Stretching For Strength: 5 Flexibility Standards

Fingertop CrowstandThis is a guest post from our friend Al Kavadlo of Al has a new book out Stretching Your Boundaries – Flexibility Training for Extreme Calisthenic Strength that’s well worth a look. You can catch Al at the yet-to-be-officially-announced PrimalCon New York later on this year where he’ll be a guest presenter. Stay tuned for all the details.

If you look around any commercial gym, you’re likely to see a wide variety of activities taking place: strength training, aerobics, simulated bicycle riding, people doing god-knows-what on a vibrating stability platform, and of course, good ol’ stretching. Most gyms even have a designated stretch area. Though you sometimes see serious-minded folk in these rooms, the stretching area in many fitness facilities seems to be primarily for people who want to screw around, be seen at the gym and feel like they accomplished something productive.

For this reason (as well as others), a lot of serious strength training enthusiasts are quick to overlook or even decry flexibility training. Some even argue that static stretching will actually hinder your strength gains and athletic performance. Though I believe stretching is generally more helpful than harmful, there is some truth to these claims. Prolonged static stretching immediately prior to intense dynamic movement can be a recipe for injury. For example, performing ten minutes of static hamstring stretches right before a set of plyometric jump squats may relax your legs too much, temporarily reducing their ability to explosively contract. When you suddenly go into that jump, you may pull a muscle or land poorly.

This does not mean that all static stretching is a waste of time! Everything has its time and place. It’s usually a bad idea to eat right before swimming, but eating is generally pretty important – and so is stretching! In fact, it’s possible that a lack of mobility may be holding you back from reaching your strength potential. Without a full range of motion, fundamental exercises like squats, bridges and even push-ups can’t be fully utilized. Focusing on mobility may ultimately improve your strength in the long run.

Pistol Squat

Though primitive humans were unlikely to have participated in any sort of formal mobility routine (or formal exercise for that matter), people have mindfully practiced stretching for thousands of years. It’s been a part of various cultures and societies all over the world since the earliest human civilizations. Even animals stretch; since the dawn of movement, stretching has been a part of living.

While a few folks may naturally be tight, the cause of most peoples’ stiffness is simply years of neglect. Your body adapts to your actions (or inactions). If you move often, you will get good at moving, but if you’ve spent most of your life sitting in a chair, chances are your hips, hamstrings, shoulders and upper back have tightened up as a result. It takes a long time for this to happen, and it can take just as long to undo. Many of us could benefit from giving extra time and attention to improving our mobility, as well as making a point to avoid activities that can make matters worse.

Genetics also play an undeniable role in everything related to how our bodies look and move, including our flexibility potential. Some people are just naturally flexible and really don’t need to stretch much at all, but they are the outliers. If you’re one of these lucky few, don’t take it for granted. Mobility tends to be a “use it or lose it” sort of thing and while some folks are naturally more “bendy” than others, your genetics don’t give you an excuse to be inflexible. Though the spectrum of mobility is quite large, we all have the potential to achieve a full, healthy range of motion in all of our joints. There are certain minimum standards that one should aim to meet in order to possess the basic foundation of mobility that is required for healthy, functional movement patterns. Any healthy, able-bodied person should be perform the following:

1. Bend over and touch your toes with your knees locked.

Toe Touch

2. Get into a deep squat position with both heels flat on the floor and your calves and hamstrings in contact with one another.


3. Lie flat on your back with your legs straight and lower back in contact with the ground. Reach your arms overhead with both wrists flat on the floor behind you with minimal flexion at the elbows.

Arms overhead

4. From a standing position, pick up one leg and place the outside of your ankle on a bench, bar or other object that is just below waist height. Now rotate your hip to touch your knee to the object as well (your shin should be perpendicular to your body.)

Leg stretch

5. Reach both arms behind your back – one from above, one from below – and touch the tips of your middle fingers together.

Touch fingers behind back

Nowadays, most adults are unlikely to pass all of these requirements, so don’t feel bad if you’ve failed at one or more of these tests. Instead, use these standards as a template to gauge which areas you need to work on. Once you identify your tight areas, you can work toward gradually improving your range of motion.

For more information, check out Al’s latest book, Stretching Your Boundaries – Flexibility Training for Extreme Calisthenic Strength.

