The Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch

Tight hip flexors are the culprit behind bad backs, monkey butts, and athletic mediocrity.

The hip flexors are your glutes' antagonists. When the hip flexors are tight, they do not allow the glutes—which are the strongest muscles in your body—to exert themselves efficiently, be it in running,jumping, punching, or any other activity.

Kneel on the floor and lunge forward. Your torso and the front shin should remain upright for the duration of the stretch and your hips should stay squared off. You may spot yourself with chairs if you wish.

Always pad your knee for kneeling exercises to reduce the risk of cartilage damage and other problems.

Flex your abs to protect your back and contract the hip flexors—the muscles on the front of the kneeling leg—by imagining that you are going to kick forward with that foot or knee.

Once you release the tension, you will sag straight down. It is imperative for success and safety. Leaning forward, placing your hands on your knee, letting your knee drift forward, and twisting are out! Make a point of looking out and not down because your body tends to follow your head.

Leaning forward, placing your hands on your knee, letting your knee drift forward, and twisting are out!

19. The Lunge Hip Flexor Stretch

Keep your abs tight to protect your spine when you perform hip flexor stretches. If you have a hard time contracting your abs, my book Bullet-Proof Abs will teach you how.

This stretch is an alternative to the kneeling one. Take a reasonably wide step forward while keeping both of your feet pointing forward. Make a point of keeping more than half of your weight on your rear paw and keep the latter straight.

Contract the muscles on the front side of your right leg, the one that is behind. Do the job by imagining that you are kicking a ball forward; just 'suck' your back foot into the ground and push forward. You will feel tension running down your quad. You abs are tight. Make sure to stay totally upright; leaning forward defeats the purpose of all the karate stance stretches.

When you have let go of the tension, you will find that your hips will sag and shift forward slightly. Still stay upright!

Keep repeating as far as you maintain good form: an upright back and the front shin, squared off hips and torso, both feet pointing forward, the knees track their feet and do not bow in. If you look something like this (Above)—you will have many injuries and zero flexibility! It is OK if your heel slightly comes off the floor though.

20. The Karate Stance Hip Flexor Stretch

Stretch as you did previously: apply forward pressure with the rear leg, then propel yourself forward with the same leg. Now, you will feel the stretch not only at the hip hinge but also in the groin. To be safe, make certain that your back knee is locked and the muscles surrounding it are contracted.

You may hold a stick in the crook of your elbows behind your back to enforce better technique, an old trick of the karate legend Nakayama.

Your rear foot should maintain a surface contact with hundred percent of its surface. Unfortunately, at an extreme angle, this drill becomes hard on the ankle. That is why you should advance to a different stretch, for example, the intermediate groin stretch, before you reach that level. A possible exception is a karateka who makes an informed choice to keep on advancing in this highly karate-specific stretch, in spite of possible health risks.

Do not think that these drills benefit only karatekas, however. I teach this and the following stretch to powerlifters who have a hard time locking out their deadlifts and I cannot think of a sport where they would not be helpful.

This drill works your hip flexors and starts on the groin. It is nearly identical to the previous stretch. The only difference is that while the feet are still facing in the same direction, they are turned a little less than forty-five degrees to the side. If your right foot is forward as in the photo above, both of your paws will be pointed a little to the left and parallel to each other.

21. The Karate Stance Groin Stretch

This drill, although it targets the groin muscles, also works your hip flexors.

This time keep your feet flat and parallel to each other. The knees stay tightly locked for the duration. Relaxed knees are prone to getting wrenched!

Do not be aggressive on the width of the stance. Make sure that your pelvis is thrust forward. If your butt wants to stick out even when your feet are close together, work on the previous two stretches a while longer.

You may also perform this stretch with a stick. Pinch the floor as if you are trying to slide your feet together or are trying to close scissors.

When you have released the tension, apply the outward pressure with your feet (as if you are opening scissors). At no point should your feet roll in or out; keep your 'suction cups' flat on the ground!

Always lock your knees and keep your quads tight when performing groin stretches!

As you apply the outward pressure, slowly turn your hips in one direction, and then another. At no point should your butt stick out! You should have a solid, grounded, powerful feeling and your torso will remain upright.

After a few repetitions carefully take a wider step and repeat the drill. I repeat, do not go too wide—to avoid overstretching the outside of your ankles!

Once you have progressed to what you believe is your safe limit, it is a good idea to periodically practice all the karate stance stretches in the maintenance mode— for the powerful body awareness effect they offer for any sport. Perhaps you could do one set of these stretches before your splits.

You may also perform this stretch with a stick.

You may also perform this stretch with a stick.

Do not go too wide— to avoid overstretching the outside of your ankles!

Do not go too wide— to avoid overstretching the outside of your ankles!

