When I started out training regularly a bit more than 3 years ago, I’ve been so freakin stiff that I could barely get my legs straight, when standing. My teenage years loaded with gaming, doing nothing, and getting drunk had their price.
Now – a few years later into that – it’s much better. I am telling you that because – if I managed to reach that goal you can do that, too! The pike is a very accessible position and can be mastered by anyone – it is a great starting point to get into the world of flexibility and should be a position everybody can get into. That said, owning a pike stretch for beginners is like owning a squat, very beneficial for daily life and other activities.
With this little pike stretch workout, I want to share my favorite exercises and Mobility tools, to improve yours. It is an active routine that resembles strength training more than relaxed stretching. Keep that in mind and don’t try to go for it before sleep, but rather after your actual warmup or on off days. OK, let’s head right into it!
What exactly is the Pike Stretch?
The pike has many names, like forward folding, and has its roots in Gymnastics as well as in Yoga.1 But also many other sports use pike-like movement patterns, as it is a very elemental human motion.
It is simply the movement pattern that brings your upper body closer to your lower body, like a jackknife you can fold towards each other. The Pike mainly stretches your posterior chain, meaning your calves, hamstrings, lower back, and the fascial tissues running on your back. At the same time, it strengthens actively but also lessens the overall strength needed, of your abs and hip flexors to bring your upper and lower body closer together.
You’ll find this movement pattern in many exercises:
- Seated Pike
- Standing Pike
- Hanging Leg Raises
- Skin the Cats
- Press to Handstand
And that’s why a good passive pike flexibility, will make each of those active expressions of your pike a lot easier. It especially enables you to keep your legs straight will performing most of those
The Pike Stretch Routine
The Exercises we use
- Lying Hamstring PNF (3 Cycles per side)
- Jefferson Curl (3×5-8r)
- Seated Pike Triplet (2x 3i + 8-12r + 30s)
First, Warmup properly
You don’t want to cold-start your engine and jump right into the most aggressive stretches. Going through a few stretches upfront, moving lightly or even a bit of cardio helps to bring blood into the tissues, warm up your cardiovascular system and limber up the body. I really like this short sequence to specifically address the pike:
Check out this brief lower-body warmup – a great alternative is to perform your mobility work after your actual strength training – that’ll save you the warmup and therefore some time.
Pike Stretch Exercise 1: Lying Hamstring PNF
For this fun exercise, you need a resistance band* or something you can kick against slightly, like a towel. Be warned though, it is not so fun. Depending on the thickness of your band, this exercise can get challenging quite quickly.
It is a PNF exercise – PNF stands for proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation – a hell of a word, right? If you’ve never heard of it, no worries, I got you covered! It is an intensity technique working and bypassing certain mechanisms of your body – we use that to gain more range. You can read a lot more about the topic of PNF in this post. To perform this exercise, we do the following:
- Lay on the ground and make sure your back is flat
- While one leg keeps the contact with the ground, pull the other one towards you using the resistance band*
The next thing we want to do from this position is to start the first of 1-3 PNF cycles. You’re going to repeat this funny cycle for another 1-3 times. Make sure to breathe as calmly as possible throughout them, as this helps to loosen up. Little Disclaimer – I lied to you, it’s no fun at all. Expect you’re kind of masochist – maybe then.
A PNF-Cycle looks like this:
- Push for 10s into the resistance of the band.
- Next, pull your leg with the band, and your hip flexors towards you for another 10s.
- Last but not least sink into the stretch and catch your breath.
Pike Stretch Exercise 2: Jefferson Curl
You’ve probably seen this exercise before – some guy with weight rounding his spine enormously so that every unknowing person would shout shocked at him: don’t do this, it’s bad for your back! Fortunately, it isn’t. Being weak is bad for your back, strengthening it actively and with the right technique is very beneficial to not be in pain and stay mobile throughout life.
