You go into stretching with the best of intentions. Maybe you want to release your neck, or finally care for those oh-so-tight hamstrings. The problem arises when you accidentally tweak another muscle while you're hyper-focused on the stretch. And, according to trainer Chloe de Winter of Go Chlo Pilates, this is a common mistake in the much-beloved figure four stretch. As de Winter sees it, the figure four stretch is one of the best glute stretching techniques, not to mention a steller pose for opening up tight hips. But if you’re not doing it correctly, it can be rendered useless at best and can cause injury at worst. With that in mind, we chatted with de Winter and a couple of other trainers to nail down the benefits of the figure four stretch, plus how to do it correctly for the best results. Keep reading to learn more.
What is the Figure Four Stretch, and how is it performed?
Figure four pose involves lying flat on your back with your lower belly slightly engaged. Then you cross your right ankle over your left thigh, just above the knee, and hug your legs toward you by clasping your hands around your left hamstring, or around your shin. Pretty soon, you'll feel the stretch along your outer left hip—and it feels wonderful.
Which muscles does figure four stretch work?
The figure-four stretch works the piriformis muscle, glute med, and posterior glute musculature—all of which play a role in hip mobility and the presence or lack thereof of lower back pain.
“The piriformis is a narrow muscle in the buttocks that runs from your sacrum through to the top of your thigh and is responsible for rotating your leg outwards as well as lifting your leg away from the center of your body,” Barry’s Denver founding instructor Jess Fiala, CPT, CES, PPCES, reveals. “The glute med helps with hip movement, stability, and mobility and is the most superior of the glute muscles.” Meanwhile, she says that there are four other muscles within the posterior glute musculature which are worked in the figure-four stretch. “They are also responsible for hip rotation and extension,” she says. “Working in harmony, all of these muscles can benefit from a figure-four stretch.”
Benefits of the figure-four stretch
The figure four stretch is one of the most popular lower back pain exercises. It’s also beloved for its piriformis muscle relief. “The figure-4 stretch is stretch used to help tight hips, tight glutes, and tight low back symptoms,” says Barry's Portland founding instructor Seth Martin.
In stretching and soothing all of these muscles, the figure-four stretch is a wonderful static stretch to incorporate into post-workout cool-down routines, as well as randomly throughout the day. After all, even if you don’t lead a super active lifestyle, the figure-four stretch can offer relief from simply sitting at your desk all day.
“Ask yourself these two questions; ‘How many hours did I sit today?’ Think about work, driving, activities such as watching sports, TV or plays, eating, and relaxing. Part two, ‘Do I sit with both feet planted flat on the floor, or is one crossed over the other, tucked underneath, or put out to the side?’” Fiala encourages us. These questions shed light onto two very important things: How we sit and for how long determines how our hips and lower back feel.
“Recognizing that a seated position is putting our hips in constant flexion for long periods of time allows us to understand why some of our muscles might be very angry, while others are just completely checked out and turned off,” Fiala explains. In comparison, she points out that standing offers a more neutral musculature position.
“When we sit, our glutes turn off, and the load to stabilize our pelvis is left to our hip flexors, abdominal muscles, and piriformis,” she explains. “The piriformis is a smaller muscle, and now takes on the responsibility of what is usually left to all of the posterior muscles including our glutes (three different muscles) and our hip extensors (6+ muscles). That's a huge job for a little thing! The hip flexors are now also tight which is causing us to slouch and put pressure on our lower backs, so another set of muscles is now essentially overworked and underpaid.”
And that’s if you’re sitting with both feet on the ground. Switching up your seated stature might feel comfortable but it can lead to a slew of other issues, Fiala says. “[When] we position ourselves asymmetrically, [it] inevitably shifts our pelvis and twists our spine,” she reveals. “This all leads to a complex shift of over- and under-active muscles—not all of which can be relieved by a figure-four stretch alone, but it’s a good starting point and a daily habit that can be done without even getting up out of a chair.”
