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There are plenty of exercise systems and individual stretches that can be used very effectively as ways to improve flexibility and range of motion. In terms of systems, we have things like yoga and tai chi; dynamic and ballistic; isometric and PNF. In terms of individual stretches, the sky’s the limit – there are thousands of them.
One, however, stands head and shoulder above them all. It makes you look like a pretzel and is becoming increasingly famous for its ability to simultaneously work multiple muscles while counteracting the effects of walking, running and generally living our daily lives.
We are, of course, talking about the Brettzel stretch.
It is a single, full-body movement that undoes a lot of the damage that comes part and parcel with being a part of this glorious world. Invented (or at least popularised) by strength and conditioning specialist and physiotherapist Gary Cook – and, incidentally, named after his friend, Brett Jones – the Brettzel stretch stretches you basically from head to toe. Or, at least, from shoulders to ankles.
Anybody who walks, runs or jogs a lot should pay attention to the Brettzel stretch. In fact, everyone should, but those who frequently pound pavements and pathways will benefit especially.
What Is So Special About the Brettzel Stretch?
The Brettzel stretch works a very large area of musculature and soft tissue. Many stretches are specific – which is often needed, of course. However, few exercises work so much at once, in such a beneficial way, as the Brettzel stretch. It actually stretches movement patterns in such a way as to target a whole chain of muscles.
The chain of muscles in question is the anterior chain – the front of the body. Although the Brettzel is a full body stretch, it targets the front of the hip, the upper thigh and the mid-spine region in particular. It will help to mobilize the spine whilst improving the flexibility of the thighs and hips, which many people sorely need. It will always target and open up the core and pecs, which are notoriously tight areas in office workers from sitting and reaching forward.
For those of us who either spend a lot of time sitting around or taking part in linear sports like running and cycling, this is particularly important. These areas will be tight.
It sounds a lot like I’m saying, ‘if you either sit around all day, or spend a lot of time on your feet (so everyone, really), then you should do the Brettzel stretch’. Well, basically, yeah – you should.
Most of us, for one reason or another, spend a lot of time crunched and hunched in on ourselves, creating tightness through the upper body and hips. This is one reason that elderly people have often been traditionally known for a ‘crone’s hunch’ – a hunchback into old age. The muscles of the back are weak, the spine curves forwards, and the muscles of the front upper body grow too tight, pulling everything forwards and inwards.
As well as the opening through the anterior chain, the Brettzel stretch also offers a fantastic rotation to the upper body, which helps in opening up the chest and brings a much-needed twist to the thoracic spine. This takes the body into a different plane of motion to that typically experienced through common activities like running or walking, thus promoting greater symmetry. Many yoga instructors, coaches and physiotherapists will recommend using the Brettzel stretch in cool-down routines several times per week, especially post-run.
How to Perform a Brettzel Stretch
As you may have guessed, performing the Brettzel stretch looks a lot like folding your body into a pretzel shape. From here, you rotate around your mid-spine. As a dynamic stretch, it will really open up your anterior chain and take a lot of pressure out of the spine.
However, the idea of simply folding your body into a pretzel shape may be slightly reductive. To properly perform a Brettzel stretch:
- Begin lying on your side. It may help to use a yoga mat for comfort and stability.
- Your hips should be stacked, one directly on top of the other, as should your shoulders.
- If needed, use a pad or cushion to support your kneck.
- From here, bend your top leg. Bring it in towards your chest, a little past 90 degrees. Grip it with your bottom hand.
- Bring your bottom knee down and back. Reach down with your top hand and take hold of that ankle. Feel free to use a strap or towel if this is too much at first.
- This is where the stretch begins. Relax and exhale softly. As you exhale, rotate your top shoulder back and down, aiming at the ground.
- Take five to ten breaths. Rotate a little lower as your body softens with each exhalation.
- Aim, ultimately, to be able to touch your top shoulder to the ground.
- When you are at your final range of motion, back off a little. Rotate your shoulder back a little less fully. Try kicking your bottom leg away from your hand. This will move your knee back and increase the stretch through your lower body.
- From this position, try to relax your shoulder back down once more, taking another few breaths.
- This is your final pose. Hold it for 1-3 minutes, or for as long as is comfortable.
- Remember your exhalations. Soften your body a little further with each one.
- Release, change sides and repeat on the other side.
Perform this a few times per week and you will begin to feel more open, with far less tension through your anterior chain – your chest, thighs and core will feel looser and more open, and your spine will feel more fluid and less achy.