Here is some relevant information to know about me as we embark on this narrative journey together:
1. I want my muscles to feel less like rubber bands pulled uncomfortably taut and more like supple lengths of bubblegum.
2. I’m lazy! And the effort of waking up early to go to the gym in the morning feels arduous as is, much less waking up even earlier to thoroughly stretch before or after.
These facts have existed in constant friction with one another for a while now. I want to increase my flexibility but I also don’t, because it requires time and energy that could be devoted elsewhere–like sleeping, or spending 30 minutes working out instead of 20, or binge-watching two seasons of Babylon Berlin. Something had to give–and it did, a couple weeks ago, when I attempted pigeon pose during a yoga class and the instructor visibly supressed a laugh. I didn’t blame her. I looked absurd. I also resolved then and there that I would get serious about stretching posthaste, but ideally in a way that was easy to maintain consistently.
I reached out to Jeff Brannigan, the Program Director at Stretch*d–an assisted stretching studio in New York where you can make an appointment to be “professionally stretched.” (I tried it once about a year ago and it’s exactly as nice as it sounds.) After I explained what I was looking for–an expert’s guide to becoming more flexible without too much effort, no biggie!–he assured me that he would strip his recommendations down to just the essentials.
Below are the five stretches Brannigan advises doing once a day to improve overall flexibility. He suggests holding each one for 2 to 3 seconds and repeating 10 to 12 times, so based on my advanced calculations, this routine should take no more than three minutes tops.
#1: A Calf Stretch That Doubles as Toe-Tapping Practice
Calves are involved in literally every step we take, so in the words of Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, they’re a very good place to start. Brannigan’s recommended calf-stretching protocol resonates with me both spiritually and emotionally because you can do it lying down, so it’s basically a nap with productivity built in. All you have to do is loop a band (or a jump rope or belt) around the ball of one of your feet and point and flex for 2 to 3 seconds each time. Rinse and repeat on the other leg. Don’t fall asleep!
#2: A Quadratus Lumborum Stretch That’s Particularly Good for Desk Workers
In addition to being the name I would give to my celebrity baby, the “Quadratus Lumborum” is a muscle located in your lower back (though technically it’s a super-deep abdominal muscle). It helps support good posture and stabilize your spine, and it’s really important to stretch because it often takes over when your hips are tight (my hips are always tight, which Brannigan says is common for people who sit at a desk all day).
For this stretch, find a chair or flat surface to sit on where you can place both feet on the floor, put your hands behind your head, rotate your spine to one side, and bend down at an angle with your elbow moving toward your knee. After holding for 2 to 3 seconds, sit back up and repeat the same steps on the other side.
#3: A Quad Stretch That Can Help Your Posture
Stretching your quads can help with back pain, knee pain, and all around posture–not to mention enhancing your performance while working out. This stretch can be done lying down or standing up, depending on your preference and where you are. Grab hold of one of your ankles and bend your knee until you feel a stretch in the front of your thigh. Make sure you aren’t arching your back (it helps to deliberately hold your ab muscles in and push your hips forward (this will give you a bonus hip flexor stretch as well). Hold the stretch for 2 to 3 seconds before releasing slightly and doing it again. Repeat 10 to 12 times and then switch legs.
#4: A Hamstring Stretch That Does More Than Just Stretch Your Hamstrings
I’ll be hamstrung if I go one more day with hamstrings that feel tighter than my highest-waisted jeans, so I was pleased that Brannigan mandated this stretch in his recommended repertoire.
“The hamstring plays a big role with a lot of other things in the body,” he told me. “It can affect your back, your legs, and, of course, knees.”
Just like the calf stretch, you can and should do this one lying down. Once you’re situated, begin by encircling the rope around the *middle* of one of your feet and raising your leg up as far as you need to go in order to feel a stretch, hold for 2 to 3 seconds, lower it, and repeat 10 to 12 times. Then do the same thing with the other leg.
#5: A Neck Stretch You Can Do Anywhere and Everywhere
Stretching your neck extensor muscles regularly is a gift you can give not only to yourself but also apparently to your upper back and all the muscles that run down your spine. “It’s all connected!,” as they say in the middle-school science biz.
To do so effectively, find a seat where you can put your feet on the ground, place your hands behind your head, and use them to gently guide your head up and down, holding the stretch for 2 to 3 seconds each time. This might be my favorite stretch of the bunch because it’s so easy to do literally anywhere–my desk, a subway car, a sofa with Netflix for company, etc. Low effort, high reward–I feel instantly better afterward.
As for the long-term effects, I’ll have to report back after I’ve been diligent about doing all of these in tandem for at least another few weeks, but I can attest that I already feel much more mentally flexible now that I have an expert-approved, time-efficient game plan, and that counts for something, right?