TAGS:  guest post

About the Author

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

84 thoughts on “Stretching For Strength: 5 Flexibility Standards”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Al Kavadlo is a sick human being! A pistol squat on a bar? Grinning muscle-ups? Yeah, that ain’t me.

    1. To me it appeared to be the essence of balance, strength, and flexibility – something we humans could all achieve (even as older adults).

  2. I can do #5 with my left arm underneath and my right arm on the top, but not vice-versa. Any ideas what that means?

    1. I’ve been doing some symmetry testing lately, and have found this is true for myself as well (well I can’t touch my fingers in either case, but with my right arm on the bottom, it’s much worse).

      I thought this was really intriguing and have been testing it on other people. What I’ve found (from a relatively small sampling, admittedly), is that people tend to be much tighter on one side, and that the tightness tends to be on the dominant side (unlike weakness/lack of stability, which tends to be on the non-dominant side – so this was counter-intuitive to me at first). Are you right-handed?

      1. I’m naturally left-handed, but was forced in childhood to use right-hand for writing and even in some sports. So I’m fairly ambidextrous at this point.

      2. Michele, I think that’s exactly it. I have an elbow injury at the moment, but even at the best of times I have to work a LOT harder to keep my dominant side flexible– I do calligraphy & illustration at a drawing table, which requires some forward & internal rotation at the shoulder for hours on end. I have to stretch multiple times a day to keep my spine from turning into a twisted, overcooked shrimp!

      3. This matches my experiences. I have a much greater degree of flexibility on the left side of my body than my right (right-handed) to the extent that putting on my left sock is easy and putting on my right sock takes some work.

    2. Me too. I’m guessing we’re more flexible on one side- probably our dominant side?

    3. From a Chiropractor’s perspective, this could mean subluxation in your spine. The lack of symmetry is a sign that asymptomatic nerve compression is also taking place.

    4. Same thing here. Doing it with the right arm behind is uncomfortable. But pushing harder every time will help achieve the goal. It will take days but it will work.

  3. I’ve been a big fan of Al and his methods! Great to see him on the Apple.

  4. I successfully managed all 5 tests simply by falling down the stairs.

  5. “Though the spectrum of mobility is quite large, we all have the potential to achieve a full, healthy range of motion in all of our joints.”

    A quote like this simply means that the author hasn’t met me. As a kindergardener, I couldn’t sit crosslegged. Nor could I squat on my heels like the baseball catcher I desperately wanted to be. I would love to hear of any methodology/program that any naturally stiff people have used. In the past I had been religious about static stretching and yoga for years at a time, to no effect. None.

    I suspect it’s like weight control: before Paleo/Primal, nothing really worked. Somebody could tell me my ideal weight, but didn’t have a prescription that could really get me there. Now this article comes along with stretching standards that are nice, but no program to get me there, other than static stretching that seems to be ineffective for some people. So what do I do?


    1. Guess it’s because they want you to buy the book…check out

    2. I am the same way. I could never do a backbend in dance class or the splits as a cheerleader, and I can’t do any of these flexibility stretches either. Tight musculature runs in my family. I work all the time to loosen things up, but mostly I just have to live with the tightness.

    3. There’s a genetic component to stretching that’s rarely talked about.

      As a kid in martial arts class, I envied guys who could do splits and side-kick above their head without even trying. I could just barely spread my legs to 90-degrees.

      So I bought a leg spreader and spent 30 minutes per day using it. Everyday. For over a year.

      In the end, I could still only spread my legs to slightly under 100-degrees – nowhere near a split, and barely any improvement at all considering the pain and work that went into increasing my stretch.

      Interestingly, my father was a martial arts instructor for decades and also could get anywhere near a split. It’s genetic.

      1. But for most people you can at least get more flexible than you currently are which leads to overall health and increased strength based on full range of motion. The primal blueprint is all about improving your gene expression rather than chalking it up to bad genetics.

    4. You should try foam rolling and, if you can afford it, 10 sessions with a good ROLFer. Both of these can help loosen up connective tissue and will make a huge difference in your flexibility. It’s like taking the parking brake off of your car before pushing down the gas. For foam rolling ideas and other wacky, but effective techniques check out

      1. The trouble is that mobilitywod asssumes you have much much more flexibility than I have in order to start. What I need is someone who takes me from where I am to a greater flexibility. 15 years of physiotherapy did nothing either. So I guess that if there is a process it must be different from what the mainstream teaches.