22. The Seated Groin Stretch

Sit on the floor and place something moderately slippery under your feet. If you exercise on a carpet, glossy magazine covers work well. Thick socks are good on a vinyl mat, and you cannot do better than folded wash clothes for hardwood. Skateboards are to be avoided.

Spread your legs as wide as you comfortably can (don't worry, comfort will end very soon). If you cannot sit with your legs straight and spread and your back insists on staying rounded you are not ready for this drill! Work on your good mornings and karate stretches for awhile before tackling this one.

Place your hands behind your back and gently lift yourself up. Open your chest as much as possible and imagine that you are trying to push the walls apart with your feet. This imagery—recommended by Moscow hand-to-hand combat instructor Vlad Fadeyev—will enable you to immediately increase your stretch by a couple of inches!

If you cannot sit with your legs straight and spread and your back insists on staying rounded you are not ready for this drill!

When the walls refuse to move any further, gingerly lower your butt to the floor. Keeping your chest up, carefully push your belly forward until you feel tension in your inner thighs. Do not round your back. Keep your hands in front of you, but do not touch the ground unless you are heading for trouble and need a spot. Make sure that your toes are pointing to the ceiling and do not flop outward, now or at any point during this stretch!

Contract your tight inner thighs. If you have a hard time getting your adductors to tense up, you have either found some sneaky way of keeping the weight off them (knock it off, before I order you to do pushups!), or you are not ready for this stretch yet. If you cannot spread your legs far enough apart to start with, you will not generate enough leverage. Swallow your pride and go back to the karate stretches.

Hold the tension for a period of time determined by the variation of the contract-relax stretching you are employing. I personally prefer Forced Relaxation and a roughly twenty-second contraction for this stretch.

Do not 'spread your legs' when performing groin stretches; 'pull your hips out of their sockets' 'push the walls apart' instead.

When you finally release the tension with a sigh of relief your limp body will drop forward a little. Your hands may now touch the floor and catch your weight. It is good to use your hands to limit your advance to small increments for increased safety. Be certain to keep your lower back reasonably straight throughout the stretch to increase the effectiveness of the drill and to avoid overstretching the back ligaments!

Flex your adductors again and repeat the drill. You may experience slight pain inside your knees. If you have done everything like I told you and you doctor has assured you that there is nothing wrong with your knees, here is what you should do. Concentrate the tension on the tender spots and hold it for long periods of time, 30-60 seconds, before releasing.

Do not attempt to increase the ROM for a while—weeks or even months. Keep on practicing long contractions without stretching advances, until the tissues around your knees get stronger and stop bothering you.

If, or once, your knees are fine, keep on contracting and relaxing, until your trunk either does not move any further forward without excessive rounding, or the whole thing gets really old. Now it is time to carefully sit up, shift your weight on your hands behind you, and push the walls apart again. Then lean forward and repeat the whole sequence. Once your ROM stops increasing or you start contemplating my murder, slowly get out of the stretch.

You may want to do a set or two in Waiting out the Tension style, before starting your isometric stretching sets.

Rounding your back while spreading your legs can damage back and pelvic ligaments.

23. The Calf Stretch

Assume the pushup position on the floor—or against a sturdy elevation if you find the floor stretch too difficult for the time being. Shift your weight to the balls of your feet. Your knees may be slightly bent.

Tighten up your calves by imagining that you are trying to get up on your tiptoes. Hold steady tension for a long time— calves boast spectacular endurance—before releasing it.

Use a sturdy elevation if you find the floor stretch too difficult for the time being.

Use a sturdy elevation if you find the floor stretch too difficult for the time being.

Let your body slip forward from the knees up, while keeping your heels in contact with the floor. The angle between your shins and your feet will get smaller. Repeat for the appropriate number of contractions.

Let your body slip forward from the knees up, while keeping your heels in contact with the floor.

Let your body slip forward from the knees up, while keeping your heels in contact with the floor.

Once your calves are strong and flexible you may intensify the stretch by working one leg at a time.

24. The Shin and Instep Stretch

Are the muscles on your shins tight from running? Do you want to be able to point your toes better for kickboxing or dancing? Then this foot-flexion stretch is for you.

Sit on your heels with your toes pointed back. If your knees refuse to hyperflex painlessly, stick a stiff pillow or something similar between your hamstrings and your calves, to limit knee bending.

Shift your weight back. If you lean forward you will fail to stretch the target area. Contract the muscles on your shins by pushing with your insteps against the floor, as if you are trying to bring your toes towards your knees.

Shift your weight back. If you lean forward you will fail to stretch the target area.

When you release the tension, your body will sink a little, as your feet move toward being in a straight line with your shins.

Now point your toes even more—as if someone is pulling you by your toes and is trying to pull your ankles out of their sockets.

