A Comprehensive Stretching Guide for People Who Are Sedentary

Photo: Stocksy / Michela Ravasio
More often than not I'm twisted into some position that involves one or both of my feet being off the ground. It feels good in the moment, and then it just...doesn't. And that's when the tingles start to take hold. Sometimes, whether I've zoned out and stayed in one spot for too long or am just feeling really tight, a deep stretch is just what I need.

Ryan Balmes, DPT, orthopedic and sports physical therapist and spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association, says there's no right or wrong way to sit, but your body will tell you if it doesn't like a particular position.

"Certain positions will cause some discomfort," he says. "Let's say for one like a criss-cross applesauce, and you feel the discomfort in your hips. Anatomically, because what's happening at the hip level, you're taking your joint to its end range." That twinge of pain is your body telling you to it's time to move. Sometimes, getting up and moving is all you need. "Joints like movement," says Balmes. "By moving, you're lubricating the joints, keeping the fluid through the joints moving."

For all those days when you need a deeper stretch, we've asked Jeff Brannigan, program director at Stretch*d, to help you out.

The best stretches after being sedentary all day in 9 different positions

1. The princess: crossing your ankles

Brannigan says this is a pretty low-risk position. "One thing to watch if you tend to sit like this, is that one of your legs isn't internally rotated for too long," he says. "When you rest one leg over the other at the ankle, the bottom ankle/leg tends to roll inward." He says staying like this too long can bother the knee or groin, but the risk is higher for those dealing with an injury or chronic issue in any of the joints throughout the leg and hip.

Stretch: Side Sweep*r

If you spend a lot of time with your ankles crossed and notice some inner thigh tightness, Brannigan says to to stretch your adductors. You can do this by lying on your back looping the end of a yoga strap (or rope) around your foot, then, leading with the other end, wrap the strap around the inside of your leg, so that end is on the outside of your leg. Your leg that isn't in the strap is bent with your foot flat on the ground. Hold the end of the strap, and extend that leg out to the side, gently tugging on the strap to assist in the stretch.

2. #BossBabe: crossing your knees

While this isn't terribly hard on your legs, Brannigan says discomfort can arise because of what's happening with the rest of your body. "When we sit cross-legged while working or relaxing at home, we tend to lean the body in one direction more than the other, which can put stress into one side of the back."

Stretch: Twist and Dipp*r

To restore balance, you'll want to stretch your latissimus dorsi and quadratus lumborum. Sit with your back straight and your feet flat on the floor. Lock your hands behind your head with your elbows out, and twist your upper body in one direction until you have twisted as far as you can go. Return to starting position, and keeping your chest facing forward, reach in the opposite direction of your twist, bringing your elbow toward your knee. Repeat on one side, switching to the other side when you're ready.

3. The yogi: criss-cross applesauce

"For many, this is a position that is difficult to get into," Brannigan says. "If you're not flexible enough and force yourself into this position it can put stress on the hips and low back."

Stretch: Gloating Glutes

He says properly stretching your glutes can make this position a lot more comfortable. Lie flat on your back with both legs extended straight. Point the toes of the leg you're not stretching inward to stabilizes your hips. Lift your other leg, and bend your knee toward your opposite shoulder, keeping your pelvis flat on the surface as your leg comes into range for easy reach. Place one hand on the outside of your thigh, and the other on the outside of your shin too gently guide the stretch.

4. Numb Nelly: sitting your foot

Sitting on one leg or foot can be problematic for the ankle, knee and hip, Brannigan says, so if any of these joints bother you, it's best to avoid this position. "Aside from being an awkward angle for the leg," he says, "resting all of your body weight unevenly onto that limb can apply too much stress and also compromise the blood flow to that area."

Stretch: Hello Hamm*es

He says stretching your hamstrings can help loosen up that leg. Place your foot into the loop of your strap and bring it up so it's perpendicular to the surface you're lying on. Gradually straighten your leg by contracting your quadriceps and use the rope for gentle assists.

