Patrick Gilbert PT, DPT, ATC, CSCS
While people may debate where its name came from, the exercise known as the World’s Greatest Stretch is quite the effective movement pattern. Plus, it beats calling it the “Elbow to Ankle Reverse Lunge with Shoulder Abduction and Thoracic Rotation Stretch”. It likely gets its name from the catch-all nature of the movement; in that it has the ability to stretch and mobilize multiple parts of the body in a single exercise. The best part? It requires absolutely no equipment other than your body! I like to perform a slightly modified version of the traditional stretch, adding an extra step to the end while still keeping all the portions that make it such a high-quality exercise in the first place.
Because it does such a great job of limbering up so many different parts of the body, this is an extremely versatile exercise that you can easily incorporate into a warm-up for basically any type of lift. I personally like to program it into the “Corrective Exercise” portion of my Complete 6-Step Warm-Up.
Breaking Down the Movement
The World’s Greatest Stretch typically has two, distinct parts. The first mainly emphasizes lumbopelvic and hip mobility, while the second places more emphasis on thoracic and shoulder mobility. I like to modify this slightly to add a third component that emphasizes a neural glide of the sciatic nerve and its distal branches as well as activation of the quad and glutes. Let’s dive a bit deeper into each step:
Step 1 – Lumbopelvic and Hip Mobility
Start this movement from a standing position. Reach one leg back until you are in a deep reverse lunge. While keeping that rear knee above the ground and your front foot flat on the floor, place your rear leg-side hand down on the floor, about hip-width from your front foot. Once you are in this position, reach your other elbow toward your ankle of the front foot. Reach this elbow as far as you can while maintaining good positioning through the rest of your body and hold for a second or two. During all of this, the glute on your extended leg should be turned on and squeezed tight.
The goal of this first part is to move into a position of increased flexion for the front hip, along with increased hip extension for the rear hip. On its own, a deep lunge will accomplish this. But then by bringing that front-leg elbow down toward that ankle, you are introducing more lumbar flexion while simultaneously rotating your pelvis away from that front leg. This brings the front hip into further flexion as well as relative external rotation. This will place a stretch on the inside (adductors) and backside (glutes) of that hip as well as the lumbar spine. Meanwhile, the rear leg is extended and you should feel at least a slight stretch along the front of your thigh. This is another reason that keeping that back knee off the ground is important; you will feel a much less intense stretch if you allow your knee to rest on the ground. The glute activation is key to facilitating this stretch in the front of the rear leg thigh, for the same reasons outlined in my post about Stretching the Hip Flexors.
Step 2 – Shoulder Activation and Thoracic Mobility
Once you have completed step 1, immediately move into step 2, which will emphasize thoracic and shoulder mobility. After reaching your elbow towards your front ankle, extend that same arm and rotate your torso over your front leg. For the hand that is planted on the ground, use the back of that shoulder and your external rotators to drive the rotation of your thoracic spine as your other arm raises toward the ceiling. Sweep your free arm smoothly until you are reaching straight overhead and your chest is pointed over your front leg, out to the side. Hold that position for a moment or two then return that hand to the outside of your front foot. This ending position should slightly resemble a sprinter just before takeoff.
The goal of this portion of the exercise is to open up your thoracic spine and chest, while also activating your shoulder stabilizers and rotating your pelvis on your femurs. Because your forward leg is in quite a bit of hip flexion, this tends to lock the lumbar spine in a relatively fixed position. As such, you will not have a lot of motion here as you rotate the middle of your spine towards that flexed hip. As you bring your arm up and out, move slowly in a smooth arc. This will help to improve rotation through your thoracic spine, as well as stretch the front of your chest. While the presence of the ribs attaching to the thoracic spine prevents there from being a lot of motion here, what little motion that is available is extremely important to normal function. This is especially true of rotation. Because of this, maintaining and increasing this motion becomes increasingly important. This can be improved functionally through this portion of this exercise.
During this rotation, you should be actively using your planted arm to drive the motion. Think about pushing away from the floor and also spreading the floor away from your foot as you utilize the posterior shoulder and scapular musculature to assist the spinal rotation. So not only are we stretching muscles and mobilizing joints, but we are also using our muscles functionally in a way that activates them to prepare them for that day’s lift. (I told you, this exercise does it all!)