Repeat the whole sequence as many times as necessary.

If your knees refuse to hyperflex painlessly, stick a stiff pillow or something similar between your hamstrings and your calves, to limit knee bending.

Most of the above stretches are demonstrated on the companion video, Relax into Stretch.

The application of Relax into Stretch technique is not limited to the stretches described above. You can creatively solve most unusual flexibility needs with the techniques you have learned. For instance, a martial artist who needs to be able to pull his toes back to protect them during barefoot front kicks can press his toes against the wall.

A martial artist who needs to be able to pull his toes back to protect them during barefoot front kicks can press his toes against the wall.

How much flexibility do you really need?

We did it for Britain and for the hell of it.

Is flexibility always good? Can you be too flexible?

Americans don't think so. They stretch just for the sake of stretching. They just can't get enough.

Sorry to burst your bubble. Soviet research demonstrated that you need only a small flexibility reserve above the demands of your sport or activity. Excessive flexibility can be detrimental to athletic performance.

A classic Soviet text, The Theory and Methodology of Physical Education, warns: "One must remember that in some cases excessive flexibility not only does not help the athlete's technique, but interferes with it by 'dispersing' the acting forces (for example, a very flexible spine and a relaxed torso when taking off for a jump)."

Old school strongmen instinctively avoided stretching. They felt they could lift more weight if they stayed 'tight'. They were right. The stretch reflex fired sooner, making them more prone to an injury, but helping them to move more iron.

Russian Olympic weightlifters avoid full range movements of the muscles surrounding the hip and knee joints. Too much flexibility in that area makes the lifter sink too deep when he is getting under the barbell. The same is true for powerlifting. Fortunately, powerlifters, as a group, are least influenced by the pop fitness culture's deification of relaxed stretching, high carb/low fat/low protein diet, and other stupid ideas.

That is not to say that powerlifters do not need flexibility. They do—but no more than necessary to lift in good form. For example, tight hamstrings 'tuck your butt under'. As a result, back strength is wasted on fighting against your own hams, rather than the weight, in the squat and deadlift.

Soviet researcher, weightlifting champion, and coach Robert Roman determined that an athlete loses 15% of his pulling strength when he lifts with a rounded, rather than a flat back. That could mean the difference between first and last place!

Also, your hamstrings or back are likely to get injured. Hamstrings take forever to heal, but it is not the end of the world. The back is a more serious matter. A properly arched spine can support ten times more weight than a straight one, and even more than a rounded one. Ever heard a disk blow out? Sounds like a high tension cable going boink!

The lesson is not to stretch your hams until you can tie your shoes with your teeth, but just enough to maintain a tight arch in the 'hole', the bottom of the squat.

Whatever your sport, pay careful attention to the effect more flexibility has on your performance. Up to a point, your game will improve through increased efficiency of movement and less frequent injuries. Beyond that point you are in the red.

In sprinting, good spine rotation is needed for optimal technique—but an excessively loose trunk does not allow you to take full advantage of the pumping action of the arms.

In shot put or boxing, a super flexible waist will absorb the leg and hip drive instead of transferring it to the shoulder.

Even in a sport like kickboxing, one can get too flexible. When we finished our presentations at the Arnold Schwarzengger's Martial Arts Seminar, Bill 'Superfoot' Wallace told me over a hamburger that at one point he had worked up to a two hundred ten degrees negative side split (a classic split is one hundred and eighty degrees). The champion kickboxer's hips got so loose that he started having trouble snapping his kicks back after they had made contact with the target. That is when Superfoot pulled the plug on excess and decided that normal, straight line, splits are enough.

Never use flexibility to compensate for poor technique. Bodybuilders often complain how limited ankle flexibility affects their squat. Sorry, boys, when you squat properly, the movement in the ankle is minimal and you should be able to squat wearing ski boots. Learn to squat from a lifter and do not waste your time in a ballet class.

If you do not play sports and stretch just for health and the hell of it, it is up to you to decide how far you want to go. Just make sure that you have a small reserve of flexibility beyond the requirements of your lifestyle and check with a medical professional that you have no postural problems due to muscle tightness.

Expect that you will be more flexible in some areas than others. The ability to do a split does not automatically qualify you to do a competition style snatch. Having flexible hips does not imply mobile shoulders. The combo of an overstretched back and tight hamstrings is more widespread than high cholesterol.

Flexibility developed with one exercise does not always improve the range of motion of the same joint when tested in other exercises. In one study a group of subjects trained the toe-reach standing, and the other seated. Those who stretched in the seated position did not do well when they were tested standing. The other group did well on both tests. Go figure.

Conclusion: the transfer of training effect is inconsistent. Sometimes you have it, sometimes you don't. The fact that, say, the sit-and-reach is a part of the standard flexibility test is meaningless. I taught an NFL player how to cheat on that test and have no guilty conscience whatsoever.

