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Flex Time: Stretching Guide to Loose and Limber Muscles

Follow our quick stretching guide to test your tight spots and loosen up your knots.

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Karen Pearson
Shoulders and chest flexibilty test
Karen Pearson
Karen Pearson
Karen Pearson
Karen Pearson
Karen Pearson
Karen Pearson
Karen Pearson
Karen Pearson
Karen Pearson
Karen Pearson
Calf flexibility test
Karen Pearson
Gum Shoe stretch
Karen Pearson
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Test Your Flexibility

Are you sitting down for this? All day long at your desk job, your hips and hamstrings are stuck in a shortened position, while the overstretched muscles in your back are getting kinks if you hunch -- hello, lower back pain! But no need to go yoga pro to undo the tension: Targeting your specific twangs helps. A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that just one 30-second stretch three times a week can significantly lengthen hamstrings in four weeks. Take our expert test to find out exactly how limber you are and get the fix for areas where you come up short. Try again next month to see how far you've stretched your limits.

Instantly Tally Your Flexibility Score Here

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Shoulders and Chest

Sitting stooped over a desk and rarely having to reach overhead mean chest muscles are continually restricted. Loosening up the chest and shoulders will help you reach behind more easily to do things like clasp your bra.

The Test
With left hand, hold a ruler so left thumb is just at the one-inch mark. Bend left arm behind back so ruler points toward head. Now reach right hand up and over right shoulder, grabbing ruler as close to left hand as you can. To measure, pull ruler up with right hand without moving fingers. Write down the number your right hand has reached and subtract an inch to get the results for the left shoulder. (You can also try this test without a ruler to see if you can touch or clasp hands.) Switch sides and repeat to test your right shoulder.

Good (3 points): Hands touch or are within 3 to 5 inches of each other.
Fair (2 points): Hands are within 6 to 8 inches of each other.
Poor (1 point): Hands are more than 8 inches from each other.

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Stretch It Out: Goalpost

Stand in a doorway and bring left arm directly out to side. Place left forearm against wall to left of doorway, elbow bent 90 degrees at shoulder level. Press left palm and forearm against wall for 5 counts; release. Do 5 reps. Switch sides and repeat.

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Obliques

Tight obliques and less range of motion in your lower back tend to go hand in hand; back stretches alone may not be enough, experts say.

The Test
Holding a pen in right hand, stand with feet hip-width apart with your back and butt (and heels, if possible) against a wall. Reach left arm up and overhead against wall as you side bend to the right; slide right hand down thigh toward knee. Place a pen mark as far down the leg as you can reach while keeping shoulder blades flush with wall. That's the score for your left obliques. Switch sides and repeat to get the score for right obliques.

Good (3 points): Pen mark is at mid-knee or lower.
Fair (2 points): Pen mark is at top of knee.
Poor (1 point): Pen mark is higher than knee.

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Stretch It Out: Revolved Crescent

Get on floor in full push-up position (arms extended, body forming a straight line from head to heels). Step left foot forward between hands, and lower right knee to mat. Lift chest and bring hands together in prayer pose. Keeping palms together, rotate torso to cross right elbow to outside of left knee. Hold for 8 to 10 breaths, pressing elbow and knee toward each other on exhale. Return to start. Switch sides; repeat.

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Lower Back

Our spines are built to move, so static, everyday activities like driving and standing in line eventually pull on the discs in your lower back, and that's what hurts. Proper stretches keep you mobile and help prevent this ouch.

The Test
Sit on floor with back and head against wall, legs extended, knees pressing against floor, feet flexed. Rounding the spine, extend arms toward toes by hinging forward at hips.

Good (3 points): Hands can reach your ankles or feet.
Fair (2 points): Hands can reach your mid-shin or just above ankle.
Poor (1 point): Hands can reach only to area between your knee and mid-shin.

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Stretch It Out: Downward Dog

Start on floor on all fours, then tuck toes under and press hips back and up toward ceiling as you step feet back a few times to form an inverted V, balancing on palms and feet. Exhale, let head drop and release neck to lengthen spine. Hold for 8 to 10 breaths. Lower to knees and sit back on heels. Do 3 to 5 reps.

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Hamstrings

Calling all desk jockeys: Make it a point to get up and walk around at least once every half hour. Otherwise, hamstrings remain shortened and become stiff.

The Test
Lie faceup on floor and lift right leg 90 degrees. Try to straighten right knee without moving thigh. Switch legs and repeat test.

Good (3 points): Leg is straight.
Fair (2 points): Knee is bent 20 degrees.
Poor (1 point): Knee is bent more than 20 degrees.

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Stretch It Out: Jackknife

Sit on floor with legs extended in front of you. With back flat, hinge forward at hips and extend arms toward your toes to the point of tension; hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Straighten back up and extend arms toward toes again, this time rounding your back; hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Do stretch combo 5 times.