        1. Have a look at the free downloadable stretching and conditioning tutorial on my website. It’s definitely “different from what the mainstream teaches.”

          Don’t expect flash or hype or tight yoga pants, and maybe don’t tell anyone until you decide if you like it, because it will certainly raise a few eyebrows.

          There are many different processes, and I’m sure you will find something that works for you. Good luck!

    5. Thanks for bringing this up. I also have had flexibility issues since I was a small child. I could sit cross-legged, but touching my toes has *always* been difficult for me, at best. Even in first grade I remember dreading the stretching part of gym class because the teacher thought I was just lazy, and would come around and push my head towards my knees (sitting on the floor, legs out). I have short, thick muscles, and build strength quickly. I have very poor stamina, though, and hate-hate-hate running for more than a few minutes at a time. It’s not to say I couldn’t work towards better flexibility and stamina, but I do not get results as fast as when I workout for strength and raw speed. My feeling is that I am genetically disposed to shorter muscle fibers.

      I am also left by this article thinking that it’s all well and fine to state some goals–I don’t have to even try most of these to know I can’t do them. But how does one maximize flexibility within the range dictated by genetics? Especially when the level of inflexibility some of us are starting with means that the majority of flexibility training is actually not physically possible to perform.

      1. I’m the same. I have never been able to touch my toes. I was typically the fastest at short distances and could do the most pullups, but I sucked at distance running. I have let go of the goal of ever being able to touch my toes.

        1. P.S. Referring to elementary school on the athletic comparisons.

    6. Did you try PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretching?

      I’m naturally stiff too, and this is the only way of stretching that is giving me some results, albeit slowly.

    7. There are two components of flexibility that are never talked about; fascia and nervous system.

      Fascia is becoming more common due to the foam rolling phenomenon, but is still done rather haphazardly because people assume that fascia acts like muscles. Chances are if you have fascial issues, your original problem area is far away from the symptom. For instance, I can have a guy come in who cannot squat without raising his heels. After doing some neck work, he suddenly is able to touch his toes. That is because the fascia that was stuck at the neck does after much traveling, also connect at the foot.
      This was an exaggeration, as this would take place after multiple sessions, but it shows that the body is connected in ways high school anatomy do not touch.

      The nervous system is even less spoken about. The nerves of the body are ultimately what will determine if you loosen up or not. If you get to foam rolling and then just stiffen back up as soon as your move, your body is trying to stabilize that area and protect it. Why? For some people, it is old emotional issues, for others injuries. I have even had people come in who were abandoned at birth having fear markers in their bodies years after the therapists/client thought those issues to be resolved.

      So to answer your question, it is complex, and if you want to find an answer, find a bodyworker and have them help you find out what is going on with you. Stiffness to a point can be genetic, but it is not a natural state.

      1. These are very good points, Rebbecca.

        Didn’t Dr. John Sarno write a book about the connection between back pain and emotions?

      2. Very true with regard to the fascia. A little more than a year ago, I wanted to improve mobility in my hip flexors, and began squatting stretches before bed. With all the tension this created throughout other muscle groups, I soon realized that my entire body was tight, but every now and then I would hear a quick “crack” and a good relief of tension. After some google searches and a bit of reading, I realized this apparently is “isometric stretching” that works to break up muscle adhesions (scar tissue) in the fascia. I’m no expert on any of this, and if some of my comments are off the mark, please do correct. But whatever I’ve stumbled upon, it’s been working wonders for my body, flexibility and athleticism. Even on the basketball court, my shot is much improved due to improved posture, core strength, and body control.

        Google “fascial stretching” and “isometric stretching” for more info. Amazing exercises that can be done anytime and at your own convenience, and done properly you will notice a difference in short order. Cheers ;D

    8. Michael–I wouldn’t give up on trying to attain more flexibility. A good athletic physical therapist with a background in manual techniques might be able to help you. For instance, very high arches can make squatting ass to grass impossible. This can be fixed with mid-foot mobilization. That said, you may also simply have bony blocks; such structural aspects like a decreased q angle of the hip joint can severely limit mobility. In that case, there’s nothing you can do to gain mobility. A skilled therapist will likely be able to help you figure out if this is the case.

