Unless you’re a yoga instructor, Mrs. Incredible or Tom Brady, you should probably be stretching more.
It’s the best defense against aging, injury and your daily dose of eight hours in a desk chair ... yet few of us give our flexibility the time and thought it deserves.
So one of our editors set out on a quest — to touch his toes in 30 days.
The plan? A daily regimen of six simple stretches totaling no more than 15 minutes, as curated by the owner of a leading New York yoga studio.
The result: He’s not a “Japanese Ham Sandwich” yet, but his hammies feel better than ever.
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An Honest Appraisal of Where I Started
Remember the sit and reach? That flexibility test with the little ruler-lined box you've probably come across in a stone-age gym class or the annual physical-education tests you took in junior high? Pretty straightforward: press your feet against the box, throw your arms forward on the measuring block. Someone reads a number. Mine was always lousy.
I am 6’3” and hit the gym three times a week, jog occasionally, enjoy playing tennis, hiking and longboarding … and up until 30 days ago, could not touch my toes. Seriously. Sitting or standing. The photos above are me at my most elastic.
More concerning, though, was a sort of lifelong apathy for my lack of flexibility. It never seemed like a big deal. But these days I sit in front of a screen for 8-9 hours a day. I experience tight, restless legs and a sore lower back, but never do anything about it.
So I decided to enlist the help of a pro and take on a 30-day challenge to see if a faithful daily regimen could break me out of my funk.
Enter: Kate Davies, generally flexible person and owner of YO BK, a hot yoga studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Kate devised a plan to help me open my lower back, loosen my hamstrings and reintroduce myself to my pups.
The Perfect 6-Step Daily Stretch Routine
This routine should take about 12-15 minutes; it can be done in the morning, at night, after working out or after taking a bath/shower. Each exercise should be held for 10-15 slow breaths.
A common warm-up posture in Baptiste Power Yoga, this posture stretches the hamstrings gently. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and pointing straight forward. Bend your knees and gently hang over the legs, grabbing the opposite elbows. Bend the knees as much as is needed to feel the spine stretch down (it should not be rounded). Sway gently from side to side. Keep the lower abdomen active.
2. Downward Facing Dog
Also from Power Yoga, this posture stretches the hamstrings and spine, as well as building strength in the arms and shoulders. It is key to a healthy yoga practice. Place your hands and feet along the length of a yoga mat, hip-width apart. The length of your downward facing dog will depend on your body's proportions, but should be long enough that you can easily come into a high plank. Press the floor away from you with your hands and gently bend one knee at a time to warm up. Keep a slight bend in the knees and your heels off the floor as you build mobility.
3. Towel Stretch
Lying on your back, lift one leg up at 90-degrees and keep the other straight on the floor. Wrap a towel or strap at your ankle. Gently pull the towel towards you until you feel a stretch on the back of your leg. Hold at your maximum for five breaths, then pull closer and hold.
4. Single Leg Circle
Lying on your back, lift one leg to 90-degrees and keep the other straight on the floor. Press your hands down along your side. Make slow, narrow, long circles clockwise with your top leg, keeping straight. Do five rotations, then switch directions. Repeat with the other leg.
5. Kneeling Stretch
Standing on your knees, bring your right leg forward and straighten it. Flex your foot towards your face. Keep the left leg bent at 90 degrees. Slowly walk your hands forward, keeping your abdomen engaged.
6. Japanese Ham Sandwich
This is my favorite stretch because it works the whole backside of the body: hamstrings, hips and spine. Sit on the floor with both legs forward, feet together. Bend your knees and grab your big toes with your middle and index fingers. Keep your stomach in and slowly extend your legs forward as much as possible. If you can, straighten them and slowly start to pull your chest forward. Once you are able to touch your toes, the next goal is to touch your head to your feet with straight legs — in Bikram, this is a “Japanese ham sandwich.”
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10 Takeaways from The 30-Day Challenge
1. It worked
That’s me on day 30 above. Full disclosure: I actually touched my toes after just three days, but it was more of a scrape. I took it as a sign of progress and focused on holding the stretch a moment longer each day. Eventually, I was able to hold my toes firmly for 15-20 seconds.
2. Simple stretches are your friend
As a general rule, if a stretch is too difficult to explain over the phone, it’s probably too advanced for a beginner. Table the pretzel contortions for a later date.
