Leg Stretches - leg flexibility for the Inflexible!
You Can Get Flexible!
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.
Step 1 - Lower Back Stretch
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.
Step 2 - Glute Stretch
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, the Hamstring Stretch!
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 consider mixing it up with some yoga or PIlates exercises designed specially for inflexible people - there are a few DVD's out there, designed with you in mind. A good choice is Yoga for Inflexible People, which is a set of three DVD's offering 35 different exercises to get you moving.
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