    9. @Michael,

      you can check out Tsatsouline’s work. there’re some youtube clips.
      there’s one clip of Tsatsouline that shows how to lower your squat to that comfortable “prayer position”. he seems to use isometric stretching. there’re other trainers/

      i dont’ understand the instruction of #4 — “rotate your hip to touch the knee” is that anatomically possible? cause there’s a big obstacle thingy between the knee & hip called “thigh”
      how do hip & knee touch?

      am i missing something?

      but in the video, his hip does not touch.

  6. YEEHHHHHHH… We’re working out!! I am a huge AK fan. SO glad to see a post here on MDA. The circle is now complete! 😉

  7. I can 1 to 4 very well (yoga and Supple Leopard training got me there)
    Number 5 I can barely do one side, can’t do the other. Good reminder that I have work to do!

  8. Seems like most of us can’t do #5. Just wondering if length of arms makes a difference.

    1. Not unless your arms are more than 6 inches too short. It’s all about shoulder mobility. Start by holding onto a yoga strap or jump band in both hands to cover the gap, and slowly (talking months here, not minutes) work your hands closer together. Good experiment would be to see how much strap you need, then roll out the front of the shoulders and around each scapula with a tennis ball or lacrosse ball, and then try again. Guessing you will notice a difference.

      1. Great idea! I never thought of using a yoga strap for that. Thanks.

    2. lol at this comment. that’s like saying it’s easier to touch your toes if you’re shorter. unless your arms are unusually disproportional to the rest of your body (which is possible, i suppose), it shouldn’t make a difference.

      i’d guess 5 is probably one of the first stretches people lose the ability to do today for myriad reasons (sitting hunched over computers with poor posture, internally rotated shoulders, not as much climbing which is what our arms might be built for, weak back muscles compared to overly developed and tight front chest muscles). the last one is particularly common with weight lifters.

    3. I can do all of them but #5 and my nickname is monkey arms because they are so long – my first thought – sitting in front of a computer all the time at work – tight shoulders, upper back muscles etc. More foam roller and I so wish for less time in front of a computer…sigh.

  9. Success!
    Now do we know when we will have “confirmed” information about PrimalCon New York? My husband and I would love to attend!

  10. Same here, I can do all but #5. I think it’s a posture issue. Many of us slouch. We need to learn to ‘open our chests’ . Lying face up on a stability ball helps..

    1. It’s not merely flexibility though– it’s strength in the opposing muscles. I speak as one who has to work a LOT at both! The muscles that keep your spine aligned get weak when you are sitting hunched over all day.

  11. I’m one of those insanely flexible people, even when I got heavy and out of shape. I can do all of the stretches except the last one and that is only since I tore my rotator cuff. I am still working a year later on being pain free and regaining the flexibility and strength I had before the injury. It is progressing, albeit slowly. My husband was one of those genetically inflexible people, he could only touch his knees and couldn’t touch his lower back despite being strong and visibly muscular. He only made so much progress and was never at the same level as me.

    1. My sister is hyper-mobile like you– it actually can make you MORE prone to injury if you don’t have a lot of muscular strength to prevent excessive movement in the joints when under physical stress.

  12. What I really want to know is where he got those sandals…

    Not that it matters much right now. It’s currently -20 with the windchill here in Chicago.

    1. @ Cherice

      Al got his sandals (huaraches) from I have two pairs, they’re fab! 🙂

    2. They’re called xero shoes. I have a pair and I love them. Even more barefoot feel than VFFs 🙂

  13. Number 3 and Number 4: My low back lifts right up off of the floor when my arms are above my head lying down. And I’ve got some issues because of that anterior pelvic tilt.

  14. Mostly genetic. I don’t care if you try to stretch for 30 years. Some people will never get their heels on the floor in a squat or some of these other moves. Doesn’t mean much. I’d consider myself kinda tight (can do 3 of these exercises though) and I never pull muscles and I sprint and play BBall at 58 Y.O.

