Having danced from a young age, I have always recognised the importance of flexibility and mobility, and unlike most people I've enjoy the feeling that comes from a stretch.
For most people, stretching can feel uncomfortable, yet when done properly with a steady breathing rate maintained, the benefits of regular flexibility and mobility exercises can undo our bad habits that are most often bought on from lifestyle choices and work schedules. Regularly looking at screens nowadays can cause tight shoulders, chest and neck muscles. Staying sedentary in our jobs can cause tight hips, hamstrings and gluteals, or like the majority of gym-goers we avoid the after-exercise stretch due to lack of time, or because there's something better we feel we should be getting on with!
I want to change your mind on this matter; making a habit of performing flexibility exercises be can far more beneficial than many realise. I'm not talking splits and backbends, just a general feeling of being able to reverse bad habits from everyday life.
Firstly, I suggest the Cobra; a well known movement across many yoga classes perfect for elongating the lower back and opening up across the chest and shoulders. This can be so easily done first thing in the morning or last thing at night without even having to leave your bedroom.
It is done by laying prone, hands tucked under shoulders, before slowly lifting the head and upper body. Ensure to relax the shoulders down away from the ears, and pushing hips towards the floor. When you feel stable, try lifting one hand off the floor reaching backwards. Hold this position for 2-3 breaths before swapping hands for a further 2-3 breaths. Relax gently down again on an exhale.
The next of my favourite stretches is the "Box Split", also known as "Centre" or "Middle" split - depending on where or what you have trained in (for example, English/American, or Dance/Gymnastics). Great for tight hips and lower back, as well as hamstrings, calves and external/internal obliques.
To complete this stretch, sit on the floor, and gently take your legs out to each side as far as possible. Keeping both feet upwards facing the ceiling (avoid letting the feet roll in), take a deep breath and reach one hand over towards the opposite foot. Reach to hold as far down the leg as possible, holding this stretch for 2-3 breaths. Take a deep breath in as you centre your body up again, and repeat stretch to the other side.
My next stretch is great for those that need a time-saver. It's a complex of stretches for several muscle groups; calves, hamstrings, gluteals, pectorals, rotator cuff and biceps, among others (with far longer names!).
Start by standing with feet hip-width apart, toes facing forward and weight evenly between toes and heels. Clasp your hands behind your back, and gently bend forward as you exhale. Allow the hands to fall forwards over the head. The angle at which the hands fall forward will increase over time - let gravity do the work as you relax for 2-3 breaths. Recover slowly to a standing position.
The last of my stretches is a complex of lower body stretches, as shown by the four photos to the right. This complex allows improvement in flexibility for hamstrings, quadriceps, hip flexors and calves.
The top left and bottom right stretches can be completed by most people as an everyday stretch, the top right and bottom left stretches offer more variety for those wanting to take the stretch a little further. Take note of the right angle of the front knee, over the heel of the foot, pushing the heel to the floor. Aim to keep the back leg as straight as possible whilst pushing hips towards the floor. When taking the bottom right stretch, ensure both feet are completely parallel facing forward and reach the hands backwards whilst the front toes are lifted.
To increase the deep lunge further, consider lifting the back foot off the floor (top right; knee now on the ground, and using the opposite hand to twist round to reach the foot), or in the original lunge position, try placing both elbows on the ground on the inside of the knee (bottom left).
Not all of the above stretches may be completed the first time round - improvements in flexibility come slowly with practice, and should of course be gentle in order to avoid injury. Try holding each stretch for 2-3 breaths, as this allows time for the muscles to relax rather than fight against the movement; this is usually the point where flexibility improves, rather than maintains. Stretches can be done very gently to wake the muscles at the beginning of the day, or for best results after a workout when muscles are at their warmest. Don't force yourself into any position, and although pain may be felt it should be a gentle ache - imagine 5 out of 10 on the scale of stretch.
Whatever you do, my best advice is to take 5 minutes a day - whether at the end of your day or after working out - to practice these stretches. Muscle tightness can be undone, and injury often avoided when you practice mobility and flexibility. Start with the ideas above, keep following for more stretching tutorials and explanations, and should you have any questions please don't hesitate to get in touch!