If you’ve read Deadlifts Part 1, you know that there are a few things I look for when determining if a client should deadlift or not. One of those determining factors is an Active Straight Leg Raise test (click here to check it out in the previous blog).
I mentioned that if you don’t clear this test, you probably shouldn’t be deadlifting and I find that to be true in almost all of the cases that I work with. If you’re sitting there thinking “well I’ve never had that mobility it’s not gonna happen now!” I want you to stick with me and give a few of these drills a try. You might be surprised!
The BIGGEST thing here that I’d like to get through to you is this probably isn’t just about stretching. Many times, stiffness turns out to be our body’s way of making up for a lack of stability elsewhere. It’s a protective mechanism. If you can teach your body to stabilize this pattern in the way it “forgot,” you just might have an exercise that gives you full mobility in 60 seconds. Everyone’s case is different and this is where it really helps to go to a pro. I’ve seen a lot of people with a leg raise needing to be fixed and the more experience I have, the better I am at picking the right exercise in the first or second try.
But, for you at home, how do you figure out which exercise or exercises might benefit you? You follow this simple formula: Test, Exercise/Drill, Re-test. You first test your baseline with what you’re trying to improve. In this case, that will be your active straight leg raise. In some cases, if you can’t touch your toes with straight legs from a standing position, a simple toe-touch test can be a good one for you to do quickly (be sure your feet are together EVERY TIME). It’s important to remember to test the SAME WAY every time. Little cheats and changes can lead to an inaccurate read.
After you establish a baseline, try one of these drills below. I’ll go over how many you should try for each type. Then, you retest! First, you’re looking to see improvement in how far you move, if you pass the test, or if you touch your toes if that’s the one you’re doing. If you do – there you go! That’s an exercise for you. Second, I’d like you to ask yourself if it feels better, same, or worse. If you feel tighter or more uncomfortable doing the test than you did before, it may not be your exercise. If you feel better, I’d tell you to keep it. If you feel the same, I’d say maybe explore some others and see if you get a better result from those.
Okay, now that you have your very scientific methodology – let’s dabble in some of these drills!
**I had some last minute technical difficulties with the videos so there are links to them on youtube for reference. I’m getting to the bottom of this and will edit when I find the problem!**
Okay, remember what I said! This may not just be about stretching. Sometimes, it’s about resetting some motor patterns. With modern lifestyles, breathing patterns tend to suffer in many people. Yea, yea, yea – another person telling me to ‘just breathe’ – whatever. But let me tell you why this matters:
Breathing is CORE. You need your deep inner core to breathe properly and you need your deep inner core to stabilize properly. If stiffness is a way of making up for a lack of stability elsewhere…a lack of core stability because of poor breathing mechanics can make you wicked stiff. You with me?
So, here is the simplest breathing drill you can try to improve it. Remember, test first! Then, get set up for this drill. This is crocodile breathing. All you need is a flat floor.
- Lie face down on the floor with your forehead resting on your stacked hands. Keep a neutral spine position (no looking forward).
- Let your legs relax completely. As you breathe, you should feel them melt into the floor more.
- Breathe in and out of your nose WITH your tongue glued to the roof of your mouth and mouth completely closed.
- As you breathe, you should feel your belly expand against the floor when you inhale, and deflate as you exhale.
- Be sure to not let the breath get caught in your beck or shoulders – keep your neck and shoulders as relaxed as you can as you breathe on.
After about 10 breaths or 2 minutes of this, slowly come back upright and retest.
2. Foam Rolling
Sometimes, it is a flexibility thing and some foam rolling can go a long way. However, if you’re thinking it’s just about your hamstrings I want to make sure you don’t get stuck rolling those for forever – check the rest of the muscles about your hips too!
Some rolling to try:
- Inner Thigh
- Upper Back (this one is extra sneaky! This one affects your BREATHING)
Same rules apply, test, drill, retest! If you notice that any of these are exceptionally tight, I would say it’s good practice to roll these out on a regular basis before your workouts.
3. Toe Touch Progression
This one can be magic. It’s directly working on your toe-touch pattern so I recommend using that as a test for this one as well as your leg raise. Keep in mind, you can touch your toes without passing your leg raise – if you’re someone that can do that you’re liking getting a lot of range from your spine and not your hips so DO test both!
After you check baseline, grab a cushion of some sort or a rolled up towel (airex pad shown in the video), pinch the cushion between your knees, prop your toes up on a mat (about one inch) with your feet all the way together. From here, reach tall toward the ceiling, then slide your hands down your legs, going as far as you can without bending your knees (however, they are not locked!). All this time, you should be squeezing the cushion. When you get stuck, squeeze the cushion a little harder and bend your knees to allow your fingertips to touch the ground.
