An instructor to the pros shares five poses that help align elite bodies.
“For NFL players, their tool is their body, so they need to be diligent about training,” says Gwen Lawrence, a yoga instructor who has worked with professional athletes, including the New York Giants. “Since sports, by nature, create imbalances, they need to constantly be assessed for asymmetries and make adjustments to rectify them before they become injuries.” A regular yoga practice, complete with certain poses, can do just that.
And just as gym-goers with day jobs should focus on the hips, which can tighten up from hours working at a desk, Lawrence centers her work with football players there, too.
“Most players need great mobility, and the more open the hips are in all directions, the better the body is able to absorb the shock of quick agility moves,” she notes. The hips, she says, are also “the storage depot for stress, trauma, anxiety, and fear. Stiffness and mobility in the hips can change daily depending on your life experience.”
Anyone who wants to become stronger, more flexible, or more focused can benefit from the moves below, but Lawrence also prescribes them to NFL players.
Lying Opposite Arm Opposite Leg
Lying on your back, take a full-body wake up stretch, arms over head and legs long. Press low back into the ground to engage core. Keep head on the ground and lift left leg and right arm until they connect, release and repeat on the other side. Repeat for 2 to 4 minutes.
Why NFL players need it: This pre-game move warms up the hips, shoulders, abs, and trunk, says Lawrence. It also helps to sync breath and movement. “It is a great tool for them to utilize to make sure their hamstrings are symmetrical and supple.”
Start with right foot forward and left knee down (or knee up for more balance) on the ground. Reach arms high to lengthen back and bring hands to center of chest. Place left elbow/upper arm on outside of right thigh. Use strength and torque of left arm against outer thigh to deepen rotation. On the inhale, lengthen spine; on the exhale, twist deeper. Repeat for 2 to 3 minutes on each side.
Why NFL players need it: NFL receivers—or athletes who must make lunging catches and blocks without tweaking their backs—can increase strength and flexibility in the legs and increase rotation in the back with this pose. “Any time you see a receiver and defender battle for a poorly thrown pass, especially down the sidelines, they’re using exactly these muscles,” says Lawrence. “Whoever is stronger and more flexible is the one who will come down with the ball.”
Plank Pose Elbow to Knee Variation
Start in plank pose, with hands shoulder-width apart, palms flat, fingers spread, wrists in a 90-degree angle. Push the floor away, engage quads, tuck tailbone under, and have energy back through heels. Bring left knee to left elbow; then right knee to right elbow. Pause and try the variation of drawing knees to opposite elbows as well. Repeat for 2 to 5minutes.
Why NFL players need it: “Most of us are familiar with the plank, but adding an elbow to knee variation will deepen the abs crunch,” says Lawrence. “Abs are crucial for protecting your back on the field, and for looking great off the field.” This move also strengthens the wrist joint—important for players who land on their hands after a collision, she notes.
Face Down Shoulder Stretch
Lying face down, extend right arm straight out, palm down. Bend left knee on the ground on the outside of the right leg and have left palm under left shoulder. Slowly push into left palm and roll onto right side, keep head relaxed. Try to ground left foot. Inhale and press into left hand; exhale to relax deeper into the stretch. Hold for 5 minutes on each side.
Why NFL players need it: This pose opens the anterior deltoid (at the front of the shoulder) and stretches the biceps, neck, and spine—all crucial to being able to turn on a dime, Lawrence says. “If you are a receiver and you are leaving your arm out— vulnerable waiting to catch the pass—if it gets hit, this type of flexibility will help your shoulder better absorb the shock.”
Start on hands and knees. Be sure from a side view that knees and hips are on the same plane. Slide knees as far apart as possible and rest chest on a pillow or block. (This is similar to child’s pose but your legs aren’t all the way down on the ground.) Hold, breathe, and focus for as long as you’d like (up to 20 minutes).
Why NFL players need it: This pose releases the groin and inner thigh, says Lawrence. “A pulled groin is one of the most common sports injuries, and it comes from trying to stop or change direction quickly.” Opening the hips in all directions can keep the lower body safe from stress and strain, she adds. The pose also allows you to build stamina, mental toughness, and an opportunity to practice breath work.
Gwen Lawrence is the co-host of The Better Man Show which premieres October 29th at 2:30pm on WCBS Ch. 2 in the New York City area.