Everyone should be doing the butterfly stretch. From combatting cranky hips to fostering flexibility, it's stellar for sedentary folks and active athletes alike.
But not everyone can actually do it. While the butterfly stretch is deceptively simple — you sit on the floor, press the soles of your feet together and let your knees fall out to either side — it's far from easy.
"People struggle to do the butterfly stretch because it requires a significant amount of lower back, anterior hip (hip flexor) and groin flexibility as well as hip joint mobility," says Sam Becourtney, DPT, CSCS, a New York-based physical therapist and certified sports and conditioning specialist at Bespoke Treatments.
And most people who work at a desk for nine hours a day simply don't have these abilities.
But that doesn't mean you can't teach your old muscles and joints new tricks. By dedicating time to improving your flexibility and mobility in these areas through targeted stretches, you can build up to a better butterfly stretch.
How to Do the Butterfly Stretch
- Sit on the floor with your legs straight in front of you. You can place a small pillow under your butt to make it more comfortable.
- Bend your knees and bring your feet in towards your groin, pressing the soles of your feet together.
- Sitting tall, keep your feet together as you allow both knees to drop to either side and toward the floor. Hold your feet with your hands and rest your elbows on your knees.
- You can deepen the stretch by pressing down gently on each inner thigh with your elbows.
- When you begin to feel a stretch on the inside of your groin and thigh, hold this position for 30 seconds.
4 Benefits of the Butterfly Stretch
1. It Improves Hip Health
Doing this stretch can help you maintain mobile, free-moving hip joints for long-term joint health, Becourtney says. Because your hips are involved in just about every major movement pattern — walking, running, jumping, etc. — when they're limber and loose, your entire body will move more easily and function better.
2. It Offsets Too Much Sitting
If you spend your 9 to 5 hours at a desk, odds are your hip flexors are tight and short. This stretch opens and lengthens these stiff muscles, helping to counteract the negative effect of prolonged sitting throughout the workday, Becourtney says.
3. It Reduces Low Back Pain
The butterfly stretch doesn't just relieve tight hips, it also stretches and alleviates tension in the low back, Becourtney says. Since back pain is one of the most common physical complaints (eight out of 10 people experience a backache in their lifetime, per the U.S. National Library of Medicine), that's a big benefit.
4. It Improves Your Range of Motion
Most of us spend the majority of our day in the sagittal plane of motion (moving forward and backward). But when doing the butterfly stretch, you press your knees outward and move in a lateral (side to side) plane, Becourtney says.
By adding multiplanar movements to your day, you improve your range of motion. By doing this stretch, you increases the range of motion in your hips and inner thigh musculature, Becourtney says.
And moving your joints through a full range of motion helps keep them mobile (read: healthy) and less prone to pain and injury now and in the long term.
How to Improve the Butterfly Stretch
If your hips or low back are too tight, don't push yourself into the butterfly position. You should never force your muscles to do something they're not ready to do, as it can cause pain or injury. Instead, work with your body and ease your way into the move by incorporating the following stretches into your daily routine.
These stretches target some of the most common problems that prohibit you from nailing the butterfly posture (like tight hip flexors and adductors) and will help you build the mobility and flexibility you need to take your butterfly stretch to the next level.
Try doing these simple stretches throughout the day to loosen stiff muscles and break up bouts of prolonged sitting.
Be patient — it takes time to get better at the butterfly stretch. The more you do the moves, the closer you'll get to reaping its benefits.
Move 1: Frog Stretch
- Get on your hands and knees as if you were going into Child’s pose but separate your knees as far as is tolerable so the inner part of your lower thighs is on the floor.
- Maintaining an anterior pelvic tilt (think: sticking your butt up to the sky), gently push yourself through your hands backward until you feel a stretch through your inner thighs.
- Hold for 5 to 10 seconds in this “back” position then come forward and repeat three to five times.
“This is a great stretch to work on inner thigh (adductor) mobility, which is a requisite component to performing the butterfly stretch,” Becourtney says. By increasing flexibility and mobility in the adductor muscles with the frog stretch, you’ll eventually be able to get your knees as wide as necessary to nail the butterfly posture, he explains.
Move 2: Half-Kneeling Quad/Hip Flexor Stretch
- Start in a half-kneeling position with one knee down and one foot planted in front of you on the ground.
- Squeeze the glute of your “down knee” and gently glide forward until you feel a stretch through the front of the down-side thigh.
- With the same-side hand, reach up and over toward the opposite side of your body to deepen the stretch.
- Hold for 5 to 10 seconds in this position then relax briefly. Repeat three to five times, then switch sides.
This move addresses tightness in the upper/front part of the thighs and hip flexors, which can be a limiting factor when attempting the butterfly stretch, Becourtney says.
When your hip flexors are tight, you might feel a “pinching sensation” in the front of your hip when performing the butterfly stretch, he explains. It also helps decrease this tension by engaging your glutes — the opposing muscle group.
Move 3: Elevated Figure 4 Stretch
- Place one leg on an elevated surface (like a bench, ottoman or couch) with your knee bent at 90 degrees.
- Hinge at your hips and fold your torso over your front leg until you feel a stretch in the outer/back part of your front hip.
- Hold for 20 to 30 seconds and repeat two to three times.
In this position, “you are challenging your hips to get into the end range of external rotation and using your torso to leverage a deeper stretch in this position, which is a crucial part of the butterfly stretch,” Becourtney says.
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