On today's episode of "this common activity is actually hurting you," we will be unpacking the figure four stretch! You may have done this stretch in yoga class, at the advisement of your physical trainer, or maybe you just saw it as an easy way to stretch your hips. Regardless of what sparked you to add this stretch to your repertoire of movements, it's probably setting you up for pain and suffering later.
I know this next bit is like beating a dead horse coming from me, but NOT ALL STRETCHING IS GOOD FOR YOU. The best advice I have from the get-go is to really assess why you are wanting to stretch. For some, it just feels good. You may have some pain or popping in an area and it's a knee-jerk reaction to want to stretch the area.
But I would like you all to think about WHY many people feel like stretching is beneficial. Let's take the good old hip. You do your figure four stretch to get some relief in your hip joint. But in this scenario (which is actually the case for many people) that your hip is actually too loose! Your hip discomfort might really be stemming from the fact that it's UNSTABLE. When you stretch your hip, it's making your muscles, tendons and ligaments taught, giving the illusion of more stability. In that 30 seconds, your hip feels great because finally all of the tissues are holding the joint stable. But as soon as you relax from that stretch, not only are you back to square one with an unstable hip complex, you may have just made it even more unstable.
This is something I consider before ever giving a patient a stretch. To start, you want to make sure that the true problem is that there is tightness. The next thing to consider is whether the stretch is actually stretching the correct tissue.
So now how does this all relate back to the figure four stretch? Well, to get a proper diagnosis, you'll probably want to talk to a physical therapist and make sure you really should be stretching your hips. You definitely do not want to be stretching anything that's already unstable. The next piece is to perform the figure four stretch in such a way that it is not jamming your bone into the hip socket and creating an overstretched hip capsule. On a quick side note, I think this is actually a big cause of people with femoral acetabular impingement!
So without further ado, here's an alternative to the figure four stretch that is a safer option! Start by lying down on your back with your legs extended out. Bring one knee to your chest and gently pull your knee toward your chest with your hands. Another way to make sure your hip is staying in the proper place is to take one of your hands and push it down and away from you on your hip crease. Once you feel like you're in a comfortable position, you can slowly pull your knee in toward your opposite shoulder. This stretch should feel more superficial than the figure four stretch and there should be no pinching or pain.
Keep in mind that it's always best to consult a health care professional before adding new exercises or stretches to your routine. If you've given this figure four stretch alternative a try, let us know what you thought!
Remember, we heal smarter, not harder,
Dr. Justin C. Lin