    1. It’s not all genetics. I can do all 5. I’m 45 and have been doing yoga for nearly 20 years. In my early 20s I couldn’t do any of these. I believed I was ‘naturally’ stiff. I couldn’t even touch my toes. You really CAN become flexible, or more flexible if you practice!!

      1. I also wonder why he doesn’t use the word yoga. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…. :))
        Because these are yoga poses- Uttanasana (standing forward fold), Goddess pose, Urdva Hastasana arms in Supta Tadasana, the preliminary stage to the standing version of half Padmasana.
        And Gomukasana arms is the last one. If you don’t have a yoga strap, you can also practise this by holding your t-shirt. You can Google the full version of Gomukasana for a real balance & flexibility challenge.

        1. “I also wonder why he doesn’t use the word yoga. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck….”

          Because it’s just……stretching? 😉

        2. Cow head asana.

          One time I could not do this one was when I got “frozen shoulder”. Many years ago…

  15. I can do #4 really well, even well above waist height. At the rest of them I fail. I work and work and work to do a good squat, but it just aint there. I think the problem is in my ankles, but when I hit the end of my ankle ROM it’s a hard limit. Like somehow the bones just won’t go anymore regardless of what’s happening with the soft tissue. Very frustrating, squat being a Big Damn Deal and all that.

    My hubby can do #5 but grabbing his wrists. It’s just this side of grotesque.

    1. I can usually grasp hands on both sides– injured now though, so I’m working back to symmetry. BUT before I started doing this stretch, I was miles away from touching– it is possible to make real progress, but you have to be really patient with yourself & not force it!!

  16. I can do all five, both sides, etc., but I consider the deep squat the only “real life” movement.

    School PE classes still use #1 as part of their flexibility assessments. I’ve never understood this, as it isn’t a practical movement. Do you bend forward with locked knees to tie your shoes? Pick up something from the floor? Who actually does this, except in a PE class flexibility assessment?

  17. I have noticed that by making sure I consistently sprint, my hip flexor flexibility is drastically improved. Also my ability to hold and do pistol squats was improved.

  18. Holy cats! I want his cerebellum.

    “Even animals stretch; since the dawn of movement, stretching has been a part of living.” – And there’s something so delightful in seeing your little kid stretch when they wake up and they say “It feels so good”. And cats and dogs, exposing their belly when they stretch – you just can’t resist to scratch.

  19. Mark posted this on his Weekend Link Love not too long ago.

    “Flexibility” issues are often just the result of anatomical differences in mechanics of movement: joints that that are shallow/deep, anterior/posterior, muscle origins and insertions that are proximal/distal, and any combinations thereof will enable or disable you for a “classic” or “proper” stretch. If you’re not built for a movement, it won’t happen very well. To each his own!

  20. I love stretching! I have been a ballerina my entire life, so if I am not stretching daily, then my muscles get tight and I don’t really like it. So, naturally, I am all for flexibility training, though most people probably wouldn’t do the type of stretching demanded by ballet. However, it does feel really great afterwards 🙂

  21. As much as I hate to counter Al’s mojo here (since I am seriously digging the philosophy and practice he lives), I have to recommend a book that has probably saved me from a lifetime of disability due to the dreaded “computer hunch”. “Pain Free” by Dr. Pete Egoscue is a toe to head series of exercise programs designed to address the kinds of pain, mobility and musculoskeletal imbalances I see described in the comments here.
    Again, my apologies to Al. I hope having 3 of your books now on my reading list somewhat makes up for it.

  22. I feel slightly depressed that I can only do number 5 properly. :(! Never have I been able to squat deep (at least not since I was a baby)…

  23. to improve your flexibility active (isometric) stretching is much more effective than passive (relaxed) stretching (though both have their place). Pavel the Russian’s Relax into Stretching is very good. I went from average flexibility (couldn’t touch my toes) to more or less full splits by doing isometric splits stretchs (2-4 sets) in the gym after heavy squats and deadlifts – the LHT gets your muscles both very warm and also tired which really helps with the isometrics. Build up slowly tho, “life is a marathon not a sprint”, and it’s worth learning passive stretches first as you need to really learn how to relax your muscles.

