The couch stretch is a powerful, yet often underused, exercise that primarily targets the hip flexors (the muscles located on the front of your hips).
Don’t let the name fool you though, this stretch requires active engagement and mindful execution for optimal results. It involves both a hip extension and knee flexion simultaneously.
This exercise guide delves into the biomechanics of the couch stretch, and how to use it to enhance hip mobility, alleviate lower back discomfort, and improve posture.
So, let’s get off the couch… and into the couch stretch.
- The couch stretch primarily targets the hip flexors.
- It involve hip extension and knee flexion.
- Focus on driving your hips forwards and squeezing the glutes to keep the emphasis on the hip flexors.
- Samson stretch is a good alternative if you want a movement with less knee flexion.
What is the Couch Stretch?
The couch stretch was popularized by Dr Kelly Starrett (The Ready State) and is designed to stretch your hip flexors. These are the muscles that connect your upper and lower body, helping any hip flexion movement (moving the knee towards the chest).
It’s really important to stretch these muscles because they can become tight (and weak) from sedentary lifestyles (e.g., sitting at a desk all day). This can limit your range of motion at the hip (i.e., insufficient hip extension), causing the lower back to dip (which can contribute to poor posture and pain).
To do the couch stretch, you’ll need a wall or, as the name suggests, the edge of a couch (an exercise bench also works great). The exercise involves one knee on the floor, close to the wall or couch, and the other foot flat on the ground in a lunge position.
It’s a simple setup, but it offers a deep stretch that can make a big difference to your mobility and overall movement.
This is not a “passive” stretch… it requires focus and a mind-muscle connection, because you need to actively engage the glutes and drive the hips forward to ensure the emphasis is on the hips, and not just the lower quads.
Resting Your Knee on a Cushion
How to Perform the Couch Stretch
To do the couch stretch:
- Start by kneeling in front of a couch or wall. Place the knee of the leg you’re stretching against the couch or wall, with the top of your foot flat against it. Your other foot should be flat on the ground in front of you, in a lunge position.
- Slowly lower the hip of the back leg towards the floor. You should feel a stretch in the front of your hip and thigh.
- Squeeze your glutes, drive your hips forward, and brace your abs to stabilize your body and deepen the stretch.
- Slowly lift your torso until it’s upright, while keeping your hip open. Be careful not to lean back or arch your lower back excessively.
- (Optional) – Reach up towards the ceiling with the hand on the same side as the leg you’re stretching. This can help to increase the stretch and improve your posture.
- Hold this position and breathe deeply for around 30-60 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
Coach’s Tip – It’s really important to try and tuck your working knee as close to the base of the couch or wall as possible. Also, try to really focus on a hip extension as you approach the final phase of the movement (as opposed to just arching your back).
Start with a Couch, Progress to a Wall
Where Should You Feel the Stretch?
Although it looks like the couch stretch is just stretching your quads… you should really be feeling it on the front of your hips. If you only feel it stretching your lower quads, try and drive your hips forward to really open up the hips as you extend into an upright position.
In other words, you need to avoid an anterior pelvic tilt (dipping your lower back) so you can place the emphasis on the hip flexors.
You should feel a stretch, but it shouldn’t be painful. If you feel any discomfort, ease off a bit. Over time, as your flexibility improves, you’ll be able to deepen the stretch.
The couch stretch primarily targets the hip flexor muscles, which include the psoas major, iliacus, and rectus femoris.
These muscles play a vital role in hip flexion, allowing you to bring your thigh closer to your torso and bend at the waist.
Additionally, the couch stretch engages other muscles to stabilize and support the body during the stretch. The glutes are activated to provide stability and assist in maintaining proper alignment. The core muscles, including the rectus abdominis and obliques, also engage to stabilize the torso.
Couch Stretch Benefits
Improves Hip Mobility
The couch stretch directly targets your hip flexors, helping to increase their flexibility and range of motion. This can lead to better hip mobility, making movements like walking, running, and squatting easier and more efficient.
Alleviate Lower Back Pain
Tight hip flexors can contribute to lower back pain. By stretching these muscles, the couch stretch can help alleviate this discomfort, making it a useful tool for those who spend a lot of time sitting.
(N.B. The ability for the couch stretch to alleviate lower back pain will ultimately depend on the root cause of your pain. As a result, you should speak to a Physical Therapist about your specific circumstances before trying any new exercises).
Enhances Athletic Performance
For athletes, improved hip mobility can lead to better performance in a range of sports and physical activities. From running and jumping to lifting and throwing, flexible hips can help you move more purposefully and efficiently.
Activates the Glutes
To feel the stretch in your hip flexors, it requires you to really drive your hips forward… which is achieved by activating your glutes. This means the couch stretch can be used as a simple way to “wake-up” your glutes (ideal for anyone who spends a lot of time sitting).
The couch stretch is a unilateral stretch, which means you’re stretching each side of your body separately. This is useful because it allows you to identify imbalances which could be impacting your movement. For example, if your hip flexors are tighter on one side, it might lead to reduced athletic performance and movement.
Tight hip flexors can also lead to poor posture if it causes an anterior pelvic tilt. Strengthening and stretching the hip flexors, particularly, the psoas muscles, can improve this alignment around the hips and spine, improving posture.
Focus on Technique
Modifications and Variations
While the basic couch stretch is a powerful exercise in its own right, there are several variations that can help you target different muscles and challenge your body in new ways. Here are a few to consider:
Elevated Couch Stretch
This variation involves placing the foot of your front leg on an elevated surface, such as a step or a sturdy box. This increases the stretch in your hip flexors and can also engage your hamstrings and glutes.
We would recommend only increasing the elevation very slightly at a time. A weight/bumper plate would be a good way to slowly increase this height over time.
Couch Stretch with Twist
While in the standard couch stretch position, you can add a twist to engage your core and stretch your back. Simply turn your torso towards the side of your front leg, reaching your opposite hand towards the ceiling.
Couch Stretch with Arm Reach
For an added upper body stretch, try reaching your arms overhead while performing the couch stretch. This can help stretch your abs and improve your posture.
When Should You Use This Stretch?
This stretch is great to do before and after a workout (especially if you’re training your lower body, and doing exercises like squats or lunges).
It can also be done on its own, especially if you’ve been sitting for a long period.
Consistency is king when it comes to mobility and flexibility, so doing it frequently will help see improvements.
Things to Consider
While the couch stretch is generally safe for most people, there are a few things to keep in mind to ensure you’re doing it safely and effectively.
Firstly, like any stretch, you need to listen to Your body. You should feel a stretch, but not pain. If you feel any discomfort beyond a normal stretch, ease off.
You also want to be mindful not to arch your lower back excessively. This can put unnecessary strain on your spine, and can give a false impression of achieving hip extension when this isn’t the case.
We would recommend looking at the samson stretch as an alternative that also stretches the hip flexors but doesn’t require as much knee flexion of the working leg.
Is it Safe with Knee Pain?
The couch stretch is a powerful tool for improving hip mobility, but like any exercise, it’s most effective when performed correctly. Take your time, pay attention to your form, and enjoy the benefits of this simple yet effective stretch.
Whether you’re an athlete looking to boost your performance or someone seeking to counteract the effects of a sedentary lifestyle, the couch stretch is a valuable addition to your routine.
Featured image and video demonstration credit – CrossFit Affiliate Programming