If you are some time for now in calisthenics you will notice that mobility is an important part of it. Many skills will be much easier or even require specific ranges of motion.
One of these specific positions is the pancake stretch.
To perform skills like presses to handstand or a straddle sit, a flat pancake is necessary. You see – it is a very important position. Probably one of the most important for your lower body besides the squat and the pike.
I worked the last year pretty intensely on this position and made fair progress.1 That’s why this full and lengthy post is entirely dedicated to the pancake stretch.
My goal is to clarify everything important about this position and share the most important stuff I learned along the way to help you – tell me if I succeeded! Anyways – let’s get more in detail firstly what the pancake position exactly is and whatnot.
What exactly is the Pancake Stretch?
As shown in the picture to the right, the pancake is an advanced, straddled stretch.
The goal is to get your chest down to the floor by reaching forward – a completely flat posture. That’s where the name pancake comes from.
It mainly stretches the posterior chain and will be really hard on the hamstrings, Despite this is a stretch this position has huge demands on your hip flexors and will strengthen them.
Why should you work your Pancake Position?
Strong Hip Flexors
The pancake position is a very active stretch. Without your muscles pulling you forwards, you won’t get anywhere near the floor. In fact most stretches should be active because without active contraction of the shortening side of the stretch you won’t be able to tilt your pelvis over and get towards the floor. This is why a slight forward lean is a common plateau for many that lack active hip flexor and compression strength.
To pull yourself forwards your hip flexors need to work hard and this will strengthen them inevitably.
Mobile Hamstrings and Adductors
Besides that, of course, your posterior chain will take most of the beating and get really flexible. Especially your Calves, Adductors and Hamstrings will have to elongate, but eventually, even the spine needs to curve for the last centimeters.
Make sure to go slow here – it is not uncommon to tear one of the above. It is a very uncommon position at first, especially when transitioning from a straddle to a forward tilting pelvis and combining it with tedious exercise types as loaded stretches or ballistics. Tearing a hamstring is a long-lasting, no-fun-at-all ache to deal with.2
Prerequisite for many other Skills
Good pancake mobility will make other skills much easier or even possible. Some of these skills are the Straddled Press to Handstand, Straddle Sits, Compression Drills, and Middle Splits.
But having mobile hamstrings and adductors will also have a great carryover to other lower body movements as the squat for example.
How to progress well with the Pancake Stretch
Avoid these 3 Common Mistakes
While there are many things to do wrong3 in such a complex movement, I found these 3 to be the easiest traps to tap into:
- Rounding your lower back
- Not flexing your hip flexors and quads
- Being too impatient
Rounding your lower back
To round your lower back is neither bad nor good – it depends on the context. Most try to teach the pancake dogmatically with a straight back, yet for the last few centimeters the back has to round. Otherwise you need to be genetically blessed with a very open hip capsule that enables your pelvis to roll over to 90°. Needless to say that you can only influence and train this factor a bit – after a while, you will reach the maximum your anatomy tolerates.
On the other hand, rounding your lower back can also be a classical compensation. Doing so takes stress off the hamstrings and calves and loads it onto the lower back. You especially see it when people first train the pancake or are on their way with the nose towards the floor. The body just wants to get the job done. No matter how. A good analogy here is the European squat – when people who lack hip and ankle mobility need to squat on their toes to get down. It is exactly the same with the pancake sometimes and your body wants to trade a few centimeters for technique.
That said, rounding with intent is great, even feasible. The goal for him who knows what to do. But if done incorrectly, under load, at the wrong times, all the time it can lead to back pain because you put too much strain onto it. Or even worse – make not the progress you wish you’d achieve.
Therefore, try to limit rounding in the beginning of your training. Great exercises to max out this hip hinge are bent and straight leg straddled good mornings. Yet, if you happen to get closer to get to the floor, read into rounding and allow it to happen on intent. Feel the difference!
Be active – use your muscles
When it comes to flexibility, many just think of static stretching. Hitherto that is only half of the image – every stretch consists of an elongating, a stretched side, and a shortening side. Using the muscles responsible for shortening the range strengthens them and will yield results. Everything else will impede your process.
This maxim is not only valid in a pancake context but in every context. A squat, a bridge, or a front split also have an elongating and a shortening side. Therefore
Diese Regel gilt nicht nur für den Pancake Stretch, sondern auch für alle anderen Positionen sei es der Squat, die Bridge, oder eine Pike. Versuche die meiste Zeit aktive zu sein, gerade wenn Du maximale Tiefe erzielen willst. Vergiss dennoch nicht die Intensität zu regulieren – den auch passive Stretches haben ihren Nutzen.
The journey takes time
The journey towards a pancake takes a lot of time depending strongly on your starting point.
I would say 12-18 months is something to consider if you train properly and don’t injure yourself while doing so. As you see – this is a lot of time – so make sure you really need and use the desired mobility for your later goals. If a press to handstand, a straddle sit, or more advanced mobility skills are your goal your way should be pretty clear.
But if you just wanna impress people with a party trick, rather learn a kipping muscle-up.4
Starting point: Straddle Stretch on the Floor
The first step towards the pancake is the straddle stretch on the floor.
