A poorly named stretch, but a fantastic one nonetheless.
Oh, the spiderman stretch. Honestly, I couldn’t think of a less descriptive name. Sure, in the comics that spiderman often enters into the position that’s come to be known as the spiderman stretch, but without this niche knowledge of spiderman’s typical postures, you’d have no way of knowing.
While the definition of the spiderman stretch is up for debate, the exact variation is not so important as the main intent of the exercise. For me, the “spiderman stretch” refers to any exercise where one leg is in the bottom of a squat position while the other reaches back and both hands are inside the leg. This is a lot like lizard pose in yoga.
The classic spiderman stretch involves exactly this position. Kelly Starrett in his book, Becoming a Supple Leopard has a more descriptive (but more confusing) name for this: Single Leg Flexion with External Rotation. That encompasses the main point. One leg is both flexed (like the bottom of a squat) and externally rotated, which means you’re actively shoving the leg outward to improve your hip external rotation. In programming, this exercise is most commonly done as a warm-up exercise in a dynamic fashion.
However, it’s also a fantastic static stretch to improve hip mobility. You can spend 30-60 seconds in the stretch, slowly sinking deeper as you go.
If you’re a human being living in the 21st century, your hips are probably tight. This exercise focuses on loosening up the hip as external rotators, which has a few effects.
And you can see this right away. As you shove your knee out, you may also be able to sink deeper into the stretch. If you imagine this like a squat, then you’re improving your ability to sink deeper into the squat with more hip flexion.
Improving hip external rotation and flexion can also have the downstream effects of improving your posture in general, and helping you avoid lower back pain. For a deeper look at this specifically during squatting, check out this article on how to eliminate back pain while squatting. In a sentence, tight hips mean the lower back has to work harder and do the job the hip extensors (glutes and hamstrings) should be doing.
I’m not worried about overselling this, because you’ll feel the benefits right away. Immediately after doing this exercise don’t be surprised if your hips feel better than ever.
Because it’s an ill-defined exercise, there are a lot of similar exercises that I add to the category of the spiderman stretch.
While you’re in the spiderman stretch position, you can add some thoracic spine mobility to the drill by reaching the arm (same side as the front leg). This comes with no downside, other than the exercise will take a few extra seconds. You can oscillate between reaching to the sky and then bringing the arm down to sink deeper into the squat pattern.
Okay, I just call this one a “Spiderman with Hamstring Stretch” because the name Sean Skahan gave it in his book Total Hockey Training is a bit too long for anybody I train to understand. (Sean trains NHLers, so I guess they’re a bit smarter.)
It’s the same as the spiderman with t-spine rotation, but at the end of the movement, you straighten the front leg to get a hamstring stretch. This one is always done in a dynamic fashion, doing about 5 on each side. It’s one of my favorite dynamic warm-up exercises and a staple of my pretraining routines.
This exercise from my colleague Ryan Garrow, head strength coach at St. Michael’s College, showcases the creativity you can have with the spiderman stretch movement. In this exercise, we’re also working on hip adduction capabilities that are important anytime we crossover and turn. For more on this exercise, see Ryan’s full description.
This one also comes from Kelly Starrett’s book. The gist of the banded distraction concept is you can get into a deeper position. Test it out and see how you like it. I’ll admit it can be kind of a pain to set up and you may get some weird looks, but it’s a solid option to take things deeper.
Variations of the spiderman stretch are a staple of my programs. I use the static stretch version in warm-up and cool-down routines. The more dynamic versions can be included in a dynamic warm-up. During a training program, I use it as active rest in between exercises to continually work on hip mobility.
All told, there’s almost no wrong place for it, and you basically can’t do it too much. To start out, I recommend doing the basic static stretch version as part of your warm-up routine and go from there.
If you’re totally lost on what your warm-up should look like, well then you’re in luck, because I’m currently writing a book about that very topic, so you have that to look forward to in 2022.