12 great stretches for flexibility

The thought of stretching can be uncomfortable, but that’s why we should be doing it

Entering the world of exercise is an exciting time. It’s easy to want to try everything all at once, but that euphoria won’t last long if you’re waking up stiff and sore after workouts.  

Tight muscles and stiff joints mean your workouts won’t be as enjoyable, effective, or safe so it’s worth incorporating some basic stretches for flexibility into your routine.  

Female sitting on floor stretching her triceps while watching a laptopCredit: Shutterstock/ Krakenimages.com

Muscles lose elasticity and become shorter as we age, which puts strain on the joints, so we need to keep flexibility. Regular stretching not only helps ward off potential injury by keeping us supple, but it feels good too. And yes, you can totally groan out loud whilst doing it.  

The problem with stretching is it can feel daunting to start, especially if you know you have tightness in certain areas.  

It’s something that rewards the effort you put in, and after a few sessions you’ll really start to see (well, feel) some noticeable benefits in your day-to-day life.

When to stretch

Make flexibility stretches work for you

It can be confusing knowing when you should stretch and how long for. Some suggest stretches should only be done after a workout, when the muscles are warm, and blood is flowing through them.  

Others say dynamic stretching (flowing from one move to another) should happen before a workout to prepare the body for what’s to come.  

The fact is, if your body is warm enough, you can stretch whenever you like. Warm can mean after a walk outside; the heart is pumping blood to the muscles and our joints are loose and relaxed. It might mean waking up after a night under a cosy duvet (gentle stretching is ideal then).  

Or you might just like to stretch whenever you choose. If you’ve been sitting for long periods, move around a bit first to get your muscles full of blood again.  

Group stretching with female in front performing a neck stretchCredit: Shutterstock / Robert Kneschke

Some gyms have entire classes devoted to stretching, and of course many of the forms of yoga work on increasing flexibility too. The benefit of using yoga for flexibility is that it’s good for your mind, helping you switch off from day-to-day life and focus on your body, but in reality, this can apply to any form of stretching.  

We’ve compiled a list of 12 basic stretches you can use at home to increase flexibility and reduce tightness in the muscles, and a lot of these work on pushing your stretch reflex 

Never heard of it? Well, everyone has a stretch reflex, and it’s that point at which your body stops itself from going too far, preventing injury. If you try the hamstring stretch, for example (listed below), there will come a natural point where you can’t stretch further.  

At that point, hold the stretch for around thirty seconds, then relax and let the muscles ease. Take another deep breath, and as you exhale go into the stretch again. This will allow your body to stretch a little bit further.  

It’s best to try these when your body is warm, so after exercising or when you’ve just woken up. You might not be able to adopt all these poses right away, and that’s okay.  

Work towards them and use some of the modifications suggested throughout if needed – remember, you’re looking for building up your flexibility, not testing how flexible you are on day one and giving up…  

All you need is a space (ideally private…) and something soft to lie on; a yoga mat, a rug or carpet is just fine 

1. Child’s Pose

Stretch out your shoulders

Side image of child's pose stretchCredit: Exceptional
  • Kneel on your mat with your bottom on your heels. 
  • Reach forward, sliding your hands on the floor in front of you.  
  • Keep your bottom as close to your heels as possible and drop your head between your arms. 
  • Inhale deeply and as you exhale try to push your hands forward a little bit more each time.  
  • Hold for 15 -30 seconds depending on comfort.  
  • You should feel this in your back and shoulders.  

Stretches: Shoulders, back, specifically the rotator cuff which helps with shoulder mobility.

2. Cobra

Ease the tension

Side view of cobra stretchCredit: Exceptional
  • Lie face down with your hands at the side of your chest, palms down and your toes curled. 
  • Lift your head and chest up from the floor, arching your back. 
  • If you’re able, you can extend the stretch further by lifting your stomach off the floor too. 
  • Hold for a count of 10, then come back flat. Repeat 3 – 5 times.  
  • You should feel this down your back (your lats) and your stomach and lower chest. 

Stretches: Stomach (abdominals), back, neck. This is a great stretch to ease tension in the back and neck after sitting; it feels like you’re lengthening back out.  