  24. I can do #5 using a hack – I sit in an office chair and “grab” the top of the back rest with the hand that go to the bottom of the move, then slouch down in the chair to force it up the back, I can then just reach over the top and grab it with the other arm

  25. OK…I know this is girly, but I LOVE this guy’s sandles!!! Anyone know what they are, where to get them?? Thanks!

  26. Well, I tried all these 5 steps mentioned and was able to do it successfully. 🙂 It’s not really tough to perform.

  27. Yeah, stretching is super important. Yesterday my personal trainer and I trained proper running technique and flexibility was a key issue there too. Mainly the thighs and the hip area. If your thighs are not flexible enough your running posture is wrong and you won’t be able to get the most out of a run. Or you might even hurt your self in the long run (ha, no pun intended). Also spine flexibility has been said to impact your entire health.

  28. meh, the only stretching I do is when I wake up, stand up after sitting for awhile,etc.

    IMHO, any other stretching is just a waste of time. And possibly dangerous.

    A lot of folks believe that flexibility is a function of muscle strength – follow a decent weight training program and you will be as flexible as you need to be. Sure seems to be true in my case, I noticed a huge difference in my surfing from before I started weight training to after.

    1. You’re probably one of those lucky souls who doesn’t have to stretch much to feel good! 😛

      My husband is the same way, he can hit the floor running, while I have to ease into the day, rotating and loosening up every joint in my body to prepare for the day ahead. He gets a great stretch crawling around on the floor to change the furnace filter. Sheesh!

      I’m guessing you have a mesomorphic body type? Most mesomorphs I know (including my husband) don’t have to stretch much to feel good and perform well athletically.

      I’m an ectomorph, so some days I feel like I’m just getting warmed up and loosened up — and it’s already time to go back to bed!

  29. An alignment based yoga like Iyengar’s style is really helpful. A good teacher will guide you safely and progressively to more flexibility, increased mobility, and strength.
    Without proper technique and alignment, you are more susceptible to injury.
    Al’s program seems like it would compliment a yoga regimen and vice versa.

  30. What do you think of Pavel Tsatsouline’s ideas and books on stretching? He emphasizes tensing the muscle right before stretching it.

  31. Before I read.. I’ve had a few days locked in the hospital because I wanted to refuse care so they Form 1ed me.. what that guy is doing in the picture for this post is awesome.

  32. I can do all these without challenge or discomfort except 5. In fact, I’ve had someone measure the difference and there is about a 10 inch gap between my hands done either way. I’m a novice powerlifter with a history of flare ups of nagging shoulder pain that I believe are exacerbated by squatting and benching. I was lead to believe that adding and focusing on strengthening the back muscles and making them big would improve my strength goals in powerlifting while also alleviating aches, pains, and helping prevent future injuries. I trained for that and I have a much wider, thicker back and my squat has reached 500lbs and bench has reached 330lbs at a bodyweight of 180lbs. I have figured since my lifts have gone up, I don’t need to worry about my flexibility. However, as my strength has recently peaked my shoulders became achy and have forced me to adjust my training to work around it. I’ve come to the conclusion that this lack of flexibility contributes largely to my cycle of getting stronger – whiny shoulders – take break – rebuild – repeat. This may have been the most long-winded way I could say, “How can I improve my shoulder flexibility and reduce flare-ups of nagging pains?” Thanks.

    1. “Nagging shoulder pain, achy shoulders, whiny shoulders, nagging pains” — it’s probably your body’s way of screaming at you to back off the heavy weights.

  33. Awesome post! I’m almost there myself, and it’s a testament to making it a habit to stretch throughout the day. Thanks!

  34. I found this fascinating… as a pole athlete, I’m constantly training for extreme flexibility. A common question among dancers is about the trade off between flexibility and strength (you need both to succeed). Do you know of any research that addresses that specifically? I think it’s pretty clear that static stretching before training is not ideal, but what about flexibility training post workout? Does flexibility in and of itself cause injury, or only having freshly stretched muscles? Thanks for the article, you’re already helping me understand.

  35. Yeah, the only thing I couldn’t do was #5 with right hand underneath. I’ve actually had nerve problems with my Left shoulder and arm in the past, but the problem clearly lies in the right upper arm/shoulder. It’s a pretty significant difference too between left and right. Weird.

  36. You need to add standards by age group. Normal flexibility for a 70 year old is much different than a 40 year old.