When it comes to desired physical characteristics, flexibility falls down the priority list, as most guys would much rather have killer abs and ripped arms than be able to touch their toes with ease. However, a lack of focus on flexibility may be hindering results in the gym. Heavy workouts combined with the typical desk posture from the 9-to-5 grind can stifle strength gains and line you up for an injury down the road.
Unfortunately, simply bending over and touching your toes post-workout isn’t going to do the trick. It comes down to the right exercises and time. To help you decide where you need some extra work, we’ve outlined five flexibility tests that examine nearly every part of the body. Go through each test and find out where you fall short. Then, prioritize those areas to help increase your flexibility and ward off potential injury.
1. Lying Straight-Leg Raise
Hang around the gym long enough and you’re bound to hear someone complain about tight hamstrings. In reality, the hamstrings might not be tight at all. The lying straight-leg raise is the perfect test to determine if your hamstrings are the culprit, or if they’re really masking a deficiency somewhere else.
Directions: Lie on your back with your legs extended and hands by your sides. It’s important to keep your knees extended and back flat throughout this assessment. Keeping the heel of one leg in contact with the ground, raise your other leg as high as possible. Hold it for a three-count and note how high your were able to go. Slowly lower and repeat with the same side to verify the results before switching sides.
Results: The goal for this test is to get your hip as close to 90 degrees as possible. This involves getting your leg to perpendicular with the ground. Those that fall in the 70- to 80-degree range need a bit of work. If you’re having trouble getting above 40 to 50 degrees, your hamstrings need some serious attention. Those that are blowing past 90 degrees with ease can stop with the toe touches; your hamstrings have plenty of flexibility.
2. Thomas Test
Unfortunately, most guys spend the bulk of their day in a seated position. This posture shortens the hip flexors and can put the hips and the lower back in a world of hurt. Since the hip flexors can change pelvic alignment, they can affect strength and performance all the way up and down the body. The Thomas Test is a fantastic assessment, since it can highlight both tight hip flexors and tight quadriceps.
Directions: Lie on your back with your hips sitting at the very end of a massage table and your feet hanging off the end. Pull one knee into your chest and allow your other leg to hang freely. Have a training partner note where your down leg is hanging. Repeat on the opposite leg.
Results: If you’re like most guys, your upper thigh won’t get to parallel with the table. This is a good indicator that your hip flexors are tighter than normal. If your upper thigh gets to parallel with the table or slightly lower, you likely have sufficient flexibility in your hip. Also, take a look at your knee angle as your leg dangles. If it doesn’t relax at 90 degrees or slightly less, chances are your quads are too tight.
3. Lying Arm Raise
Typical computer posture isn’t the only culprit to blame for rounded shoulders. A heavy reliance on the bench press and other major chest-builders help to pull the shoulders forward and create a hunched appearance. Over time, this can lead to injury at the shoulder joint and also a rounded torso that ruins all of your hard work in the gym. The lying arm raise helps to assess shoulder flexibility and indicate when it might be time to shift focus away from the chest-builders and strengthen the upper back.
Directions: Lie on your back with your feet flat on the floor. Raise your arms straight in front of your chest and turn your palms to face each other. Keeping your back flat on the ground and your elbows locked out, slowly raise your arms overhead, attempting to lay them on the ground.
Results: Passing this test requires laying your arms all the way overhead without bending your elbows and having them come to a full stop on the ground. The majority of guys probably aren’t going to be able to make it that far without bending their elbows. The culprits are likely tight lats and pecs. These muscles rotate your shoulders and arms inward, making it difficult to fully open up your chest.
4. Overhead Squat
Although it may look like a piece of cake, the overhead squat is extremely difficult to perform, especially when done properly. Since the movement involves the entire body, it can reveal limitations in many areas, including the ankles, knees, hips, and shoulder joints.
Directions: Grab a dowel rod and place your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Hold the dowel rod straight overhead, being sure to keep your elbows straight. Separate your feet about hip width apart. Perform a series of squats, trying to keep the dowel rod straight overhead.
Results: At the ankles, your heels should remain in contact with the ground at all points during the movement. If they start to rise toward the bottom of the squat, you might have some tightness in your calves. Perform the movement with a wedge underneath your heels and see if that fixes your form. If it does, the calves are likely the issue.
During the movement your back should stay completely flat. However, at the bottom of the movement, many guys will see their tailbone tuck under and experience a rounding at the bottom of the squat. This is typically a sign of tight hamstrings and weak core stability.
Finally, at the shoulder joints, the bar should remain straight over your head the entire time. If the bar falls forward, you likely have a tight chest and lats, making it difficult to open up your shoulders overhead.
5. Inline Lunge
Although it may look more like a balance test, the inline lunge is a flexibility assessment that can identify differences between the right and left side of the body. By being forced to move in a completely straight line, it’s easy to pick up on side-to-side weight shifts during the exercise.
Directions: Hold a dowel rod with both hands on your back as if you were going to do a back squat. Stand with one foot on a line (either draw one out with tape or string or use lines in the floor), take a step forward (about 2-3 feet) with the other leg, making sure to place it on the line as well. With your feet in place and your chest tall, slowly bend your front leg and lower your back knee to the floor in a lunging motion. Stop just before your back knee touches the ground and repeat several times before switching legs.
Results: If you’re among the majority of guys, you likely will have one dominant side that will feel more comfortable than the other. Although there are several areas to watch, the most common are the shoulders, lower back, and knees.
Throughout the exercise, the shoulders should be tall, not hunched forward. If your shoulders tend to round forward during the movement, there’s a good chance that your chest and lats need some extra work.
The lower back should remain flat through the inline lunge as well. In most cases, the lower back will excessively arch, particularly at the bottom of the movement. In that scenario, the hip flexors are generally tight restricting the hips and not allowing them to move as the back leg goes into extension.
Finally, the knees should track straight out over the toes during the exercise. If they dive in or out, it’s a sign that there is likely an imbalance with the muscles of that particular leg. In the majority of cases, the knee will dive inward, indicating that the inner thigh and adductor muscles are too tight pulling the knee in during the lunge.