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Hips

When your thighs and hip flexors -- the muscles that help lift up the legs -- are tight, they may prevent you from lowering fully as you squat down.

The Test
Stand with feet hip-width apart, left hand holding the back of a chair for balance. Bend right knee 90 degrees up to hip height, then bring it out to right side. Switch legs and repeat to determine score for left hip.

Good (3 points): Thigh is parallel to floor; knee is directly out to the side.
Fair (2 points): Thigh is parallel; knee is slightly in front of body.
Poor (1 point): Thigh is lower than parallel; knee is slightly in front of body.

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Stretch It Out: Low Lunge

From downward dog, step right foot forward between hands. Lower left knee to floor and press hips forward while lifting torso up as you extend arms overhead. Hold for 8 to 10 breaths. Place palms back on floor on either side of right foot and step back into downward dog. Switch legs and repeat. Do 3 to 5 reps per leg.

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Inner Thighs

If you sit with your legs crossed all the time, you make your inner thigh muscles steely. Too much of that can cause tension and pain in your knees.

The Test
Sit on floor with knees bent, legs together and feet flat. Lower knees out to sides as far as possible while keeping soles together. Clasp feet with both hands and pull heels as close to body as possible.

Good (3 points): Heels are 4 inches from your groin.
Fair (2 points): Heels are 5 to 8 inches from your groin.
Poor (1 point): Heels are 9 or more inches from your groin.

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Stretch It Out: Modified Frog

Kneel on floor, sitting butt on heels, and hinge at hips to fold upper body over thighs, arms stretched forward. Separate knees as widely as you comfortably can. Crawl upper body forward without lifting torso (as if you were going to lie on belly), until elbows are bent 90 degrees below shoulders. Hold for 8 to 10 breaths. Return to start. Do 5 or 6 reps.

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Calves

Wearing high heels puts your feet in a downward-slanting position that automatically shortens calf muscles. Too much tip-toe strolling over time causes those muscles to remain short even when you're in flats.

The Test
Sit on floor with legs extended, feet flat against a wall, arms by sides with palms down. Without moving heels away from wall, flex left foot so that toes point toward body. Switch feet and repeat to get score for right calf.

Good (3 points): Ball of foot moves 2 to 3 inches from wall.
Fair (2 points): Ball of foot moves 1 to 2 inches from wall.
Poor (1 point): Can't get to 90 degrees with knee straight.

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Stretch It Out: Gum Shoe

Facing a wall and place palms on it at chest level, elbows slightly bent. Lean forward, step right foot back a few feet to staggered stance, heel on floor so that you feel the stretch in right calf. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds. Switch legs and repeat. Do 3 reps per leg. Repeat sequence, this time bending knee of rear leg to target a different set of calf muscles.

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Your Flexibility Score Card

Tight Spots

Flex Points

Shoulders and chest

Right Side _______
 Left Side  _______

Obliques

Right Side _______
 Left Side  _______

Lower Back

                  _______

Hamstrings

Right Side _______
 Left Side  _______

Hips

Right Side _______
 Left Side  _______

Inner Thighs

Right Side _______
 Left Side _______

Calves

Right Side _______
 Left Side  _______

 

TOTAL  _______

How did you do?

29-36: Call yourself Loosey.
You are fabulously flexible. Keep up the good work!

20-28: It's a stretch.
You're pretty pliable, with just a few taut spots. Work on those using our fixes.

12-19: Knot so good.
Get in the habit of stretching most days, then test yourself again.

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Rules for Stretching

Warm Up
Get moving for five to 10 minutes prestretch to make cold muscles more pliable.

Match the Occasion
The stretches shown here fall into the static category, in which a muscle or group of muscles is gradually stretched to the point of limitation. You should feel a mild, even tension and hold it for 15 to 30 seconds. Save these moves for your cool-down. Preworkout, try dynamic stretches, like slow, high-knee marches and jumping-jack arm swings, to rev your muscles into action.

Renounce Bouncing
Ballistic, or bouncy, movement is a no-no when you're holding a stretchy pose.

Don't Press Your Luck
Stretch only to the point of tension. If your muscles start to tremble, you're pushing too far. Overstretching can cause muscle strains, which are actually injured fibers.

The Flex Experts Who Helped Create These Tests and Rx's
Brent Feland, PhD, professor of exercise sciences at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah
Lynn Millar, PhD, professor of physical therapy at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan
Gina Norman and Stan Woodman, owners of Kaia Yoga Complete Wellness Centers in Connecticut
Michele Olson, PhD, professor of exercise science at Auburn University Montgomery, Alabama, and FITNESS advisory board member
Vonda Wright, MD, orthopedic surgeon at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and FITNESS advisory board member

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, September 2010.

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