Anyone who sits for long periods of time — whether you work a desk job or spend a lot of time in the car — knows the discomfort that can creep up in the lower body after hours of inactivity. Tight or painful hips and aching glutes are some unfortunate side effects of our sedentary lifestyles.
Hips can also become tight from overuse during exercise, and not properly warming up or stretching afterward.
The solution to these aches and pains is stretching. But getting a good stretch in the hips and glutes is sometimes a hard task. While there are many well-known stretches for the quads and hamstrings, stretches for the hips and glutes are performed less frequently. That’s why so many of us experience tightness in these areas without any specific cause or injury.
One of the best stretches that I often suggest to clients is the figure four. It’s a great way to stretch and improve mobility in the outer hips and glutes.
What does the figure four do for the body?
The figure four stretches the outsides of your hips as well as your butt. The stretch specifically targets the gluteus medius, which is the muscle that aids in hip movement and hip mobility and is responsible for stabilizing the hip joint.
Sitting all day can lead to tight hips, which makes it harder to activate the glute muscles — hence the "dead butt syndrome" many of us suffer from. Stretching the hips daily can help combat this.
You will feel looser and have a greater range of motion in the hip region after performing this stretch. Increased flexibility means a decreased chance of injury, so consistently incorporating stretching into your daily routine can benefit you in the long run.
The common mistakes people make when doing the figure four
For those who do not consider themselves flexible, the figure four may seem intimidating. I find that a lot of my clients try to force their bodies into a perfect “4” shape; however, everyone’s bodies are different, and sometimes a stretch must be modified.
Forcing yourself into a certain position is uncomfortable and can sometimes cause pain in the hips and knees. These injuries can be avoided if you listen to your body and adjust accordingly.
- Adjust the foot resting on the mat according to your flexibility level. Moving it further away from your body will help you avoid a forced position.
- Be sure to keep both feet flexed to ensure you are engaging the correct muscles.
- Listen to your body; you should be able to comfortably hold the position for at least 10 seconds.
How to do a modified figure four
If your hips are super tight, it may not be the best idea to jump into a deep stretch. Modifying a stretch is usually pretty simple, especially when it comes to the figure four.
Instead of lifting both feet off the ground, try keeping your stabilizing foot on the ground. You can use your arm to press open your knee for a deeper stretch. This will improve stability while giving you complete control over how far you open your hips. And remember: You can always shift your resting leg further from your body — the closer it is to your glutes, the deeper the stretch.
How to perform the figure four stretch correctly
When you’re confident that you’re ready for the figure four, make sure to follow these five simple steps:
- Lie down on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor in front of you.
- Cross your left foot over your right knee.
- Grab your right leg with both hands and pull your right knee in toward your upper body until you feel a deep stretch in the left side of your hip.
- Hold this position for 30 seconds, taking deep breaths.
- Return to the starting position and switch sides.
4 exercises that will help you perform the figure four
Stretching your hips is extremely important in maintaining a healthy level of flexibility. These stretches will improve hip mobility and help you get deeper into the figure four.
Sit on your butt with your back straight. Bring your feet together so that the bottoms are touching and your knees fall out to the sides. Hold your feet together with your hands and actively reach your thighs toward the ground. Slowly lean forward to get a deeper stretch. Hold for 20 seconds.
Seated forward fold
While sitting with your legs straight out in front of you, begin to bend at the hips. Reach your arms forward and relax the shoulders as you reach toward your toes. Flex your feet and feel a stretch behind the legs. Hold for 20 seconds.
To help loosen up the outer hip for the figure four stretch, sit up tall with your legs extended in front of you. Hug your right knee into your chest and place the right foot on the outside of the left thigh. Hold on to the right knee with the left arm as you turn toward the right and look over the right shoulder. Place the right fingertips onto the ground behind you and hold this twist for 20 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
With your hips square and your shoulders back, lunge forward with your right foot. Make sure to keep your right foot flat on the ground as you balance on the toes of the left foot, reaching the left heel toward the back of the room. Lean forward until you feel the stretch in your hips. Hold for 20 seconds. Repeat on the other side.