The Pretzel Stretch Eases Tension in Your Glutes and Back

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The pretzel stretch promotes healthy spine rotation, stretches your glutes and is a great cooldown after a workout.
Image Credit: Maridav/iStock/GettyImages

Struggling with tight muscles from lots of sitting or hard training? The pretzel stretch helps relieve tension in your glutes, core and back. It also helps maintain your ability to rotate through the upper back.

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  • What is the pretzel stretch?​ The pretzel stretch is a rotational floor stretch that targets your glutes, obliques and spine.
  • Why do the pretzel stretch?​ Many people feel tightness in their upper back and glutes from sitting in front of a computer much of the day or as a result of intense exercise. The pretzel stretch can help relieve tension in these areas. You'll feel and move better when it's time to be active.
  • Who can do the pretzel stretch?​ If you can comfortably sit on the floor, you can do this stretch. If you have difficulty getting up or down from the floor, you can substitute a seated figure 4 stretch to get similar benefits (more on this below.)

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How Do You Do the Pretzel Stretch With Proper Form?

JW Player placeholder image
Region Full Body
Goal Improve Flexibility
  1. Sit on the floor with both legs extended straight out in front of you.
  2. Bring your right foot up and over your left thigh and place it on the floor on the outside of your left knee.
  3. Place your left arm across the front of your right thigh. Place your right hand on the floor behind you.
  4. Rotate your trunk and look back over your right shoulder. Keep your shoulders down away from your ears.
  5. Hold the stretch for 20 to 60 seconds, taking slow relaxed breaths with a full exhale.
  6. Switch sides when time is up.

3 Pretzel Stretch Benefits

1. It Stretches Your Glutes

Your glutes consist of three muscles: the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus. The gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the body and is responsible for generating much of your force and power. The gluteus medius is a very important muscle for stabilizing your body as you walk and perform other movements. The gluteus minimus serves more of an assistance and stabilizing role in tandem with the other two glute muscles.

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As you can imagine, your glutes see a lot of action both in and out of the gym. You use them directly or indirectly in nearly everything you do. This can lead to stiffness, especially if you don't regularly include mobility drills and stretches in multiple planes of motion.

The pretzel stretch is a great way to stretch your glutes. It especially targets the gluteus medius, making it an excellent option for field athletes, runners, hikers or anyone on their feet a lot.

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2. It Promotes Healthy Spinal Rotation

Your thoracic spine is the part of your spine between your neck and the bottom of your ribs. This region of your spine is ideally very mobile and should be able to extend (arch), flex (bend forward), rotate and lean from side to side. Decreased mobility in your thoracic spine can contribute to limitations and pain elsewhere in the body — especially the shoulders and lower back.

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Unfortunately, the thoracic spine can stiffen up from lack of use or too much sitting in front of a screen. The average American adult sits for 6.5 to 8 hours per day and spends more than half their day in a sedentary state, according to a December 2016 study in ​Preventing Chronic Disease​. When you combine all this sitting with a trip to the gym where you press lots of heavy weights, you have a perfect recipe for discomfort.

Thankfully, you can counteract all that sitting, slouching and hard training by regularly including dynamic and static thoracic spine stretches in your warm-up, cooldown and daily stretching practice.

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The pretzel stretch targets rotation throughout your entire spine. Remember to focus primarily on driving rotation through your thoracic spine and don't overdo the rotation through your lower back.

Your lumbar spine (the lowest portion of your spine spanning your pelvis to the bottom of your ribs) has much less potential for movement. Instead, it primarily serves as a stabilizer between your more flexible thoracic spine and hips.

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Nevertheless, the lumbar spine does have a few degrees of rotation, and it can be helpful to gently activate this range of motion without load. The pretzel stretch is one way to do this. However, skip this stretch if your doctor has advised you to avoid spinal rotation.

3. It's a Great Cooldown After a Workout

Recent scientific research — including a December 2015 systematic review in ​Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism ​— suggests holding long static stretches before you train may lead to temporary decreases in strength and power output. For this reason, it's best to prioritize dynamic stretching and use shorter static stretching intervals during your warm-up.

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Longer static stretches, like the pretzel stretch, work best as part of a cooldown after your workout. After you train, it's important to help your body transition from the fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system to the rest-and-digest parasympathetic nervous system.

One of the best ways to do this is to focus on relaxed breathing with a full exhale. Combine this breathing focus with static stretches to help your body kickstart the recovery process.

Pretzel Stretch Variations to Make the Exercise Easier

1. Seated Figure 4 Stretch

You can still enjoy some of the benefits of the pretzel stretch even if you can't comfortably get up and down from the floor. The seated figure 4 stretch helps you stretch your glutes but doesn't involve spinal rotation.

