Whether you lead a mostly sedentary lifestyle or you're an active athlete, the butterfly stretch — which opens up the hips, inner thighs and groin — is fundamental for functional flexibility.
"Open hips are key to a healthy lower back," Gillian Walker, yoga instructor and founder of The Hot Yoga Dome, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "The butterfly stretch is excellent for relieving lower back pain due to hip tightness or bad posture," and is especially helpful after long periods of sitting or as part of your post-workout stretching regimen, she says.
While the stretch seems simple enough — you sit with the soles of your feet pressed together — it can be particularly challenging for some people to get comfortable in this pose. Here, we discuss four reasons that could be interfering with your ability to do the butterfly stretch plus tips to make it more manageable.
"The butterfly stretch is a hip opener, and in yoga, we are taught that we store a lot of emotion in our hips," says Walker. "If you find yourself feeling fidgety and mentally fighting this pose, you might have some stored-up emotion to release."
1. You Have Tight Hip Flexors
Coincidentally, one of the reasons that you may want to do a butterfly stretch (tight hips) could be the source of your struggle to perform this move. Tight hip flexors "will make the stretch very uncomfortable and can strain the lower back," Walker says.
That's because your back will try to counter the tightness of your hips, which will pull you under, says Sarah Duvall, DPT, physical therapist and founder of Core Exercise Solutions.
Focus on reducing hip tightness and improving mobility by incorporating stretches and hip-strengthening exercises (think: fire hydrants, glute bridges and deadlifts) into your workouts.
And to make the butterfly stretch more manageable in the meantime: “Sit on a pillow or block to elevate the sit bones above the knees,” says Walker. “You can also place pillows or blocks underneath the knees for further support.”
Move 1: Fire Hydrant
- Start on all fours with your toes curled under and your feet flexed.
- Line up your knees directly under your hips and your shoulders directly over your wrists.
- Keeping the 90-degree bend in the right leg, slowly lift and open that bent leg outward.
Move 2: Glute Bridge
- Lie on your back with your arms at your sides, feet flat on the ground and knees bent.
- On an exhale, squeeze your glutes, press into your heels and drive your hips up toward the sky.
- Raise your hips until you form a diagonal line from knees to hips to chest.
- Pause here for a moment, then reverse the motion and return to the starting position.
Move 3: Deadlift
- Begin with a barbell on the floor in front of you and your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Hinge at the hips and bend your knees slightly to grab the bar.
- Without allowing your shoulders or low back to round, stand up as you thrust your hips forward and squeeze at your butt at the top. Keep the bar close to your body.
- Hold at the top for a second before reversing the movement and slowly lowering the bar back down.
2. You Have Tight Inner Thigh Muscles
The butterfly stretch requires a deep stretch in the inner thighs, specifically the part of the muscle that attaches to the front of the pelvis, Duvall says. So, if you feel an ache there while in this position, those muscles are probably tight.
This tightness is often associated with an anterior tilt (a pelvis that's tipped forward), which is frequently the result of a weakness in the hamstrings and glutes, Duvall says.
If you want to decrease tension and stiffness in your inner thighs for the long haul, the solution goes beyond stretching. “Working on your breathing and pelvic positioning can have a magical effect for loosening up those tight inner thigh muscles,” Duvall says.
And practicing deep squats — which work the hamstrings, glutes and hips — is one way to do that. The trick is pairing your breath with your squats to loosen your deep hip muscles, Duvall says.
- Sit into a squat as deep as you can without strain.
- Inhale deeply, directing the breath into your back.
- Relax further down into your squat during your exhale.
In the interim, as you address the underlying muscular issues, don’t push your inner thighs beyond their limits. Deepening the butterfly stretch before your muscles are ready can actually cause a groin injury, Walker says.
“Always, always, listen to your body — less is more and deeper is not always better,” she says.
3. You Have Pelvic Floor Issues
"Tight adductors can go hand in hand with tight pelvic floor muscles," Duvall says. In fact, hunching your back when doing a butterfly stretch can be an indicator of tightness in your pelvic floor.
Here's why: When your pelvic floor muscles are tight — along with your glutes and deep hip rotators — they tend to pull you under, making it difficult to maintain an upright position, Duvall says.
But this poor posture leads to other problems including neck, mid and lower back pain, Walker says. Also note: Pain or burning during sex and trouble releasing (or holding) gas are other telltale signs of a tight pelvic floor.
“Tight pelvic floor muscles are often the result of shallow breathing and weakness in the hip and core muscles,” Duvall says. To address these root issues, you can take a multi-step approach that involves the following:
Practice your deep breathing: Assume Child’s pose and inhale deeply, directing your breath to fill the back of your pelvic floor as the air expands your abdominal cavity.
Strengthen your hips and glutes: Incorporate exercises like glute bridges and clamshells into your daily routine.
Massage your pelvic floor: Just like any other tense muscle in your body, your pelvic floor can benefit from a massage, Duvall says. She recommends using a ball (like a tennis ball) to gently release the pelvic floor muscles and decrease the demand on your back in butterfly stretch.
- Sit in a chair and locate your sit bones. (They're the bones you feel make contact with the chair when you sit down.)
- Place a ball right inside your sit bones and roll until you find a tender spot.
- Let the ball press on the trigger point until the tension begins to melt and the muscle releases.
Note: Don’t roll the ball directly on your tailbone, but rather stick to the fleshy part of the muscle.
See a pelvic floor physical therapist: If the other strategies don’t offer relief, a pelvic floor PT can help guide you by developing a treatment tailored to your specific needs.
And to make you more comfortable in the butterfly stretch right now: Try sitting against a wall to support your back and promote a neutral spine. You can use a pillow or block to elevate the sit bones above the knees.
“Another option is to do a supported supine butterfly [i.e., lying down] as the floor will help keep your back straight and lengthened,” Walker says.
4. You Have Weak Core Muscles
While having weak core muscles doesn't directly hinder a butterfly stretch, they may be a main cause for tight adductors, Duvall says. Your abdominals help to provide your pelvis with stability, so when they're weak, it can put additional strain on the adductors, which are forced to compensate, she says. And if the inner thighs are overworked, they can become tight.
Work on building strength in your abs. You can begin with any basic core exercise as long as there’s some focus on flattening the lower abs, Duvall says. This lower ab exercise, courtesy of Duval, is a good place to start.
- Sit in a chair and relax against the back.
- Place one hand on your upper abs right under your rib cage. Keep your upper abs "soft and squishy" throughout.
- Place your other hand on the lower part of your abs just above your pelvis.
- Lift your lower abs up and squeeze them tight while keeping your upper abs soft.