3. Side bend stretch

Stretch out your back muscles

Sitting side bend stretch, front viewCredit: Exceptional
  • You can do this sitting or standing. If sitting, cross your legs. If standing, keep feet shoulder width apart. 
  •  Slide your bodyweight over to one side by running a hand down your leg or resting it on the floor (as shown).  
  • Reach over and across (above your head) with the other hand, keeping your hips facing forward.  
  • Hold for 15 – 30 seconds, then do the other side.  
  • You should feel this down the sides of your body.  

Stretches: Obliques (sides of stomach), lats (long back muscles), triceps. Keeping our back muscles flexible helps avoid stiffness that can lead to many back issues.

4. Shoulder stretch

Give a tree a hug

Rounded shoulder stretch, side viewCredit: Exceptional
  • Seated or standing. If seated, cross your legs. 
  • Bring your arms together in front of you, like you were giving a tree a hug, and clasp your hands together. 
  • Try and pull your fingers apart, creating resistance between your hands.  
  • Drop your head to deepen the stretch. 
  • Hold for 15 – 30 seconds 
  • You should feel this across the top of the back and bottom of the neck; it’s almost worth a groan of satisfaction.  

Stretches: Across the back of the neck and shoulders, specifically traps and rear delts. These can become tense when we are sitting typing for long periods, or when we’re stressed. Try and remember the mantra “shoulders and ears aren’t friends!”  

5. Butterfly stretch

Open up the hips

Butterfly stretch, front viewCredit: Exceptional
  • Sit on the floor with the soles of your feet pressed together. 
  • Tighten your core (stomach) and, sitting tall, press your knees down towards the floor (use your elbows to help do this).  
  • If you’re flexible enough, you can fold your body forward towards your feet, otherwise just sit tall and breathe deeply.  
  • Hold for a slow count of 10, release, then repeat twice more.  
  • You should feel this at the tops of your thighs and going into your butt.  

Stretches: Glutes (butt), thighs, hips. Flexibility in the hips and glutes is important; most of us spend time sitting for long periods, keeping our hip flexors contracted (shrunk). Stretching them out, lengthening them again, lets them work in harmony with our glute muscles leading to less stiffness and pain.  

6. 90/90

Try a modified pigeon pose

Modified pigeon pose side viewCredit: Exceptional
  • This is a slightly tricky position to get into, but worth the effort. 
  • Start seated, with your legs in front. Fold your right leg at 90 degrees in front of you, so the sole of your foot is facing to the left and your calf is in a straight line in front of your body.  
  • Bring your left leg to the side of you, bending the knee so your foot faces behind you.  
  • You should then have a 90-degree angle in both legs.  
  • Keep your right butt cheek on the floor and try to get the left one as close to the floor as possible. This will depend on how flexible your hips are.  
  • Hold the stretch for 30 – 60 seconds, then switch sides.  
  • You should feel this in the back of your hips, into the glutes.  

Stretches: Hips. This is another stretch worth of a satisfied groan. It’s perfect if you find there’s a tightness in your hips. Work on it daily and you’ll steadily increase your range of motion.   

7. Hip flexor stretch

Ease any tightness in the hips

Credit: Exceptional
  • Kneel on the floor with your right leg in front of you, knee bent and foot flat.  
  • Push the left hip forwards until you feel a stretch in the hip, up near your groin.  
  • Hold for a slow count of 10, relax, then repeat two more times. 
  • Switch sides 
  • You should feel this in your hip flexors, at the front near your groin.  

Stretches: Hips. This is a great stretch for after running.  

8. Figure 4

The gold standard of glute stretches

Figure 4 stretch side viewCredit: Exceptional
  • Lie on your back and cross one leg over the other, resting the ankle just above the knee.  
  • Grip the back of the leg that’s on the floor and pull it towards you. Think knee to shoulder rather than chest.  
  • When you feel a stretch, stop there and hold for 30 seconds. Don’t overstretch.  
  • Relax, then stretch and hold twice more, aiming to pull the knee in a little further each time.  
  • Switch sides  
  • You should feel this quite strongly in your backside and top of the hamstrings.  

Stretches: Glutes, hips, hamstrings, lower back. This is an excellent stretch for the muscles of the lower back and glutes and can help relieve sciatic pain.    