How to properly perform a figure-four stretch
The figure-four stretch can be performed sitting or lying down. From a traditional stance, BowFlex Fitness Advisor and CPT, Amy Schemper, recommends the latter. Find her step-by-step instructions for perfecting the figure four stretch, below.
- Start by lying on your back and crossing one leg over the other, with the top ankle resting on the bottom knee.
- Lift the bottom leg and reach through, grabbing the back of the thigh of the bottom leg.
- Gently pull the bottom leg towards you as you gently press the top knee away from you. (To modify, keep the bottom foot on the ground and/or cross the top leg slightly lower.)
While Schemper recommends supine figure four stretches, she also loves seated variations. “I love a seated figure four stretch not only because it’s a great option for beginners, but there is also a way to work the figure four stretch into your day at the office or at the kitchen table, without having to get down onto the floor,” she says. “In a seated position, cross the right foot over the left knee, and lean forward until you feel the stretch in your low back and glute.”
Common mistakes—and how to fix them
Like any exercise, there's a right and wrong way to do the figure four stretch. "The first mistake I see with a figure four stretch all the time is having no head and neck support," de Winter says. When you reach for your legs to deepen the stretch, you may lift your head and shoulders off the ground, then keep them there. All this does is introduce tension into your upper body. So while your outer hip is getting the relief it deserves, you may just find yourself in need of a neck stretch tomorrow.
Instead, you'll want to keep your neck and head completely relaxed on the floor. But if this feels like a little too much, know that you can always release your legs, place your left foot flat on the floor, and reap all the benefits of the stretch by simply pressing that right knee (gently) away from you with the palm of your right hand.
Another mistake is rounding your back. “If while doing a figure-four stretch, you begin to notice your back rounding, or one hip shifting higher/lower or more forward/back of the other, restrict the range of the stretch,” Fiala says.
And if you find that you’re not flexible enough to perform a figure-four stretch, Fiala says to seek support instead of trying to push through it and accidentally injuring yourself. “If your flexibility limits your ability to reach for the supporting leg while performing the stretch supine lying, find a wall and lay with your feet facing it,” she says. “Move close enough so that when your supporting leg is bent, the foot is flat to the wall to support the stretch.”
Lastly, you want to make sure that you sit in the stretch for long enough for it to be beneficial. Don’t rush it. “Hold the stretch for 45 to 60 seconds, breathing deeply as you do so,” Martin instructs, reminding us to maintain a supported neck and head in the process.
Frequently Asked Questions
How does the figure four stretch benefit hip flexibility?
“Proper hip mobility is something most people lack,” Martin says. “Fortunately, this stretch can help! It’s great for improving the mobility of the hips themselves, but it also helps stretch the glute muscles. Tight hips and tight glutes are some of the leading causes of low back tightness and pain, so doing this stretch consistently could help alleviate some of those symptoms.”
Can this stretch help with sciatica symptoms?
It can help but it won’t resolve symptoms altogether. “When the piriformis is tight, this muscle directly presses down on to the sciatic nerve, contributing to SI Joint pain,” Fiala says. “This doesn’t mean that, alone, stretching the piriformis will alleviate sciatic pain, as stretching can sometimes irritate a muscle and make the tightness and inflammation worse. Sitting is also one of the main contributors to SI joint pain, so you can’t outstretch an overworked position.”
How often should I perform the figure-four stretch?
Every single day! “Stretching daily is beneficial, but it’s important to remember that we can get stretches in short amounts throughout the day,” Schemper says, noting that a dedicated 10-minute stretching routine isn’t required. “Most of us need more flexibility and mobility training in our lives, but finding time to build it into our routine can be tough. Doing the figure four stretch from your bed first thing in the morning or before you go to sleep is a great way to build a few minutes of stretching into your daily lifestyle. Additionally, taking a few breaks from your workday to do the seated figure four stretch will help release the tension you might feel from your workday.”
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