5. The thinker: leaning forward

This is what most of us do when we're working away at our desks. "When we are stuck in a chair and bent at the hip, the hip flexors become very tight, and over time, can contribute to back, hip and knee pain," he says. And if you're always rounding through your shoulders, Brannigan says this kind of repetitive stress can lead to poor posture and muscle dysfunction down the road.

Stretch: Chest Open*r

For your shoulders, fully straighten your arms and extend them straight out in front of you, with your thumbs are pointing up. Swing both arms back and down, bringing your shoulder blades together. Gradually raise the arms higher with each repetition.

Stretch: Stretch*d Squad

For your hips, lie on your side with your knees bent at 90 degrees. Place the foot of your bottom leg inside the loop of your strap, and grasp the other end of the rope with the same hand, placing the other hand around the ankle of your top foot. Engage your core. Keeping your knees bent and your legs parallel to the surface on which you're lying, contract your hamstrings and glutes and move your upper leg back as far as you can, using your hand to give a gentle assist.

6. Grecian goddess: leaning to one side with your legs bent and on top of each other

This is similar to the "cross legged" position. "Not only is this position weight bearing, which adds a lot of pressure into the joints, this position also keeps one hip in external rotation and then other in internal rotation," Brannigan says. "If you sit like this for long periods of time and don't lean on each side evenly, you're likely to develop some imbalances in the hips, which can lead to a variety of issues and increase likelihood of injury."

Stretch: Cross Ov*r 

This stretch targets piriformis, or, side of your hips. Lie on your back with both legs extended. Place the foot of the exercising leg into the loop of the strap, and grab the other end with your opposite hand. Using the front of your hip and quads, lift one leg straight up until it's perpendicular to the surface you're lying on. Slightly bend that knee, and extend your free arm straight out to stabilize your body. Keep light tension on the strap, and bring your leg across the midline of your body, straight down to the surface, until your hip begins to roll up on top of the other. Use the rope for gentle assists.

7. The manspreader: spreading your legs wide

"If this position is unnatural for you, there is a slight risk of over stretching the hamstrings and adductors when the legs are spread too wide," he says. "On the other hand, having legs spread wide can put stress into the outside of the hip since these are the muscles that are going to work and contract to open the legs."

Stretch: Cross Sweep*r

Stretch out your abductors by lying on your back with both legs extended straight out. Place one foot into the loop of the strap and wrap the strap around the outside of the ankle, so that the opposite ends are on the inside of the leg. Rotate your other leg slightly inward slightly and rotate the leg you're stretching slightly outward. Extend your stretching leg across the midline of your body will leading with your heel, and keeping a slight bend in the knee. Keeps light tension on strap and use it for gentle assists.

8. Figure four: crossing one ankle over your knee

Brannigan says this position can actually be a nice stretch for your hip. Issues arise if you allowed one leg to sit in the same position for too long. "We tend to do this with one leg more than the other, which, over time, will create better mobility in one hip than the other. This kind of imbalance is problematic when it comes time to be active or workout. An imbalance in the hips will lead to an increased risk of injury or pain when we move."

Stretch: Twist*d Triangle

Begin in that same figure four position. Engage your hip to drop the knee of the bent leg down towards the floor and gently assist with one hand on that knee. Keep it controlled and only hold the stretch for two to three seconds before relaxing the leg, going back to start position and then repeating 10 to 12 times. Switch to the other leg.

9. Love yo' self: hugging your knees into your chest

If you've got tight or sensitive hip flexors, Brannigan says you might want to avoid this position.

Stretch: Stretch*d Squad (see description above under "The Thinker").

This is what it's like to get loose with the professional stretchers at Stretch*d:

The CARS method loosens up your neck tension better than any stretch, and a physical therapist explains how long you should hold a stretch. 

Loading More Posts...