The brand new 12 Minute Athlete Get Bendy 6-Week Flexibility Challenge is here! If you missed the introduction post where we talked about the importance of flexibility and how to incorporate stretching exercises into your workout routine, make sure to check it out here.
Throughout the flexibility challenge, we’ll be focusing on one or two muscle groups each week. We’ll talk about why these areas of your body get tight in the first place, why you should be working on loosening them up, and also show you some of the best stretches that help you to increase your flexibility and get bendy.
For Week One of the challenge, our focus will be working on our hamstrings and calves.
Tightness in Hamstrings and Calves
Hamstrings and calves, also known as the back chain or posterior chain of your legs (also glutes belong here, but we’ll focus on them another week), are muscles that we use in pretty much every exercise we do in 12 Minute Athlete workouts. But the whole back chain works especially hard in squats, lunges, any jumping exercises, and all other leg exercises.
Even if your focus is on getting stronger and faster and you never seem to have time for stretching, you should know that tightness in those muscles can really slow down your progress.
For example, you really can’t do a proper pistol squat or L-sit if your hamstrings are tight, and shortened and tight calf muscles may not let you to do a full squat without your heels coming off the ground.
What Makes Hamstrings Tight?
Although running has never been my thing, those of you who do enjoy it should pay special attention to stretching the back chain of your legs. The same is true for anyone who sits a lot–and that unfortunately means the majority of us.
Tight hamstrings can be caused by many things, but one of the main reasons is that we don’t use their full range of motion. If we do a similar repetitive motion all the time, like running, the hamstrings shorten and get tight.
Similarly, when we’re sitting all day long, our hamstrings are in the same position all the time, without going through the full range of motion (or, any motion for that matter).
And if you sit the whole day and only get up to run for an hour… that could be the worst combination for your poor hamstrings.
But tight hamstrings are not only runners’ and sedentary peoples’ problem. If you do a lot of low lower body exercises like the ones we do in most of the HIIT workouts, you should make sure to stretch your hamstrings and calves on a regular basis.
Five Stretches to Loosen Up Tight Hamstrings and Calves
Below are the five stretches we’ll be working on during the first week of the flexibility challenge.
The difficulty of these stretches varies: Level 1 designates the easiest stretches and the Level 5 the most difficult stretches. If you can’t do the Level 5 stretches, don’t worry — work on the easier ones for now, and as your flexibility improves, move on to more advanced ones.
Hold each stretch for about 30–45 seconds, 2–3 rounds.
Basic Calf Stretch (two variations)
Difficulty level: 1
If you just did a bunch of jumping or running exercises, this calf stretch is a must!
How to do it: Stand in front of a wall. Put your heel down and push your toes against the wall, keeping your knee locked. The closer you are to the wall, the deeper the stretch will be.
In another version of the same stretch, slightly bend your knee. The stretch now moves a bit lower, to your Achilles area.
Standing Hamstring Stretch
Difficulty level: 2–3, depending on the height of the surface
This is a basic hamstring stretch that should be your go-to for working on those shortened hamstring muscles.
How to do it: Stand with one foot on a higher surface, like a chair, desk or countertop. The higher the surface, the deeper the stretch will be. Lean forward and stretch through your hamstrings. Try to keep your knee straight and reach your toes. If your toes are too far, put your hands on your ankle, shin or just above the knee.
Lying Hamstring Stretch
Difficulty level: 3
For this exercise, use a resistance band, jump rope or a towel to help to deepen the stretch.
How to do it: Lie down on your back. Extend one leg out and wrap the band, jump rope, or towel around the foot of the other leg. Press the leg straight while holding onto the ends of the towel. Relax into the stretch and pull the leg closer toward your face as you try and keep your lower back in contact with the floor.
Standing Pike Stretch
Difficulty level: 4
This stretch may look and feel super awkward, but it really helps to improve your hamstring flexibility.
How to do it: Stand in front of a wall with your feet together, then lean over while crossing your arms above your head and pushing your upper back against the wall. Slowly slide yourself down the wall while keeping your legs straight. For deeper stretch, take a step closer to the wall and bring your head as closer to the floor as possible.
Advanced Stretch: Front Splits
Difficulty level: 5
If you’re more flexible and you already have fairly good hamstring flexibility, front splits are one of the best stretches to spend your time on. But please, don’t jump into this stretch first thing! Be sure to warm up with other stretches beforehand.
How to do it: Get into a lunge position, then slowly slide your front leg in front of you and your back leg straight behind. Keep your chest up and open. Square your hips so that they’re facing forward, then go down as far as you can.
If you want to learn the exact series of stretches I used to be able to do a front split, check out the Split Series in this post.
Flexibility Challenge Week 1 Homework
Here is your homework for Week 1 of the Flexibility Challenge! We will build on this homework each week, so you’ll be doing these stretches the next week in addition to new stretches. We promise that you’ll be way bendier by the end of the challenge!
3+ days a week:
Hold the first four stretches 30–45 seconds, 2–3 rounds.
If you can, do the Level 5 stretch as well. If you’re not able to do it yet, don’t stress about it — just keep working on the other stretches and you’ll eventually be able to do the advanced stretch too.
Make sure to post all your stretching photos and videos in the 12 Minute Athlete Facebook group to get feedback and support from us and your fellow athletes.
And have fun!