If you spend a lot of time sitting (and if you're like most American adults, you do), adding a single stretch to your morning can open your hips, help you stand and walk taller — and even reduce back pain. You've just got to send a few extra minutes each a.m. with your couch.
No, not sitting on it: By using the sofa to do a simple, beginner-friendly move called the couch stretch.
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Greg Pignataro, CSCS, owner of Never Past Your Prime, has had clients reduce their back pain the first time they did this stretch.
"And they weren't doing it at a particularly crazy level, just at the level of intensity they were ready for," he says. "They got noticeable relief from doing just a minute of the couch stretch."
How Sitting Tightens Your Hips
Most American adults spend a lot of time in a chair: By 2016, the average American adult was sitting for 6.4 hours a day, according to an April 2019 analysis published in JAMA. And since COVID-19 hit, we've been sitting even more: A December 2020 study from Preventive Medicine Reports found that 40 percent of U.S. adults sat for 8 or more hours per day.
All that sitting is bad for our health and longevity and is correlated with higher levels of early mortality, according to the Mayo Clinic. But while we're still kicking (or, really, still sitting), it's also leading to shortened hip flexors.
The hip flexor is a muscle in the front of your thigh that helps extend your leg. When you stand up and press your hips forward (as you would in a deadlift), your hip flexor lengthens and your hip extends so that your thigh is in line with your torso.
But when you sit a lot, the front hip flexor spends a lot of time in a shortened position. The muscle then gets shorter and can't extend as easily. In a February 2021 study from Musculoskeletal Science & Practice, scientists found that people who sat for seven hours or more per day had 6 degrees less hip extension than those who sat less.
"With our modern Western lifestyle, we spend so much time with our hips flexed in a 90-degree position. And our hips become very stiff, and become very uncomfortable," Pignataro says. "And that has a lot of negative implications."
When you can't extend your hip, it's harder to stand up straight, which is why tight hip flexors can impact your posture. They can also mess with how you walk: Shortened front hip flexors can result in a stiffened gait, with limited flexion in the knee, as demonstrated in a small 2016 study on people with osteoarthritis from PLOS ONE.
Worst of all, they can cause pain. According to a 2021 research review published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, tight hip flexors can lead to lower back pain and compromise your core's ability to brace.
But there's good news: That same study found that stretching the hip flexors can result in reduced pain, a stronger core and even improvements in athletic performance measures like the vertical jump.
How to Do the Couch Stretch
The couch stretch is performed in a half-kneeling position in front of a wall, chair or a couch. Your front foot is flat on the floor, with your knee directly over your toes. Your torso can be upright or slightly bent over, depending on the intensity of the stretch. Your back leg's is knee planted on the floor and your back foot is either against the wall or on top of the couch. The hip of this back leg is the one that's being extended and stretched.
Because of the bent knee position, Pignataro says, the couch stretch does double duty. "The couch stretch puts you into a degree of knee flexion that almost no lift or no field sport puts you," he says. In that position, he says, the quadriceps gets a deep stretch that can make you stronger at the bottom of a very deep squat, for example.
But when you're starting out, you don't want the stretch to be too extreme. Here's how Pignataro suggests doing your first couch stretch.
- Get into a half-kneeling position in front of a couch, chair or bench. Your left foot should be flat on the floor, with your left knee bent 90 degrees and directly above your left foot. Your right knee should be behind you, at least 6 inches in front of the couch or chair. Your torso should be upright.
- Place the top of your right foot up on the cushion of the chair or couch. In this position, you will feel a stretch in your right quadriceps.
- Try to extend your right hip and bring your torso upright. If you can’t extend your hip, or if this is too extreme, increase the angle of your right knee by shifting forward so you’re further in front of the couch.
- If you need to lean forward slightly and brace your hands on the coffee table or another chair, that’s OK. But keep your torso as upright as possible so you’re extending your hip.
- Switch sides and repeat with your right leg in front and your left foot up on the chair or couch.
Adding a glute contraction during the couch stretch can make it super effective. Pignataro found that when a client held glute contractions of around two seconds each for 25 to 50 “reps” during the stretch, they could perform the move with their foot on the wall instead of on the couch (a progression) within 30 days.
For your daily couch stretching, Pignataro suggests performing two sets of 25 to 50 glute contractions of 2 seconds each on each leg, resulting in around 2 to 4 minutes total stretching per leg.
How to Progress the Couch Stretch
As you continue to practice this stretch, you will begin to become more comfortable with your torso upright at your chosen distance from the chair or couch. To progress the move at this point, move your planted knee (and thus your body) slightly closer to the couch, Pignataro says. You'll continue this way until you're right in front of it.
"That may be enough for most people," he says. But if you're loving this stretch and want to continue to progress it, you can move your back foot from the couch to the wall.
Your goal will be for your back ankle not to be at a 90-degree angle as it is on the couch, but fully extended — the top of your foot flush against the wall, with your toes pointed to the ceiling.
Be warned, Pignataro says: Against the wall, this stretch is a different beast. So even if you're a master on the couch, you'll basically need to start over when moving to this progression: Keep your knee pretty far from the wall and your torso potentially supported by another chair or coffee table.
2 Moves to Warm Up Your Hips Before the Morning Couch Stretch
Rolling out of bed and diving right into the couch stretch can be a little extreme. Pignataro suggests getting blood flowing into the hip flexors before you start with these two simple warm-up moves. They'll take less than two minutes to do.
Move 1: 90-90 Hip Rotations
- Sit on a mat or the floor. Take a deep breath and make your torso tall and proud.
- Bring your right leg in front so your thigh is straight out from your waist, with your thigh turned so the outside of your thigh is on the floor. Your knee should be bent at 90 degrees, and the outside of your shin, ankle and foot should also be on the floor. Keep your ankle in a neutral position so that your toes point directly forward.
- Bring your left leg out so that your thigh is pointing at a 90-degree angle away from your torso, and the inside of your thigh, shin and foot are on the floor. The knee of this leg should also be bent 90 degrees, and your ankle should be in a neutral position.
- Keeping your feet touching the ground, rotate your hips and torso so that the positions of your legs switch. Your right knee will come up and over so that instead of the inside of your knee being on the floor, the outside touches the floor. The left knee does the opposite: The outside of the knee comes off the floor, and then the inside will touch it.
- Rotate back and forth between these two positions for 20 to 30 seconds, holding yourself upright using blocks, a mat or any other implement you need.
Move 2: Knee Hug Hip Flexor Lift
- Sit with your legs straight in front of you.
- Bend your right knee and hug it to your chest, with your right foot flat on the floor.
- Point your left toe gently away from you, and rotate it inward so that your toes are pointing at a 45-degree angle instead of straight up at the ceiling.
- Keeping your left leg straight and your toes pointed in this way, lift your leg as high as you can, and then control it on the way down.
- Perform 15 to 25 reps on each leg.