Ever tried to sit cross-legged and found it a lot more challenging than you did as a kid? That's because, after decades of being less active and sitting all day, both your hips and knees become stiffer, limiting your range of motion, says Sarah Duvall, DPT, physical therapist and founder of Core Exercise Solutions.
If you can't sit with your legs crossed in front of you, odds are you're contending with some muscular weaknesses and imbalances you've acquired in adulthood. But sitting criss-cross applesauce isn't just for little kids — it has advantages for grown-ups too.
"Our body loves variety — moving in and out of different positions, including sitting cross-legged, is very beneficial for maintaining range of motion in the knee and hip joint," Duvall says.
Here, she shares some reasons why you might be struggling with this pretzel position, plus offers strategies that'll help you regain the limber limbs of your youth.
If You: Feel a Pinch in Your Hips
You Might: Have Poor Hip Mobility
"In order to comfortably sit in this cross-legged position, you must have full external rotation range in the hip (meaning, the hip must be able to turn out)," Duvall says. Tightness in the muscles that connect to the leg, along with limited range of motion in your hip joint, will make this seated stance quite difficult — and maybe even a little painful.
"In a lot of people that get pinching, pain or tightness when they try to sit cross-legged, the femur (thigh bone) is sitting too far forward in the socket. So, when they go to rotate their leg open, they end up cramming into the soft tissue and joint capsule," Duvall says.
To remedy this issue, you must guide the femur back into its correct position, which will create more room to move and thus less tweaking. "If you establish this range, you'll see fast improvements in your ability to sit cross-legged comfortably," says Duvall, who recommends incorporating the hip-opening Pigeon pose into your daily routine.
- Start in Downward Facing Dog, balancing on your hands and feet with hips in the air.
- Slowly bend your left knee and bring the leg forward, gently placing the knee behind your left wrist.
- Slide your right hip back as far as you can and untuck your toes, pressing into the top of your right foot.
- Make sure your left knee is positioned outside of your hip. Ideally, your left shin should be parallel to the top edge of your mat.
- Walk your hands forward, fold your arms and rest your head in them.
- Hold this pose for 10 breaths, then repeat on the opposite leg.
Place a rolled-up blanket or yoga block beneath your butt for additional support. And if you can’t reach your head to the floor, rest your forehead on a medium-height yoga block and drop your shoulders away from your ears.
While doing this stretch, Duvall suggests you gently pull your bended knee backward, which will help slide the femur into its correct place in the socket and create a greater range of motion in the hip.
To perform this movement with greater ease, you might need to do it on a raised surface — like a workout bench or a couch. In this case, you would rest your front leg (the bended knee) on the edge of the couch and let your bottom leg support you on the floor.
But developing range in the hip socket is only one piece of the puzzle and won't lead to long-term improvement, says Duvall, who explains that you must follow up stretching with activation exercises, like the one below, that teach your muscles how to fire.
- Grab a medicine ball and lie down on a mat. (If you don't own a ball, a pillow or rolled-up towel will do.) Bend your knees and place the ball between them.
- Maintaining a neutral pelvis and squeezing your inner thighs, shift your left hip back, then return to the neutral position in the middle.
- Next, squeeze and shift your right hip back, again coming back to the center.
- Make sure not to hike your hips up. You don't want the motion to come from your back but rather from inside the hip joint.
- Continue for 30 to 60 seconds.
Read more: 7 Dynamic Stretches to Improve Hip Mobility
"To pull those feet under you, your knees have to have quite a large range of motion into flexion," Duvall says. "Any knee issue... can limit your ability to sit cross-legged comfortably."
If You: Feel Pain in Your Knees
You Might: Have Weak Arches or Glutes
Even though you may feel pain in your knees, it's quite possible that the problem stems from another part of your body. "That's the fault of weak arches and weak glutes causing pain and issues at the knee, including degenerative meniscus tears, increased swelling and even osteoarthritis," Duvall says.
That's right, feeble feet and an inactive bum may be the root of your knee problems. Here's why: "When your arches in your feet are weak, you overpronate and the foot collapses in. As a result, the lower leg will often compensate for this decreased arch strength by rotating out," Duvall says. This causes improper alignment and discomfort in the knee area.
A similar scenario can happen with your glute muscles, Duvall says. "The glutes and deep hip rotators provide external rotation for the femur, and when the glutes are weak, the femur can collapse in (while the lower leg turns out) which creates a twisting effect at the knee."
So, what can you do? To improve arch strength, Duvall recommends engaging your arches throughout the day. Try doing the following arch exercise in the shower.
- Start barefoot. Spread your toes (use your fingers if you need to).
- Then engage the muscles in your feet. Envision lifting and shortening your arch while keeping your big toe firmly on the ground.
For the glutes, Duvall suggests facedown squeezes for glute activation.
Prone Heel Squeezes
- Start by lying on your stomach with your arms folded in front of you and your knees bent to approximately 90 degrees, so that your heels are in the air.
- Your hips should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Press your heels together and squeeze your glutes for 3 seconds.
- Relax and repeat.
"Once you learn to activate the glutes, then exercises like hip thrusts and bridges can help strengthen them," Duvall says.
If You: Can’t Sit Up Straight
You Might: Have Tight Pelvic Floor Muscles
Your pelvic floor muscles span from your tailbone to your pubic bone and support your bowel and bladder (as well as the uterus and vagina in women). And when your pelvic floor is tight, it can cause tension in the surrounding hip and pelvic muscles.
"Tightness in the back pelvic floor muscles can pull your tail bone under and make it difficult for you to sit up straight during this cross-legged position," Duvall says. One reason for tight pelvic floor muscles is weakness. "You tend to clench when you're weak. A strong muscle is more able to properly relax and then contract."
What's more, "the pelvic floor is also a master compensator. So, if the glutes, adductors, deep hip rotators or abs are weak, then the pelvic floor is in the prime position to pick up the slack," she says. In this scenario, you may need to strengthen the surrounding muscles to relieve tightness in the pelvic floor.
Alternatively, tense muscles may be the result of stress. "Some people clench their jaw and others their pelvic floor," Duvall says. "This is an awareness issue and a habit that takes focus to change."
Whether your tightness comes from weakness or stress, Duvall recommends deep breathing as the first step to combat it. "Learning how to get good inhales that go down and 'touch' your pelvic floor will help to decrease tension held in the muscles." Not versed in deep breathing techniques? Check out this tutorial on diaphragmatic breathing.
Gentle yoga poses like happy baby can also be useful for relaxing tense pelvic floor muscles.
- Lie on your back and bend your knees into your chest.
- Separating your knees widely, hold onto the outer edges of your feet and stack your ankles over your knees. Your shins should be perpendicular to the floor.
- Gently pull down on your feet, bringing your knees closer to your armpits.
- Keep your feet flexed and extend out energetically through the heels.
- Hold the pose for 5 to 15 deep breaths.