Staightening my legs
June 23, 2006 5:47 AM   Subscribe

How do I straighten my legs?

I've set myself a challenge - I'll touch my toes before the end of the year. It's stupid, but I've never been able to do it.

I've had my back sorted out and I now bend into a neat right angle, but any more than that and the backs of my legs start hurting. Worse yet, if I sit hard against a wall, I can't actually get my legs straight - and trying hurts.

I think I need to lengthen the tendons in my legs, but I have no idea how. Suggestions?

I know that a balanced exercise regeme would be a better idea, but this stops me doing pilates or touching my toes, and (I think) is the reason I find cycling such hard work. If age matters to the question, I'm 29.
posted by twine42 to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Keep stretching. Every day reach down far enough that you can feel the stretch but not so far that it hurts. Hold it for thirty seconds, rest, and do it again.
posted by dame at 5:50 AM on June 23, 2006

Also exhale when you stretch to reach.
posted by gomichild at 5:54 AM on June 23, 2006

Nothing ever helped me stretch my legs like running. Do a stretching routine, then run, then do the routine again. For the routine I would suggest stretching your calves, then your quads, then your hamstrings. Of course one should be cautious before starting running since it is pretty hard on the body.

Don't stretch your tendons or ligaments, stretch your muscles.

I think it's unusual that inflexible hamstrings would make cycling really hard. Can you describe in more detail why it is you find cycling to be hard work?
posted by grouse at 5:56 AM on June 23, 2006

I would have suggested Pilates, but you already mention that. Do you have an instructor or do you work from a book? If the former have you asked them specifically to help you reach this objective?

Otherwise, as dame suggests, keep stretching. A little each day and you will get there eventually. Just be cautious about avoiding injury.
posted by edd at 5:59 AM on June 23, 2006

Do you warm up at all before you try to touch your toes? That would probably help, at least a bit.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 6:14 AM on June 23, 2006

Having recently finally been able to stretch to reach my toes, I've found that just relaxing does wonders. Stretch a bit, and while stretched focus on relaxing, and then stretch a bit more, and focus on relaxing. Also, as others say keep at it and don't overdo it.
posted by forforf at 6:17 AM on June 23, 2006

Best answer: I can hit a right angle and then abruptly stop - as a kid I just assumed I needed to stretch, and then i found out I have a deformed hip bone, so the bones just lock at one place. Have you ever been able to touch your toes?
posted by muddylemon at 6:23 AM on June 23, 2006

Best answer: Yoga helps a lot, but it can take a long time. Also, if you have short hamstrings, you may never be able to do it. I'm not very flexible, but after 4 months of yoga twice a week, I was able to put my hands flat on the floor for the first time in my life. A guy in my class, though, after 2 years was still never able to quite reach his toes because of his hamstrings (although he improved a lot). If you stretch every day, you'll notice an improvement, but there's only so far you can go with some things. Downward dog is a good position to go into a few times a day if you can't take a whole yoga class, and you'll definitely notice a difference in flexibility after you've warmed up the muscles.

Make sure anytime you hold a stretch to hold it for at least 10 seconds (that's sometimes more doable than 30 seconds), otherwise you won't really improve because the muscles don't have enough time in the stretch.
posted by witchstone at 6:31 AM on June 23, 2006

I know another guy who has short hamstrings. He can't actually straighten his legs out entirely, even when he's just standing there. He's currently taking Alexander technique classes to fix his posture after years of walking/sitting/standing incorrectly because of the hamstring problem.

So you never know—it may just be that.
posted by limeonaire at 6:56 AM on June 23, 2006

Why does a balanced exercise regime prevent you from taking a pilates class or touching your toes?

Planned, regular exercise which includes a good stretching routine would see you achieve your goal and get you fitter. Pilates alone won't give you the same benefits as aerobic exercise, but there's no reason why you couldn't fit a pilates/yoga class into a weekly plan.

Your best bet: speak to a fitness instructor or get a good book on stretching, even if it's just to learn proper stretching techniques.

