This is a total mobility exercise for the quadriceps, hips, piriformis, glutes, low back and thoracic spine that will aid in improving shoulder limitations.
Lay on your side with your neck supported so it remains in a neutral position. Since your shoulder will be on the deck, elevate your head with a towel or foam pad so that your neck is not downhill, or uphill, but right in line with the remainder of your spine. The neck should be completely relaxed during this stretch. Draw your knees and hips into a fetal position, bending at your hip joint to create as tight of an angle as possible. The angle between your thigh and your torso should be less than 90 degrees. If you are extremely flexible, you may be able to place your thigh directly onto your chest wall, but it is important to take up all the available slack. Assuming that you are lying on your right side, hold your left knee close to your body with your right hand.
Reach back with your right leg, bringing your thigh as far behind the plane of your body as possible, then bend your right knee as much as possible. Try to grasp your right ankle with your left hand. Once you are in position, and not until you have both legs secured, proceed to the next step.
The next step is a maximal shoulder rotation away from the deck and toward the sky. If you’re lying on your right side, try to turn your body toward your left as far as you can. Let your neck remain in a neutral position and, then, slowly look with your eyes and turn your head to enhance the shoulder turn. If you cannot grasp your right ankle with your left hand, use a small loop or belt to extend your reach until your flexibility will allow. Do not drop the maintained left hip flexion since it will protect your low back and influence the rotation stretch on the thoracic spine.
The benefits of this stretch demonstrate a three dimensional chain of events that often play off of each other. You will expose yourself to any quadricep or hip flexor tightness on the right leg. You will also expose yourself to any piriformis, glute, or low back tightness with the left hip flexed position. Lastly, once this position is maintained, rotation will expose you to any T-spine rotation deficit. Thoracic spine mobility plays heavily in shoulder mechanics and may be the underlying cause for shoulder limitations. At no time should you strain your neck, but only use your neck turn and your “eye look” to complement the shoulder rotation that you are executing.
Once in position, use slow, deep diaphragmatic breathing to relax. To gain extra distance, pull each leg away from the arm that is gripping it without actually coming free from the grip. You’re trying to create an isometric contraction by pulling the legs towards each other against resistance. Immediately after this contraction of trying to extend the left leg and flex the right leg, at the hip, relax and rotate the spine an extra few degrees, which should be available to you after the contraction. Use your deep, relaxed, diaphragmatic breathing and this contract-relax cycle to achieve maximal stretch in this position.
Obviously if there is any pain, this is no longer a stretch. Rather, it is just an insult to an underlying injury that you may not be aware of. It is advisable and strongly recommended to have a medical professional check this out. Muscle tension and stretching should not be seen as pain, but pain isolated in joints or around tendons should definitely be examined by a medical professional.
Many individuals will not receive a maximal stretch on the posterior and lateral muscles in this position. They may have less of a posterior-lateral mobility problem (one joint limitation), and more of a posterior-lateral flexibility problem (multi-joint limitation, usually found within muscles that span multiple joints). Since the iliotibial band (which arises off the gluteus maximus / TFL) and hamstrings fit the definition of multi-joint muscle tendon packages, a second variation of “The Brettzel” can be done with a flexed hip and an extended knee on the top leg. It is advisable to perform both of these positions on one side, and then compare and contrast the differences through the light stretch on the alternate side.
In the absence of pain, asymmetries should be first and foremost addressed and normalized. If this does not change after one stretching session, do not give up. Chances are, it has taken you a long time to create the limitations that you have now discovered and it will take some time to combat them. Remember, tight muscles aren’t bad muscles. You’ve learned how to use those muscles to move in a particular pattern, and your muscles are simply following the pattern you’ve laid out for them. The FMS corrective exercises, of which “The Brettzel” is one, are a means to break those patterns.
You can use this stretch as a super-set. The definition of a super-set is usually a secondary activity that works a reciprocal muscle group or an alternate exercise that enhances the quality of movement, body awareness and reflex stabilization. The best way to get reflex stabilization and have your stabilizers work automatically is to improve mobility. Most of the time when both flexibility and mobility are limited, prime movers secondarily assume the role of stabilizers. This creates the illusion of tightness and increased muscle tone against stretching.
Important training note - If you immediately elongate these prime mover muscles and then continue with stabilization activities, like a single-leg dead-lift with the alternate arm, or a Half Get-Up, you will give your stabilizers an opportunity to assume their primary role, thus removing the obligation of prime movers to work in less than optimal range of motion. Eventually, you can combine this stretch with a full Turkish Get-Up to appreciate the benefit of a mobility-stability super-set.