If a stretch does not improve your game or make you feel better—lose it.

To sum up: develop some flexibility reserve beyond the demands of your sport and lifestyle, then keep on going as long as more mobility does not start having an adverse effect on your game.

I will either teach you how to do splits—or I will talk you out of it. No more guilt, Comrade!

When flexibility is hard to come by, build strength

Make a habit of holding tension in the final stretched position for thirty seconds.

If excessive flexibility is not your problem, rather the other way around, here is a couple of plateau-busting strategies.

First, get stronger. Typically a stronger muscle does not have to contract as hard as a weaker one to exert the same amount of force—and it more willingly relaxes into a stretch. If you hit a plateau with Forced Relaxation or other iso stretches, you should stop trying to increase the range for a while and concentrate instead on building strength.

Push harder. More importantly, push longer. When McDonagh and Davies reviewed the results of many studies of isometric strength training, they found out that variables such as the intensity of the contraction and the training frequency did not seem to matter much. The single common item in all successful programs was the high total time under tension in all the sets (e.g. TUT = 3 sets x 3 contractions x 30 seconds long = 270 sec).

Obviously, you can bump up the TUT by doing more contractions, more sets, or simply increase the tension holding time in your Forced Relaxation or Clasp Knife stretches.

Even if you are not at a standstill, where the going gets tough near the end of the stretch, it is a good idea not to up the ROM after every contraction. Try every other repetition. And make a habit of holding tension in the final stretched position for thirty seconds, as recommended by Prof. Leonid Matveyev.

Two more plateau busting strategies from the iron world

Once you have mastered muscle length and tension control, it is hard to lose it. Although it is not quite as permanent as riding a bike—according to Popenko's data, your flexibility decreases by 10-20% in two months of no stretching—it is possible to maintain a high degree of flexibility in just two to three sessions a month.

Mike Song, a rock climber from Minneapolis who did his first split a couple of weeks after he took my seminar was too busy to train for a month afterwards. To his surprise, he went all the way into a full split the first time he tried it after the layoff! In fact, occasional time off will help you to improve due to the reminiscence effect.

In 1984 Jerry Moffat, the world's top rock climber from England, called it quits and rode into the sunset on his motorcycle. Nobody expected miracles from Jerry when he returned to the rock two years later. Yet two weeks after his comeback the supposed has-been climbed the best performance of his career!

Motor-learning experts know that a skill tends to improve after a layoff, the so-called reminiscence effect. Multiple repetitions of a drill, a rock climbing technique, a reverse punch, a split, or a deadlift, forms what Russians call the dynamic stereotype, or a 'how-to manual' of this movement in the athlete's nervous system. You learn to perform exactly as practiced—the form, the force, the range of motion, etc.

Although forming a dynamic stereotype is necessary to master a sports skill, once it is formed, it is difficult to improve on. Once you have reached a plateau, continued practice only reinforces it, which is why a powerlifter has to start all over with lighter weights once he has set a new personal best.

If you lay off stretching, your brain gets a chance to forget your limit. This is the essence of the reminiscence effect. Once your old PR has been erased, you are ready to train for a new one!

Russian author, Victor Popenko, advocates another plateau-busting strategy similar to a layoff—the stepwise progression.

It is known that, in any endeavor, it takes much less effort to maintain the achieved performance level than to reach it in the first place. Say, you have been practicing splits for five sets three times a week. You have made good progress but finally hit the wall. Then cut back to the minimal amount of stretching which maintains your current level, for example two sets once every five days.

Maintenance requirements vary from person to person. I can skip up to a month and still do a split in a seminar through shear grit. Most comrades need to practice at least once every five to seven days, lest they choose to slide back. Having stabilized your flexibility for a few weeks, once again increase your training load—and exceed your old limits!

It is interesting that, while the layoff strategy is similar to powerlift cycling, Popenko's stabilization backoff is similar to the Bulgarian and Chinese weightlifters' practice of reducing the volume of their lifting by 40% every fourth week.

Once you get proficient with your stretches you may add some advanced moves to your schedule.

Advanced Russian Drills for Extreme Flexibility

25. The Side Stretch p. 100

26. The Cossack p. 102

27. The Reverse Cossack p. 104

28. The Hip and Side Stretch p. 106

29. The Crawling Lizard p. 108

30. Hamstring Stretches p. 109

31. Hip Flexor/Quad Stretches p. 114

32. The Lower Calf Stretch p. 117

33. The Front Split p. 118

34. The Bent Press Stretch p. 123

35. The Modified Reverse Triangle ... p. 126

36. The Roadkill Split p. 128

37. The Side Split p. 131

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