You need to sit there comfortably – if this is not the case, work on that first or use a yoga block*to elevate butt a bit.
The more an issue the straddle sit is for you – the more your lower back will round without even moving forward:
- One hack here would be to elevate your butt a bit by sitting onto a pillow, yoga block* or even handstand blocks*. This can help reduce lower back rounding and to stretch the muscles that should be stretched.
- Another one would be to work on your pike – a comfortable pike will make sure your hamstrings are quite flexible.
Now: Lean further forwards until your chest touches the floor
Literally – this will be your whole journey. Sounds easy, isn’t it?
Unfortunately, it isn’t exactly that easy and nor that linear, but in its essence, this is your goal.
Most people think of getting their chest down towards the floor when thinking of the pancake. But this is not true. You have to lean forward.5
To practice this forward lean I had big results using static holds, ballistic stretches, and loaded stretches.
My 3 favorite exercises to work on your pancake stretch
To do so sit straddled on the floor. Now move freely and try what your positions your body can get into while sitting straddled.
That’s where the exploration part comes from. You can:
- Twist towards both of your legs
- Bend your torso to the side
- Lean straight or diagonally forwards
- do forward leaning circles
- Rotate your legs in and outwards
- Rotate and tilt your pelvis
- bend your knees and then do all the above
- and even more…
You will be surprised how versatile such a basic position really is.
Besides general stretching which is often linear exploring a movement is often a non-linear approach to learn about other secondary positions as well.
It won’t give you a flat pancake on itself – but it will teach you how to really own your already existing range. I like to use this exploration approach in the mornings, as a warmup or just throughout the day.6
Pancake Ballistic Reaches
Ballistic stretching is a great, but painful way, to get tons of passive range fast. I mean really fast.
If you struggle with your forward lean and wanna acquire some new range give them a try!
What ballistic stretching exactly is can you learn in this awesome video by Emmet Louis.
He also demonstrated the Ballistic Pancake Reaches together with Tom Merrick in this video.
Later down the road when really comfortable with these you can load this forward-leaning movement to strengthen it.
But be slow and know exactly what you are doing here.7
PNF is a mobility concept combining passive and active stretching well. I won’t lie here – it is hard work though.
If you’re interested about the science behind flexibility I can fully recommend Thomas Kurz’ book Stretching Scientifically* to you.
- To perform PNF holds while in the pancake stretch lean forward as far as comfortably possible
- Now press your feet actively into the ground for 5s.
- After that pull yourself forward using your hip flexors for 5s.
- Now relax for 5s before performing the above sequence another 4 times.
- Perform the above 2-3 times in total, try to breathe calmly, and not to die. Have fun!
A Pancake Routine to start with
The first two exercises are meant as a warmup. The second part should be done one exercise after another for a total of 2-3 times with a break of around 1-2 minutes in between.
I found squatting in between the rounds useful as a kind of feel-good snack for your hard-working hips.
- 9090 to 9090 Position (2x10r)
- One-Legged Middle Split Thrusts (2x10r)
- Frog Stretch (2-3x90s)
- Pancake Exploration (2-3x2min)
- Pancake Ballistics or Weighted Good Mornings (2-3x10r)
Last, but not least – Happy Pancaking!
The pancake is a position that takes much time and effort to learn. Make sure that your main activities benefit from that increased mobility. While a gymnast will surely need it, a soccer player will hardly use that range.
In the beginning, you will progress insanely fast – until you hit your first plateau. This will challenge you and take time. Acquiring Mobility happens very non-linear.8
But none of that should hinder you to get it if it is a set goal of yours. Consider the few points I found useful, educate yourself wisely, put in the work and the pancake will soon be a part of your warmup. To get there check out my freebie program ‘Mobility for Life‘ – you can have a look at it by clicking the button down below!
I hope that I fulfilled my self-proclaimed goal of clarifying most about the pancake stretch!
Anyways, tell me what you think,
- When I started a year ago sitting in a straddle was many things but not comfortable. Nowadays my pancake has a long way to go until it is really flat, but I get quite well forward.
- I know what I speak about – I tore my right medial hamstring twice going to hard on loaded straddle good-mornings. It throws you back enormously and hinders your progress.
- While I haven’t found not many other good posts on the pancake stretch, Youtube is full of great content towards this position – I would advise anyone working towards this position to watch Tom Merricks video of the most common pitfalls when it comes to the pancake stretch and how to fix tight hamstrings specifically.
- Or skip this bullshit-mindset, grow up and train just for yourself and no one external.
- It is likewise the planche or HSPU. In terms of these two moves, many think about pushing upwards, too. But in both of these movements, it is rather a forward lean, which will let you succeed.
- One person, I can wholeheartedly recommend anyone who wanna learn more about everything mobility – search for Emmet Louis. He has a lot of free stuff on YouTube and teaches workshops as well!
- I learned it the hard way and tore my hamstring twice loading this movement and trying to rush the process. It isn’t a dangerous exercise – it just has to be utilized with caution and intent.
- Sid Paulson published another great routine for this skill.