While your lumbar spine will not rotate much as you sweep the arm up and out, your pelvis will still move slightly toward the side of rotation. This actually reverses the motion at the hip from the first step. While the front and back hips were taken into external and internal rotation, respectively, in the first step, the front hip will actually undergo internal rotation while the back hip experiences relative external rotation in this second step. This helps to introduce full range of motion in both hips over the course of this exercise all while keeping a stretch on that rear leg hip flexor. Again, make sure you keep that rear glute activated throughout these first two steps.
Step 3 – Neural Glide and Single Leg Activation
The final step is my unique addition to this exercise. After bringing your arm back down and placing your hand on the outside of your front foot, you should have one hand on either side of that front foot. From this position, push through your front heel to raise your hips up into the air, extending your front leg. Ideally, you should also bring your rear foot heel down towards the floor as you bring your hips up in order to place a stretch on your calf. Hold this position for a second or so, then bring your hips back down. From here, release your hands from the floor and press through your front foot to stand up and bring your rear foot back in line with your front foot.
By raising your hips and extending your front knee, not only will you place a stretch on your hamstring, but you should also feel a different type of “stretch” extending down behind your knee into your calf and potentially your foot. This is not a true muscular stretch, but actually a therapeutic stress on your sciatic and tibial nerves. It may feel slightly “tingly” or potentially like a burning sensation but should not be painful. If you find this to be uncomfortable, take it down a notch.
Nerve entrapment can be a common source of musculoskeletal pain that can lead to dysfunction if not taken care of. This issue is especially common if we are immobile for long periods of time. I don’t necessarily mean sitting on the couch for the entirety of a single football Sunday, but rather if a lack of movement starts to become your norm. While muscles and tendons act more like rubber bands, stretching and contracting, nerves tend to be more similar to rope; they do not have contractile properties. You will not get actual tissue lengthening as you do when you stretch a muscle unit, but you can help to slide and glide a nerve along its anatomical path in order to free it from potential entrapment. With this said, you want to go easy and gently while gliding nerves. Start easy and work your way into end ranges, then right back out of it. These nerve glides are also different than typical muscle stretches in that you don’t want to hold them for long periods of time. Nerves benefit from very brief, repeated bouts of positive stress.
Once you have completed your brief nerve glide, raise your hands from the floor and push through the floor with your front foot until you are standing upright. This seems fairly simple but should be done purposefully and without compensation from your rear leg or trunk, as it will require work from your front leg glute and quadriceps. This essentially acts like an activation exercise for a single leg lunge pattern, similar to what we did during the thoracic rotation in the second step. Even though it is a single rep of this movement for each full rep of this exercise, it is a fantastic way to wake these muscles up prior to starting a lower body lift.
You have now completed one repetition of this awesome exercise. You can either perform all prescribed reps on one side before moving to the other side, or you can alternate. I prefer to alternate, as I feel it helps to balance out mobility as you work.
Here is a video that puts all this information together as I take you through each step of this exercise:
Just like I have done, plenty of people like to put their own unique spin on this exercise. Some will add more, some will keep it very basic. No one way is the best way, so play around with it and do whatever works best for your particular anatomy and mobility restrictions. I also like to perform an even more in-depth version of this exercise with a couple more added components when incorporating it into the Flow-Based Movement Quality portion of my Recovery Series. You can also find that in my Fundamentals of Training program.
As I stated earlier, I like to program this exercise as part of a complete warm-up, particularly as part of a corrective exercise. I’ll usually perform anywhere from one set of three reps on each side to a couple sets of five or six reps for each side. It all depends on how limited your mobility is, what specific parts of the movement you need to work on, what you have in store for that day’s workout and more. You can also just do this if you find yourself having a particularly lazy day without much movement in your life. Instead of sitting on a couch or at a desk for hours on end, give this exercise a try. Program this into your own warm-ups or workouts and see how much better you feel as a result!
About the Author – Patrick Gilbert PT, DPT, ATC, CSCS
Patrick is a physical therapist, athletic trainer and personal trainer. He runs Summit Performance and Therapy in Indianapolis, Indiana. He has been training clients of all backgrounds for years and has been a practicing physical therapist since 2016. His training philosophy combines his knowledge of rehabilitation as well as strength and conditioning in order to train clients to achieve great results and avoid injuries in the process. His physical therapy practice focuses on a three-dimensional view and treatment of the body and its many parts. Treatment emphasizes manual techniques and rehabilitative exercises to get patients back to previous activity levels without pain or dysfunction.
For more information about training or rehabilitating with Patrick, contact him at SummitPerformancePT@gmail.com or visit SummitPerformancePT.com