“Some of the most common limitations I see in someone who is looking to increase their flexibility in a forward fold are tight hamstrings, tight hips, or a weak and tight back,” says Rachel Dugan, a Premium trainer on Kemtai (a desktop-based fitness app that uses your computer's camera to provide real-time feedback and guidance as you work out).
Siddharth Tambar, MD, a board-certified rheumatologist with Chicago Arthritis and Regenerative Medicine notes that this limited mobility comes down to both the spine and hamstrings — both of which are targeted in the coming suggestions. These are also both impacted from (you guessed it!) a lot of sitting. “The act of forward folding involves stretching the muscular system, including the connective tissue of the feet, legs, the entire back, neck, and head,” he says. “It is a pretty comprehensive stretch and represents both flexibility and strength.”
The fact that many of us spend long periods of time at our desks with hunched-over backs and flexed hips explains why you might be experiencing limited mobility in these areas, and working toward the full form of a forward fold is a great way to remedy these issues.
Benefits of a forward fold
Dr. Tambar says to think of this as lengthening, not stretching. “In Sanskrit, the word uttanasana [forward fold] roughly translates to intense or deliberate lengthening,” he says. “If performed appropriately and with guidance, it can help stretch hamstrings, lengthen the back and help counter the effects of bad posture from prolonged sitting in front of a computer.”
In addition to correcting the effects of chronic desk-itis, he points out that a more mobile, more flexible, longer forward fold “can help maintain height and stability in one's spine and decrease its susceptibility to injury.” Additionally, if you’ve got healthy hamstrings, Dr. Tambar says this “directly and indirectly contributes to spinal and pelvic stabilization.” What's more?“Many people experience improvement in their back pain with an increase in mobility and flexibility of their back and hamstrings," he says.
How to improve your range of motion in a forward fold
1. Warm up
Don’t just jump in there cold! Dugan notes that “Prepping your body with a cat-cow pose will help you find a neutral pelvis position,” and that downward dog can help you find hamstring length. “Many of us are quite familiar with the standing hamstring exercises,” says Dr. Tambar. “I would recommend doing those at work after an adequate period of warm-up. Regular use yields more erect posture and less back pain in the long run.”
2. Soften your knees
According to Dugan, adding a slight bend in your knees will “allow your spine to fall a bit more easily and embrace its natural curvature,” while also taking tension out of your spine and giving you more range. “We don’t want to pull on and aggravate the muscles in our back,” she says. “Over time, as your flexibility increases, you can work on taking that soft bend out of your knees and progressing towards straight legs.”
3. Adjust your feet
“Playing around with positioning one's feet (how far apart they are) may help one achieve a better stretch,” says Dr. Tambar.
4. Grab onto something for support
Sometimes you might need a little extra support. The blocks “can be taken away as you continue to progress deeper in your stretch,” says Dugan.
Use the floor, wall, or a chair. “For most people new to hamstring stretching or lengthening, I would recommend the lying down hamstring exercises where they are holding up their legs, or against a wall, or with the aid of a strap,” says Dr. Tambar. “One can achieve similar results while sitting on a chair. The idea is to perform these exercises while holding the spine in a neutral position.”
5. Be consistent
Practice daily. “As with anything, consistency is key,” says Dugan. “Incorporating stretching into your morning or nightly routine, even just several times a week, can help you see more notable changes in your range of motion.”
6. Don't push it
And finally, don’t push it. We know you’re eager to get those finger tips to the ground, but don’t rush it. “Do not push this stretch till your body is ready,” warns Dr. Tambar. “The idea is not to touch the ground or feet [immediately], but to slowly build to it. Even a halfway pose results in significant stretch and release.” And that’s the real goal here! “Pushing yourself beyond your body's capacity can cause significant injury.”
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