3. Your 9-5 grind is working against you
I stretched each day between 8 and 9 P.M. After a day of commuting, sitting, then decommuting, those first few minutes sometimes felt as if I’d lost all progress. Don’t despair. Like a car sitting outside overnight in the winter, you just need to give your body a little time to work out the kinks.
4. Downward facing dog will suck
Yoga's most fundamental position took me some time to get used to; I still don’t feel that confident in my pose. It's a sign that pairing your regimen with a few introductory yoga classes could help the process. That said ...
5. You don’t need to spend any money
I’ve included some items below that helped with the process. But the value of this regimen is in its DIY-ness and portability. Home, locker room, hotel room, airport — you can deploy it anywhere.
6. It's not as tough as your workout, and that's a good thing
The initial mental barrier of getting fit often prevents people from taking the leap. But stretching brings a casualness to physical improvement. It's not going to leave you drenched in sweat. Consider it an excellent first step in getting your act together.
7. Be careful what you eat
If you’re going to eat a plate of buffalo wings, just clear the calendar. I've been burned too many times on this.
8. Feel free to sub in other stretches you’ve accrued over the years
Guess what: any stretch some high-waisted-shorts-wearing gym coach ever had you do on a dusty basketball court floor still counts. Work in whatever you cared enough to remember.
9. Find your routine; mine was at night
It doesn’t really matter when you do this. Find a time in the day that works and make it a part of your schedule. Yes, there were some nights where I got home late from a dinner/concert/baseball game. But if we can all make sitting in bed with a phone blasting blue light into our faces a nightly ritual, surely we can find some time to ease our aching bodies.
By the end of the 30 days, my sessions were veering particularly relaxing. I often stretched along to Spotify’s Meditation playlist, and once the six stretches were completed, I'd simply lie there in a full body stretch, allowing the music to wash through me. It. Feels. Fantastic.
A Post-Challenge Debriefing with Ms. Davies
InsideHook: I noticed that one side is easier to stretch …
Kate Davies: Almost everyone has one side that's stronger or more flexible, they just don't realize it until they come to yoga! Considering all the habitual motion we favor on one side (writing, eating, throwing or kicking in sports), it makes sense. The goal of stretching, yoga, pilates, etc. is to bring the body back into balance. Starting from imbalance is quite normal and doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you.
IH: Breathing advice? What's your method? Sometimes I'd catch myself halfway through a stretch and I'd forgotten to take a breath.
KD: Breathe in and out of your nose slowly, deeply, quietly. We call this “normal breathing” as it is done without effort. The measurement that you are holding postures for 5-10 breaths should bring the attention back to breath as a vehicle for going deeper, staying longer and staying in the present moment.
IH: What can hot yoga offer that this daily stretching routine doesn’t?
KD: Heat provides further detoxification and cardiovascular benefits, not to mention heating up the body allows it to stretch more without risk of injury. Taking a class means you have a certified teacher watching you to challenge you and keep you safe. The group energy holds you when the practice is tough, which it's meant to be! Look for most studios to offer a reduced rate for that first month. At YO BK, for instance, we have a $59 Introductory Month for new students looking to get their feet wet.
IH: Your tunes of choice?
KD: I love hip hop instrumentals for yoga practice. MF Doom has a few albums called Special Herbs. They are soothing and rhythmic. I also love Gotan Project, which is Tango music.
IH: Any other tips on staying limber during a busy workday?
KD: Get up every 15-30 minutes and walk around. If possible, choose a couple stretches to add in during the day.
And Here's Your Flexibility Starter Pack ...
Stretch Out Strap
I love this thing. It can be subbed in for the towel stretch above, or used in a variety of other stretches. One favorite: lying supine, hook your right foot in and raise your right leg straight towards the ceiling and then rotate it a full 180 degrees. Out to your right, up towards the ceiling, across your body, etc.
Back Stretch Machine
There’s one of these bad boys at my gym. It’s a lifesaver, especially if you like to throw weights around. No matter how hard you work in the weight room — or even because you’re working so hard — it’s imperative that you stretch those areas that have to shoulder the heaviest load. Even pro athletes like Justin Verlander have been humbled from a lack of time spent on flexibility.
HemingWeigh Exercise Mat
A mean, thick, no-frills mat, perfect for keeping loose wherever you strech-capades may take you. At $25, you have no excuse.
Reigning Champ Muhammad Ali Collection
Well, you don’t need anything from this collection to get flexible, but it could be the motivation you need to get out there and dominate!