Done correctly, the Jefferson Curl is a fantastic exercise for healthy hamstrings and a bendy spine. It actively strengthens the articulation of every one of your vertebrae and the many tiny, as well as bigger muscles in that area that often get overlooked. Moreover, although the Jefferson curl is mainly an exercise that strengthens spinal flexion and extension, it is also a great tool to have in every pike stretch workout! The bottom position of each Jefferson curl is a deep pike stretch, and the weight you use helps you pull yourself deeper into it. That way you can spend a lot of time, pulling your actively into a deep pike – on each repetition:
- Start from a standing position, holding a weight with both hands in front of you. 10kg or just a barbell are good amounts of weight to begin with.
- From the head down, curl with deliberate control each vertebra in and round your entire spine until you reach the bottom. Each repetition should take around ~10-15s.
- At the bottom, stay there on each rep for 5s trying to pull yourself deeper into the standing pike stretch using your hip flexors.
A great video on the pike stretch is this one by Tom Merrick.
Pike Stretch Exercise 3: Seated Pike Triplet
The final position. The end goal. We’re practicing the pike stretch at last. Now you should be limbered up and read to go for a hell of a seated pike variation!
We combine 3 different ways to train the seated pike into one cluster set – or triplet as I like to call it. The 3 ones we’re combining are an isometric hold against a weight, pike compressions, and a passive pike stretch. All of those are performed for 2-3 sets with no break in between the exercises, only in between sets.
- Start in a seated pike position. Put a heavy weightplate* or kettlebell* that you can’t lift up on your legs and contract into it for ~10s, ramping up the contraction over the course of these 10s. Perform 3-5 of the isometrics.
- Remove the weight and lift your legs up for 6-12 repetitions.
- Lastly, fall into a passive pike stretch, catch your breath and stretch for 30s.
- Repeat this cluster set for 1 or 2 more times. Suffer.
5 Common Mistakes to avoid when training the Pike Position
It’s an Active Flexibility Routine
Active. No chilly billy flexibility drills you can do late at night in front of Game of Thrones or whatever rocks your boat. That doesn’t work. Sorry. It’s no routine meant for recovery purposes, but to get you flexible and results – active as well as passive.
That’s why the style of this pike stretch workout resembles strongly conventional strength training. Because it is. We want to build strength through range. While building range. Sounds confusing? It sometimes is – there’s a lot going on and going into getting flexible – but overall it’s fucking hard work. Therefore, you get real results for real work.
Don’t round your Low Back
In the beginning – don’t do this when you train the basic pike. For the Jefferson of course do it, otherwise there won’t be a J-Curl. When training a traditional pike many commit the mistake of mainly rounding their lumbar spine, without actively thinking about tucking their pelvis in. This is the main motion that will get your pelvic bone closer to your legs and will stay your hip flexors strongly.
We want to learn this motion first before we start with excessively rounding your spine. It is not a harmful motion, but it can lead to bad habits with regard to the pike we want to avoid. Rather learn the crux of this move first, then add more complexity, then adding complexity while struggling with the crux.
Later on, you can experiment with it to get deeper into positions. Or to add a more dynamic component to it.2
If you’ve never done something like the Jefferson Curl it will be tricky in the beginning. Promised. Therefore start slowly and get the movement down at first before trying to be a hero and move serious amounts of weight around.
Likewise when learning a squat or a deadlift, you should first load it, when the basic pattern is sold. That can save you tweaking something and will definitely avoid bad habits in the long run.
Never load a dysfunctional movement pattern.
Even with exercises like PNF and the cluster sets – they are all intense techniques meant to challenge yourself. It is nothing to be approached lightly. Rather do a set less or fall short of the written reps and times. Those serve as guidelines, not paradigms. Listen to your body and you shall do well!
Don’t be afraid of Additional Weight
Even though you are stretching to get better at calisthenics – why don’t use weights? Being dogmatic never helped anyone. Being dogmatic and shunning weights at all is a trend that really bothers me in Calisthenics, but also many other communities. Rather experiment and take the best out of every area for your practice.
Weights offer unique benefits and are a handy way to overload movement patterns. When doing more reps, holding something longer, or needing a buddy to push you into a position aren’t available, weights do a fantastic job to help you nonetheless.
