Maybe you haven’t touched your toes since high school, or perhaps you glare with disbelief (and a little bit of envy) at the extra-bendy members of your yoga class as they twist their limbs into a perfect lotus pose with ease. Given our desk-bound lifestyles, it’s not surprising that our collective flexibility is a bit lacking. According to Stefan Matte, co-founder and head of product development at LYMBR stretch studio, even those of us who work out regularly are likely neglecting stretching, using our limited time to squeeze in cardio or strength training. “Most people who go to a gym and exercise are really satisfying the strengthening phase, not necessarily engaging the stretching phase,” he says.
Your bendiness isn’t all predetermined, though, and there are things you can do to improve. “The most important thing is consistent action, every day, in the direction of your flexibility and mobility goals to force adaptation in your muscles and joints,” says Alain Saint-Dic, head of training and development at Stretch Relief. While basic stretching will work, he says that certain tools can help the process along: “They either support the flexibility shortcomings that your body may have in a particular range of motion, such as yoga blocks, or they allow you to push past what your body might give you without the use of flexibility tools.” Below, Matte, Saint-Dic, and four more flexibility pros share their recommendations for everything you need to get more Gumby-like.
Nearly everyone we spoke with mentioned using a strap to assist with stretching tight areas of the body. For example, if you’re looking to increase your hamstring flexibility, you can lay on your back with one leg in the air and gently use the strap to pull it toward you. “Until your toes are a little closer to your nose, this will assist you in reaching certain areas to get an effective stretch,” says Vanessa Chu, co-founder and COO of Stretch*d.
While there are lots of different straps to choose from, Keren Day, a chiropractor and co-founder of Racked Stretch, likes the TheraBand with different-sized loops for holding on to or wrapping around your foot during a stretch. “The loops provide a lot of options to stretch different areas, no matter how flexible or not you are, and they have a bit more give to them,” she says. “This lets you push the end range of your stretch without really allowing you to get to the point of injury.” Some experts like stretchy resistance bands (like these), but, as Matte explains, a canvas strap like the TheraBand ensures that when you pull on it, all of your effort goes straight to your muscles instead of diffusing in the band.
Yogis will recognize these blocks, which act as supports in different poses. In a forward fold, for example, they shorten the distance between your hands and the ground. Using a block in this way is better than trying to force your body into a certain position: “Don’t shy away from the props,” says Laurel Snyder, a stretching instructor at Outer Reach. “Let them help you.” The blocks ensure you’re stretching the right muscles in a certain pose, not creating instabilities by overcompensating with other muscles, she says.
Before your stretching session, experts recommend prepping your muscles with self-massage with a foam roller. “One thing that massage-type tools can do relatively easily is improve the circulation of blood to the muscles,” says Saint-Dic. “This helps to get them warm, often leading to an overall better stretch.” You’ll want to go gently over your muscles, not pushing into the roller with so much force that you’re grimacing in pain. “The trick is to gently release your body weight onto it [so] you can gauge how much pressure you need,” says Kika Wise, founder of Kika Stretch Studios. For beginners, Day suggests sticking with a basic foam roller, like this one. “The more spikes and grooves that you see, the more the muscles are stimulated,” she says. “This may sound great, but can be painful at first and may lead to injury, so definitely ease your way in with flatter, more basic tools.”
If you’re more experienced with foam rollers or know you can tolerate a more intense massage, Saint-Dic likes the very firm TriggerPoint roller, which has raised nubs and grooves for deeper pressure. Wise uses these types of rollers herself because “they get into the tissue a little bit better.”
Foam rollers are great for releasing large muscle groups in the body, but if you want to focus on one area, experts suggest using a massage ball. “It’s going to feel a little bit more intense because the object is smaller,” says Wise. A tennis or lacrosse ball will do in a pinch, but Snyder specifically recommends these “Pinky” balls that are a staple in some Pilates classes. “They’re a little bit harder than a tennis ball but still have a softness to them,” she says.
Chu says this peanut-shaped double roller is “perfect for the spine, neck, or calf area.” She recommends the green “soft” version for such sensitive areas.
We’ve written about powerful percussive massagers before for soothing sore muscles. Our experts say they’re also helpful for warming up before stretching — like a foam roller on steroids. “Percussive tools can help loosen the muscles and increase agility,” says Day. “You can use them before a stretch to help activate the muscle and prepare it for a stretch. This activation will get blood flowing and get the muscles ready to fire.” Chu adds that devices like the Hypervolt can “help break up fascia and muscle adhesions,” types of scar tissue that can limit your flexibility.
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