Figure Four Stretch: How to Stretch the Piriformis Muscle

Figure Four Stretch

The Figure Four stretch is one of my all-time favourite piriformis muscle stretches to do, especially for lower back pain and sciatica relief. This is a great lower back exercise to help relieve muscle tension from sitting too long at a desk. It is perfect for when I see someone come into the clinic with a dull ache in their lower back, say from a long car drive, or maybe from sitting for too long in a meeting, plane or train. In these situations is the best time to perform this type of hip stretch.

Well now that I have talked up a storm on my all-time favourite lower back and hip stretch, I guess you’ll want to know how to do it. Today I’m going to show you how to stretch the piriformis muscle in your bum. I have found some videos online showing you how to perform the stretch in three different ways: seated, laying down and standing position. 

The Piriformis Muscle

If you don’t know what the piriformis muscle is lets me first explain.

The piriformis muscle runs from your triangle-shaped bone in your pelvis called the sacrum out to the top of your hip bone at a point called the greater trochanter. The action of the piriformis muscle is to help externally rotate your hip when walking. This is why runners can develop lower back pain, hip pain, buttock pain diagnosed as piriformis syndrome.

Piriformis Muscle

The Piriformis Muscle

There are lots of other muscles in your bum. The piriformis muscle is just one of them. Again the reason why particular this buttock muscle gets so much attention is because the sciatic nerve passes near it causing a trapped nerve in back pain condition called piriformis syndrome.

Referred pain from a tight piriformis muscle can be in the left buttock or right buttock.

This type of lower back pain can mimic other back pain conditions like: sciatica from a herniated lumbar disc, lumbar facet dysfunction, sacro-iliac joint dysfunction and a high hamstring muscle strain.

How to Perform the Figure Four Stretch

This back pain exercise can be a great home treatment tool to start doing now. It is so easy to do that you could be sitting at your office desk and stretching your back and hip without anyone knowing your stretching.

The Figure of Four piriformis muscle stretch can be done in three different positions:

  • Laying on your back,
  • Sitting,
  • Standing.

Watch the three videos below which show you how to perform the stretch correctly.

#1 Seated Figure Four Stretch

As you can see in the first video when doing the muscle stretch it is important not to round your lower back. Keeping a lengthened, straight spine allows you to isolate the piriformis muscle at the hip joint.

The general rule with stretching is to hold the stretch in a comfortable stretch position for 30 sec maybe repeat 2-3 times and do this throughout the day.

Keypoints for good stretch technique:

  1. Put your right or left leg with the ankle on top of the other knee whilst sitting,
  2. Have your shin in a straight line under the knee not with a foot ahead of you,
  3. You might need to sit in the middle to the front of a seat,
  4. Very important to sit-up straight creating a long spine,
  5. Lean forward with a straight back toward your calf muscle
  6. You should feel a stretch on the side of the top leg.

At a desk you can hide the leg underneath the desk and still lean forward which makes you look like your reading the computer screen. As a bonus sitting up tall fixes a slouched posture from sitting at the desk too long. This is why I also use it as an upper body posture exercise.

#2 Laying Down Figure Four Stretch

You probably seen people in the stretch area of gym do this one or on a sports field warm-up.

#3 Standing Figure of Four Stretch

Good for how to stretch on a plane at the back of the cabin or when needing a quick stretch from standing all day.

The Bottom Line

Do you feel a good stretch in your hip, buttock area or lower back region when doing the Figure of Four stretch? Do you find you can’t lift one leg up onto the knee as well? Is one hip very tight when trying to stretch your piriformis muscle? It is amazing the difference you can feel between the left and right side. I hope you enjoyed it 🙂

Image Credit: Some rights reserved by comedy_nose
  • gary graham

    When I attempt to do any variety of this stretch, my leg goes numb from the knee down in 30 sec or less., and my knee “pops” once (painfully) at the very beginning of the stretch. But only pops the first time I try for the day. Any Thoughts? Also on the left side sticking with your male / female theory.

  • Just a PT

    Always wonder why so many tout this as a piriformis stretch when the actions of the piriformis change based on hip flexion.

  • Eyasu Engdawork

    I seat on the chair upright, stretch my right leg forward with the toes up as you did in the video and facing down and move to the forward, ohh it is really amazing i felt it it badly. It is the pain exactly i am feeling while walking or standing long. I feel it on my right side around 15cm above my seat level. (during the exercise i feel the pain throughout my leg). So shall I do the same 20 times for some time?

  • Ralph Johnson

    Hi Gary , You are probably right , but in my case i have degenerative changes in C5- C6 and on left of C7 !
    My problem is that i have moved to Portugal and to find a good Chiropracter over here , is rather difficult !

  • I have noticed most men get a pain on the left whereas women it tends to be on the right. I think I should do a poll asking that question.

  • Ralph Johnson

    when i do figure of four excercise i get nothing when i cross right leg onto left , but left leg onto right then i feel it so it seems what ever it is damage on left side

  • Glad to hear your feeling better Allan. It is always advisable with a hip replacement though to not rotate the new hip joint beyond its capabilities and get the opinion of the surgeon or a healthcare professional that deals with hip replacement rehabilitation about whether your hip replacement could do the figure of four stretch.

  • Allan

    This has worked wonders for me I had a sharp pain in my right thigh when standing up and walking
    I had a hip replacement last August and I have had this pain ever since.
    But no one has sujested these exersizes I noticed after the first day what a diferance this had
    made I have had this pain for 14 months so I reserched and found this site, I wish I had done the reserch a lot earlier but you expect the experts to know.
    If you have my problem try this its amazed me.
    Thanks Allan

  • You may be getting some sciatica from a pinched nerve in your back not just a piriformis muscle tension.

  • Ralph johnson

    just tried the above exercise and where i feel the pull in the lower back as i do it and that is mainly where the pain always is especially when i walk also seemed to have lost balance and when walking tend to get sharp pain resulting in leg giving way