Regarding the Pike, your Posterior chain is extremely strong and explosive – these guys on your backside react very well to loaded stretches and high demands of weight. They’re meant for high forces like they occur while running, jumping, and sprinting. Once understood the exercises, you can grant these big muscles a trashing to challenge their growth.
Schedule your Mobility Work
Likewise strength training, the most important factor for success is – you guessed it – consistency. Not intensity, frequency, exercise selection, or alignment of the stars while performing blood sacrifices to the Old Gods. In fact success in all other areas in life unfolds the same. Talent can be part of it, but if you put in the work you will move forward no matter what is in your way.
Therefore ensure consistency within your flexibility training and plan it well. 2-4 times a week for 15-20 minutes after your strength training is a favorite of many of my clients. Just make sure to leave some energy in the tank and not do a ton of work upfront. Otherwise doing flexibility work on off days, or later a given day after a morning workout are other great options. As said, it doesn’t need to be an hour of work, but consistent bouts of dedicated work.
How often should I work on my Pike Position?
- How hard do you want it?
- What does your life look like?
- What’s your experience?
There’s a lot of factors going into answering that question! What I mean by that is that it’s highly dependent on you individually – your goals, your current ability and experience, and your lifestyle. But I can’t let you leave saying just this and playing it safe from my part, right? A few good guidelines are:
- You can train this routine up to 3 times a week, but 2 times work great, too!
- Make sure to also plan time to recover and let one day pass in between sessions.
- A great flexibility combination for beginners is to pair 2x of pike work a week with 2 times of squat work or alternatively 2 times of shoulder mobility if the squat doesn’t need attention.
- Follow the protocol for 4-8 weeks – test and retest. Feel free to take progress photos to visualize it. Afterwards change exercises for the next cycle or swap the goal. Check out Eric Helm’s fundamental book* for more on clever programming in general or Thomas Kurz’ book* on flexibility in particular.
Great additional things to think of that can speed up your pike progress are incorporating light, non-exercise movement into your daily life. This could be a brief morning routine and an evening routine with some movement, desk breaks, or mobility sequences throughout the day. Another favorite of mine to get in more flexibility work without necessarily more work are bouts of stretching in between sets at the gym you could for example stretch your pike in between sets of L-Sits and Hanging Leg Raises. This will not only improve your pike but also improve your performance with those as they are strongly dependent on solid mobility.3
Think: ‘Movements – not Muscles’
I tried to use the term stretch your Hamstrings as less than possible. Cause – your body doesn’t work in isolated muscles. And solely just one muscle is causing issues or hindering your progress – at least at the beginning, later on that can occur for sure.
Rather think of it like in your strength training about functional movement patterns and biomechanical systems – like vertical push, horizontal pull, and your posterior chain. It is the same principle when it comes to flexibility:
- Think about getting a better pike position or a decent pancake.
- Think about improving your shoulder flexion or your hip internal rotation.
I know – it sounds just like some medical slang. But these small improvements in thinking go a long way and change your approach to training. Rather than training biceps you train pull, and rather than stretching your hamstring you work for a position. Measuring your progress in regard to a position is also much easier to do.
I hope you could take a few points home with you!
Be free to try out every exercise and use the ones that work for you. What works for you can be very different from what worked for me.
But fortunately, there are a few exercises with which you can’t go wrong. One example would be the Jefferson Curl.
I just want to encourage you to try out as many exercises as possible. Being curious about that grants experience.
Start out with my few favorite ones, so that you don’t get lost in the vast sea of mobility possibilities, and you should see good results.
If you want to know more about mobility training in general – check out this post!
Read you the next post and until then, happy stretching!
- In this article, you can read about the benefits of forward folds. Kinda yoga-related – but I think in the end it’s completely irrelevant how you name this position.
- Check out this video by Tom Merrick about the relationship between tight hamstrings and a crappy pike position. He explains exactly why you should keep your back straight in the beginning.
- I can fully recommend, on flexibility in general, Thomas Kurz’s amazing book Stretching Scientifically*, as well as his book Science of Sports Training* in which he shows how to fuse different goals into one program elegantly.