As for the short hamstrings, it's possible, but let's be realistic: the vast majority of people are just inflexible through lack of exercise and no stretching. Don't look for excuses or let others find them for you and good luck!
posted by Nugget at 7:11 AM on June 23, 2006

Every day, lie flat on the floor with a door between your legs. Raise one leg so that the back of your heel is against the edge of the door. The back of your leg should feel tight but not painful. If it's painful move your body to reduce the angle, if it's having no effect increase the angle. Hold for 30seconds then repeat with other leg. Do three sets. Over time you can increase the angle and should increase your flexibility. This will help with your long-term toe-touching ambition. (Naturally you should remember I'm not your doctor and accept no responsibility for any damage you might do to yourself.)
posted by biffa at 7:46 AM on June 23, 2006

Best answer: I also have trouble straightening my legs and it's been a goal of mine to fix this. Yoga has helped a great deal. Make sure you are trying a variety of hamstring stretches, not just one. Hold each position for 90 seconds. You should never be stretching to the point of pain, just "sensation" so 90 seconds should be no problem. Always go for more stretch only on the exhale.
Doing a whole yoga series has been the most result producing for me. Something about those counter-stretches seems to "reset" the muscles and significantly reduces the soreness I feel the next day.
posted by tinamonster at 7:49 AM on June 23, 2006

Nugget, I think was was meant that the poster knows an exercise regime would be good but her PROBLEM prevents this goal.
posted by crypticgeek at 8:05 AM on June 23, 2006

I recently read in a yoga magazine that doing a standing forward bend with your hands dangling in the air basically makes your hamstrings tighten up, to keep you from falling over. You want to stretch your hamstrings, so you need to let them release. Which means you need to find a solid object to put under your hands when you bend forward -- a chair if you're high up, books or a coffee table or something if you're reaching closer to the ground -- and then support as much of your body weight as possible forward on your hands so your legs don't have to hold you up.

Also, make sure your alignment is good. Feet hip-distance apart, toes pointing forward, knees not collapsed in or winging out.
posted by occhiblu at 8:09 AM on June 23, 2006

Best answer: Also, you probably don't want to touch your actual toes, since doing so rounds your spine over in weird ways which makes it harder (and not so good for you). You should be trying to touch the ground 10-12 inches in front of your feet.
posted by occhiblu at 8:12 AM on June 23, 2006

Like occhiblu said, it would probably help to have something to put your hands on as you stretch. Maybe an appropriately-sized stack of old magazines, then you could tear off a few pages every day until eventually you're touching the floor.
posted by robinpME at 8:45 AM on June 23, 2006

Another thing to do is to grasp your elbows in your palms (right elbow in left palm and left elbow in right), and allow the increased weight to gently increase your stretch.
posted by Arthur Dent at 8:51 AM on June 23, 2006

There's no fast way to do it, because tendons are naturally designed to not permanently stretch. After all, if they did then they would fail in their natural function, which is to connect muscles to bones to permit you to move.

Tendons are springy, which is also a natural part of their function: the ones in our legs serve as natural shock absorbers. But it's an essential part of their function that when they stretch that they bounce right back again.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:39 AM on June 23, 2006

Response by poster: I really must learn not to post questions during lunch then ignore it til the end of the day...

Pilates - I do this in a class of about 30 people in a local community centre type place. Fully accredited instructor.

muddylemon - no, never. Much to the amusement of my fellow students back in high school.

Nugget - i phrased that badly - I know I should be doing a full regeme, but I want to target this specifically. General exercise hasn't had a significant effect and I wanted to avoid a flood of "do some exercise" responses.

crypticgeek - Hey! these are manboobs! ;)
posted by twine42 at 9:52 AM on June 23, 2006

Try raising your arms above your head, and (carefully) stretching back as far as you can comfortably and safely. Then slowly ease yourself forward and over, and hold the pose for a few seconds, as advised above. Then slowly pull up, and do the backwards stretch again. Then back forwards towards your toes. I personally see a significant difference that way.

Or there's the whole sun salutation (scroll down in page to see sequence). What I'm trying to describe above is the beginning and end of it.

However, these might best be learned or practiced in a yoga class. All standard disclaimers apply. Void where prohibited by law, etc.
posted by dilettante at 4:19 PM on June 23, 2006

Try touching your toes (or attemtping to) from a standing not sitting position. The gravity will help you.
posted by radioamy at 12:47 PM on June 24, 2006

This sounds obvious, but have someone help you stretch your hamstrings out: you lay on your back (with a pillow under your head), your partner gently lifts each leg (one at a time) until you reach the maximum stretch you're comfortable with and then holds your leg there for 20-30 seconds. Repeat 6-8 times for each leg, every day or at least 3X week. Slowly increase the angle to which your partner raises your leg - you should see increased flexibility even later in the same set.

The important thing to remember is that the hamstring is actually multiple muscles - for best results, you'll want to try several different stretches to make sure you work them all.
posted by deliriouscool at 3:16 PM on June 26, 2006

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