do it outside of the context of the class.

A useful thing to know is whether your spinal fusion was from an accident or injury? Even if the vertebrae are happy as a unit, if you had an injury, you might have a lot of scar tissue locking things down.

Or, you might have some areas of hypermobility and your lack of flexibility a sign of your muscles trying to stabilize a weakened joint. It's good to check in with a PT, even if it's years later, just to make sure you're not destabilizing something that needs to be locked in. Definitely a good plan if you had a back injury in the past!

If you're doing stretching, make sure to do strengthening exercises as well, otherwise you set yourself up for potential injury.

A couple of tricks for the toe touch

Provided you're good on that side, here's at least some tricks you can do for toe touching specifically, using Reciprocal Inhibition. The short version is that your brain shuts off one set of muscles when it activates another- so it's a quick way to get a muscle set to turn off, relax, which allows it to be stretched further.

For your hamstrings- lay on your side, facing the wall with your knees bent to a fetal position. Place your shins against the wall. Press your shins into the wall as if you were attempting to straighten out your legs, but don't press so hard that you push yourself away from the wall.

Hold 3-5 seconds.

Now roll over and attempt your toe touch and see how your range is.

For your back muscles, lay face down, and attempt to lift your head and chest off the floor - like a fish, or superman. Hold 3-5 seconds. Now roll over and attempt your toe touch and see how your range is.

Since the hamstrings and the back muscles are the two groups that need to relax and lengthen for the toe touch, you may find one or both to be helpful in getting extra reach.

For flexibility in general, there's similar tricks you can do for any given muscle, but they're specific depending on the muscle and you'll do well finding a good PT to guide you through them.
posted by yeloson at 10:01 PM on October 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Physical trainer and kettlebell proponent Pavel Tsatsouline would say:
Your muscles are already long enough to enable you to do the most spectacular gymnastic or karate techniques. They just don't know it yet. All you need to do is teach your muscles how to relax into stretch, and pick up the slack.

Conventional stretching attempts to literally elongate your tissues, which is dangerous and ineffective. Relax into Stretch simply teaches your muscles to relax into a stretch. If you compare traditional training to a messy hardware reorganization, then Relax into Stretch is an efficient software upgrade.

While stretching tissues may take years, changes in the nervous system are immediate! Your muscles will start noticeably elongating from your first Relax into Stretch practice and within months you will have achieved a level of flexibility uncommon to our species.
Copied from the intro to Relax Into Stretch: Instant Flexibility Through Mastering Muscle Tension (book and DVD available with DVD trailer here; also available as a set with the advanced DVD Forced Relaxation).
posted by Lexica at 2:22 PM on October 12, 2011

Best answer: Firstly, you need to do some yoga every day, best twice a day - half an hour is enough for a session. For Hamstrings As has been said, do Supta Padangusthasana (use a belt around the foot to pull the leg up to but not further into maximum - maximum will gradually increase, but not if you hurt yourself; and most important do not bend at the knee, keep quads strong). Start Supta P with both heels pressed against a wall, that way when you raise one leg, the hips will remain in balance; also as mentioned by somenone, use Reciprocal Inhibition, though this is not so great for long term stretch. Then you need to do other exercises/asanas. Here are three, do two minutes of each for each leg, ideally twice a day. If you do these daily you'll be able to go up to around 100 degrees straight leg lift within a couple of months - this is also very important for your long term back health (and, by the way, your doctor is mistaken about flexibility and spinal fusion, there is always some effect, but it doesn't have to be serious if you work harder than the mythical "average" person would need to).


1. Standing hamstring stretch: Stand close to a stool of about 15 inches height.and place the heel of one leg on a stool. Keep your knee straight. Lean forward, bending at the hips until you feel a mild stretch in the back of your thigh. Make sure you do not roll your shoulders and bend at the waist when doing this or you will stretch your lower back instead. Hold the stretch for 15 to 30 seconds. Repeat 3 times. Then do the other leg.

2. Hamstring stretch on a wall. Lie on your back with your buttocks close to a doorway, and extend your legs straight out in front of you along the floor. Raise one leg and rest it against the wall next to the door frame. Your other leg should extend through the doorway. You should feel a stretch in the back of your thigh. The hip on your floor leg will move away from your shoulder, so hips will be out of balance, learn to adjust them so that they are level. this is most important. Hold this position for 15 to 30 seconds. Repeat 3 times. If you want to increase the stretch, get a long belt or cloth and loop it around the ball of the raised foot, just below the toes, a gentle pull will have a big effect. Repeat with other leg.

3. Standing calf stretch: Facing a wall, put your hands against the wall at about eye level. Keep one leg back, the other leg forward with the knee bent, keep the heel of your back leg on the floor. Turn your back foot slightly inward (as if you were pigeon-toed) as you slowly lean into the wall until you feel a stretch in the back of your calf. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Repeat 3 times. Do this exercise several times each day. Then do exactly the same exercise, with same repeats, but bend the knee of the back leg as well as the front one. As always repeat both exercises with other leg.

Do remember the obvious - these asanas are only a part of your practice, and asanas are in themselves only one aspect of the eight stages of yoga.
posted by nickji at 4:12 AM on October 14, 2011

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