JW Player placeholder image
Region Lower Body
Goal Improve Flexibility
  1. Sit on a chair or a bench with your knees bent and feet on the floor.
  2. Gently grab your right ankle, pull it up and place it on top of your left knee.
  3. Place your hands on top of your right ankle and right knee, gently pressing your knee down toward the floor. You should feel a stretch in your right glute.
  4. Hold the stretch for 20 to 60 seconds, taking slow relaxed breaths with a full exhale.
  5. Switch sides when time is up.

Tip

You can intensify the stretch by leaning your torso forward.

2. Figure 4 Stretch

The figure 4 stretch is often confused with the pretzel stretch. This awesome floor-based stretch is very effective in stretching the glutes. However, unlike the seated pretzel stretch, it does not involve any spinal rotation. If you have been instructed by your doctor to avoid spinal rotation but still want to target your glutes, the figure 4 stretch is an ideal compromise.

JW Player placeholder image
Region Lower Body
Goal Improve Flexibility
  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
  2. Lift your left foot off the floor and place it across the front of your right thigh. Your left knee should be bent facing out to the side, and you might already feel a stretch in your left glute.
  3. Place both hands on the back of your right thigh.
  4. Keeping your right knee bent and left leg in position, gently pull your right thigh up toward your chest. The more you pull, the greater the stretch will be. Choose a position that feels right for you.
  5. Hold the stretch for 20 to 60 seconds, taking slow relaxed breaths with a full exhale.
  6. Switch sides when time is up.

3. Pretzel Stretch Using Yoga Blocks

If you are able to get on the floor but struggle to comfortably place your foot or hand on the floor, you can use yoga blocks to bring the floor to you and reduce the range of motion required for the pretzel stretch.

Yoga blocks are rectangular foam blocks with a long edge and a short edge. Pick the edge that's just high enough to allow you to perform the stretch comfortably. You can place a block under your planted arm as well as under the foot of your bent leg.

If you don't have yoga blocks, try using a foam pad or some pillows to reduce the required range of motion.

Shop These Yoga Blocks

Pretzel Stretch Variations to Make the Exercise Harder

1. Half Lord of the Fishes Pose (Ardha Matsyendrasana)

If you practice yoga, you may recognize some similarities between the pretzel stretch and the half lord of the fishes pose, also known by its Sanskrit name Ardha Matsyendrasana. The main differences between the formal yoga pose and the pretzel stretch are the positions of your up-side arm and down-side leg.

You can make the basic pretzel stretch more challenging by changing the position of the down-side leg, essentially performing the half lord of the fishes yoga pose. Half lord of the fishes requires you to bend your down-side leg at the knee and bring your down foot back to your hips (although it's worth noting some yoga studios teach a regression of this pose without the bent leg that looks very similar to the pretzel stretch). You also flex the up-side arm at the elbow, keeping your palm open and high.

You can use the yoga pose as a progression if you want to make the basic pretzel stretch more challenging. If you are simply stretching and not engaging in a formal yoga practice, it's OK to leave your up-side arm straight.

JW Player placeholder image
Region Full Body
Goal Improve Flexibility
  1. Sit on the floor with both legs extended straight out in front of you.
  2. Bring your right foot up and over your left thigh and place it on the floor on the outside of your left knee.
  3. Bend your left knee and bring your left foot underneath your right thigh and place it on the floor by your hips.
  4. Place your left arm across the front of your right thigh. Place your right hand on the floor behind you.
  5. Rotate your trunk and look back over your right shoulder. Keep your shoulders down away from your ears.
  6. Hold the stretch for 20 to 60 seconds, taking slow relaxed breaths with a full exhale.
  7. Switch sides when time is up.

2. Brettzel Stretch

The Brettzel stretch was created by physical therapist Gray Cook, MSPT, CSCS. It's a fantastic full-body stretch that targets the glutes, hips, back and core much like the pretzel stretch. It's more difficult to get into position for the Brettzel stretch, making it a great progression when the pretzel stretch becomes easy.

JW Player placeholder image
Region Full Body
Goal Improve Flexibility
  1. Lie on your right side with your legs straight and stacked on top of each other. Place a pillow or foam pad under your head to keep your neck in a neutral position.
  2. Flex your left hip and bring your left knee up toward your chest. Place your right hand on the outside of your left calf just below the knee to keep it in place.
  3. Bend your right knee and bring your right foot up behind you toward your butt.
  4. Reach behind you and grab the outside of your right foot with your left hand. If you can't reach, loop a small band around your right foot and hold onto that.
  5. Rotate your left shoulder back toward the floor, keeping your left knee down as much as possible. You can enhance the rotation by gently looking back over your left shoulder.
  6. Hold the stretch for 20 to 60 seconds, taking slow relaxed breaths with a full exhale.
  7. Switch sides when time is up.

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