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 intense 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 stretch 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 on it?
Strong Hip Flexors
The pancake is a very active stretch. Without your muscles pulling you forwards you won’t get anywhere near the floor.
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.
Make sure to go slow here – it is not uncommon to tear one of the above. And 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 within your pancake stretch
Avoid these 3 common mistakes
While there are many things to do wrong 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
Rounding your lower back is a common compensation of your body.
Through rounding your lower back you take most of the strain of your hamstrings and adductors and stretch your lower back instead. It is your body’s way of procrastinating and get around strenuous work.
In the long term, this will lead to minimal results – and a lot of back pain.
Be active – use your muscles
Not using the muscles responsible for pulling you forwards will get you somewhere – but it will slow your process.
Stay active all the time, get strong in the positions you wanna learn and you will progress much quicker.
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.3
Starting point: Straddle Sit on the Floor
The first step towards the pancake is the straddle sit on the floor.
You need to sit there comfortably – if this is not the case, work on that first or use a pillow 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. This can help reduce lower back rounding and to stretch the muscles that should be stretched.
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.4
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.
- 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.
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!
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.5
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 short 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 2-3×2 minutes
- 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.
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.
I hope that I fulfilled my self-proclaimed goal of clarifying most about the pancake stretch!
Anyways, tell me what you think,
Sources and further reading
- 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.
- On top of that Sid Paulson published another great routine for this skill.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.