Make sure you stick to that order – no bending your knees early – and get your fingertips to the ground every time if possible. Do 5-8 repetitions of this. After that, you’re doing the exact same thing except with your heels up on the one-inch mat and toes on the floor. The same pattern applies – reach for the ceiling, then slide hands down your legs with straight legs, bending to finish touching the floor.
Be sure to BREATHE the entire time! Don’t hold your breath when you get stuck. Do each type for 5-8 repetitions and then retest. This one sometimes seems to work like magic. If this one works for you, it’s because your hips need to be reminded how to stabilize just a little differently. It also teaches you that hip-hinge I always go on about. When your toes are up and you’re a little off balance, you have no choice but to hinge at your hips to reach your toes.
4. Leg Raise with Band Pull
This one is basically your leg raise test with a little bit of feedback. You’ll set this up like you would for your leg raise test – flat on your back with legs straight and toes pulled towards your shins with feet completely together (toes don’t turn out). Then you’ll have a band positioned overhead – preferably a cook band but any band that allows you to pull your arms straight down by your side.
Just like the last one, the pattern matters!! So make sure you do this EXACTLY in this order:
- Pull arms straight down by your side letting them hover about an inch above the ground
- Keeping your arms there, raise one leg as high as you can keeping it straight and without turning your toes out.
- This is the important bit – bring your leg back down to the floor THEN relax your arms back to the start position
- Repeat 5 to 8 times each side alternating which side you do each rep
- Be sure your legs do not move until your arms are in position and your arms don’t relax until your leg is back to it’s starting position
- Make sure you are breathing all the way through – no holding your breath at any point
After 5-8 each side, retest. If this one cleared up your screen for you, here’s why:
When you pull your arms down and if you keep them straight, your lats have to engage to do so. To engage your lats, your body wants to turn on your abs first to stabilize. So, by moving your arms into place first – we’ve turned your core on. With your core on, those tight legs or hips might realize that they don’t need to stay stiff to stabilize because the core is doing its job. This allows your leg to move through a larger range of motion and teach your brain how to use that range of motion.
5. Leg Lowering with Band Pull
This one is the same idea as the leg raise with band pull only a bit in reverse.
- Start by laying on your back with legs bent and pull the band in a horizontal direction/across the room with straight arms
- You are going to hold tension against the band through this whole exercise
- Bring your legs up as straight as you can with knees in line with your hips and feet flexed. This position will depend a bit on your flexibility
- From here, Keep one leg and your back in the SAME position while you exhale and lower the lower leg as if you were going to the floor
- Be sure to move that leg from the hip only – do not straighten the leg out more or try to reach your toe or any other movement. Imagine that knee and foot are locked out and the leg can only move from the hip joint.
- Only lower the leg as far as you can maintaining your back and other leg position – any further is cheating and doesn’t help you AT ALL. Also, no one should touch the floor because that’s resting/cheating!
Try 5-8 each side for this one then retest. If this one improves your leg raise, it works in the same manner as the leg raise with band pull. Your abs are engaged and you’re teaching your body to move your leg about the hip joint with maintaining a neutral spine.
6. Corner Wall Stretch
This one addressed flexibility. I said it’s not always just about flexibility but sometimes it is! For this one, just find a corner so you can place one leg on the wall while the other leg remains stretched out.
- Lay flat on your back with one leg straight on the wall and the other leg stretched out on the floor.
- Get as close to the wall as you can with both of your legs straight
- Once you find that position where you feel a comfortable stretch, take 10 deep breaths in this position
- After 10 breaths, see if you can move closer to the wall for a deeper stretch and repeat another 10 breaths.
- You can repeat that for as long as you see your legs loosening up without cheating by bending your legs.
Try both legs then retest!
Sometimes, one or more of these drills will work like magic for you. For others, you may need to take a few weeks or even months to really reset things and work on them. These drills have a big neurological component. That means we’re basically rewiring your brain to use your body a bit differently. Because of that, you’ll get the best results if you do these frequently when you’re starting out.
If after one of these drills you can magically touch your toes – I bet you that you’ll wake up tomorrow just as stiff as you were when you started. That’s because it takes frequency to rewire that new range of motion to “stick.” Try to do these once a day or at least before every workout. Again, you don’t have to do all of them – especially if you found one or two to work wonders for you. It should be a 5-minute routine that’s going to set you up for success in the rest of your workout. Give them a shot and tell me which ones work for you!
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