After a long run or a high-intensity workout, it feels really good to stretch your hips with the standing figure 4 stretch, says Grayson Wickham, PT, DPT, CSCS, founder of Movement Vault.
"The standing figure 4 stretch is a very effective stretch for improving your hip external rotation on one hip, while improving your ankle dorsiflexion on your other leg," he says. "It is also great for working on single-leg balance, as it demands quite a bit of balance to be able to stand in the stretch without holding on to an object."
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But it's time for an upgrade. Making one tiny adjustment helps improve the mobility in your shoulders and upper back as well. Turn the standing figure 4 stretch into a total-body stretch simply by extending your arms out in front of you and holding onto a chair or table.
"By letting your hips and chest descend downward toward the ground, you will get an additional stretch in your upper back and shoulders," Wickham says. "Your upper back, which is technically referred to as your thoracic spine, gets a stretch into extension."
How to Do the Supported Standing Figure 4 Stretch
- Stand arms' length in front of a chair, table, railing, bannister or other similarly sturdy object.
- Cross your right foot over your left thigh, slightly above the knee.
- Hinge at your hip and bend your left knee into a single-leg squat position. You'll feel a stretch in your right glute and your left ankle.
- Extend your arms straight out in front of you and hold onto the chair.
- Let your chest drop as you look down at the floor. You'll feel a stretch along your shoulders and upper back.
- Hold for at least 30 seconds and repeat 3 to 5 times on each leg.
After sitting back and feeling a maximal stretch in the leg that's crossed over the top, actively contract your glute muscle on that side.
“This turns the stretch into an active stretch and makes it much more effective,” Wickham says. Hold for 10 to 30 seconds and repeat 3 to 5 times on each leg.
Why This Stretch Is So Great
The standing figure 4 stretch is a favorite move for many because it helps improve mobility and stretches the external rotators of your hips, including your glutes and piriformis. In addition, you're strengthening the quads and hamstring of the standing leg, as well as improving ankle mobility.
If these muscles are tight, you may have difficulty taking long strides while walking or running or when squatting down, Wickham says. According to Harvard Health Publishing, this stretch is often recommended for people who have hip pain from piriformis syndrome or sciatica, which can sometimes cause pain to radiate down the leg.
And by adding in your upper body, it helps improve upper back mobility, which is very important for a healthy spine.
"Everybody needs to include some type of upper-back extension stretch in their daily stretching and mobility routines to offset all of the hunched-over sitting position most people spend too much time in," Wickham says. "With the upper-back extension stretch, you're stretching more of the ligaments and joints that surround your spinal vertebrae versus stretching out specific muscles."
How to Modify the Standing Figure 4 Stretch
If you have limited hip, ankle or upper-body mobility, you may not be able to do the standing figure 4 stretch. But don't worry, you can always modify. The seated figure 4 stretch helps you concentrate on improving your mobility without having to worry about balancing on one leg.
Seated Figure 4 Stretch
- Sit on the ground with a chair arms' length in front of you.
- Bend your left leg in front of you.
- Bend your right leg behind you.
- Place your arms on the chair in front of you and look down at the ground.
- Stretch forward, letting your chest drop down slightly.
- Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat 3 to 5 times.
While some discomfort is normal and is needed to improve flexibility and mobility, listen to your body while stretching.
"You should not experience sharp pain, numbness, tingling or burning pain at any point," Wickham says. "If you feel any of those sensations, you're either performing the stretch incorrectly, holding the stretch for too long or the stretch is not right for you at that given time. You need to then come out of the position and adjust.”
Alternatives to the Upgraded Standing Figure 4 Stretch
If the modification above still doesn't work for you, the following two yoga poses can help increase flexibility in the hips and legs, as well as the shoulders. These are great alternatives to the standing figure 4 stretch, says Dasha Einhorn, NASM-CPT, certified personal trainer and Pilates instructor.
Don't be surprised if they feel different from one side to the next, as your flexibility often isn't the same on both sides.
Half Pigeon Pose With Eagle Arms
- Sit on the ground and bend your right knee in front of you.
- Straighten the left leg behind you.
- For the eagle arms, place your right arm under left arm. Cross the arms and interlace your fingers.
- Lean forward to feel a stretch in your hips.
- Hold for at least 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
As an alternative to eagle arms, you can do the prayer position by pressing your palms together in front of your chest.
Cow Face Pose
- Sit up tall on the floor.
- Bend your knees and place your right knee on top of your left knee.
- Your knees should be stacked on top of each other.
- Your feet will be separated behind you and you'll sit between them.
- Lift your left arm up and bend your elbow so your hand touches the center of your neck.
- Bend your right arm behind and clasp your hands behind your back. If you can’t clasp your hands, get as close as you can.
- Hold for at least 30 seconds. Switch the position to the other side and repeat.