9. Lying quad stretch

Improve flexibility in the leg muscles

Lying quad stretch front viewCredit: Exceptional.com
  • This is great stretch for the front of your legs, which will then make the next stretch slightly easier.  
  • Lie on one side with your head resting on your arm or a cushion.  
  • Bring the heel of your top leg towards your bottom and use your hand to pull the ankle of the top leg closer.  
  • Hold for 15 – 30 seconds, then switch sides 
  • Tip: If you can’t reach, use a resistance band to help you by wrapping it around the foot and pulling the ends. You can buy them relatively cheaply in most sports shops or online. 
  • You should feel this in the front of the legs, above the knee.  

Stretches: Quads (front of legs). The quads are made up of four big muscles. Keeping them supple helps them be more productive.  

10. Lying hamstring stretch

Worth it, we promise

Lying hamstring stretch side viewCredit: Exceptional
  • Lie flat on your back with your legs straight.  
  • Lift one leg, keeping it straight with a soft bend in the knee (don’t lock the joint out).  
  • Pull the leg towards your torso until you feel a stretch. 
  • If your hamstrings are very tight, this might feel uncomfortable. Hold the stretch and take some deep breaths to ease the discomfort.  
  • After a slow count of ten, relax the stretch, then repeat two more times.  
  • Switch sides.  
  • Tip: If you find it hard to keep your back on the floor when you’re pulling your leg in, use a resistance band for help (pictured).  
Lying hamstring stretch with band side viewCredit: Exceptional
  • You should feel this in the back of your leg, above the knee. Some people will feel it into their calf as well.  

Stretches: Hamstrings. This is often a tight spot for many and can lead to injury. Trying to stretch the hamstrings regularly will help keep flexibility in the muscles.

11. Triceps stretch

Stretch out the back of the arms

Seated triceps stretch back viewCredit: Exceptional
  • Sit tall with your legs crossed.  
  • Bring one arm up overhead, then bend the elbow so your hand comes down behind your neck.  
  • Use the other hand to reach across the top of your head and gently grip the opposite elbow. Pull towards your head.  
  • You should feel a stretch in the triceps, the back of the upper arm.  
  • Hold for 15 – 20 seconds, then switch sides.  
  • Tip: If you find it hard to reach across the top of your head, bring your spare arm around the front instead, and push on the upper part of the elbow (pictured).  
  • You should feel this in the backs of your arms above the elbow.  

Stretches: Triceps, neck, shoulders. This is a particularly good stretch if you’ve been doing a workout involving weights. Put simply, it’ll help you be able to wash your hair the next day.  

12. Knees to chest

Curl up in a ball

Knees to chest stretch side viewCredit: Exceptional
  • Lie on your back, the draw your knees into your chest, hugging them close.  
  • Breathe slowly and steadily, holding for up to two minutes 
  • You should feel this across the lower back 

Stretches: Lumbar region, glutes, triceps. This is a lovely stretch to finish on, as it feels like a big hug.  

Get stretching

It’s time to get stretching

You don’t need to incorporate all these stretches into your routine; you might feel some are more applicable than others. If you spend a lot of time sitting at a desk for work, it’s a good idea to release the hip flexors and glutes with the figure four and hip flexor stretches.  

If you have tight hamstrings (hello, runners), the lying hamstring stretch is very useful. Pair it with the quad stretch (which you can also do standing if you prefer) to stretch both the front and back of your legs.  

For more stretching ideas, you could try Mady Morrison’s 15-minute stretching routine on YouTube, or take a look at Women’s Health for some more advanced options. Pick one or two stretches from our list or the routines suggested and commit to doing them daily. Take note of where you start, and then see how it feels in a week.  

Becky Fuller

Written by Becky Fuller she/her

Updated:

Becky Fuller is a fully qualified Personal Trainer, specialising in strength and conditioning for over 50s. Becky’s focus is helping people to become stronger both in body and mind, and to move well without pain. Becky also has many years’ experience working as a freelance journalist, writing for a wide variety of publications such as Screen Rant, Geek Feed, and Daily Actor. She also regularly reviews theatre productions for UKTW.

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