Can’t Do A Downward Dog With Your Heels Down? These Three Exercises May Help

Six people performing downward-facing dog yoga pose in a studio
(Image credit: Prasit photo / Getty Images)

Whether or not you’ve tried yoga, you’ve probably come across a move known as downward-facing dog. It’s often used in the warm-up before fitness classes and it’s one of the best movements for stretching and strengthening your hamstrings, hips and shoulders.

To do a downward dog, begin on your hands and knees, then move your hips up and back, and extend your legs to form an inverted V with your body. 

It seems simple, but it’s a pose that requires flexibility and mobility. Some people will find it uncomfortable to begin with while others will be unable to bring their heels to the floor. 

I asked Helen O’Leary, physiotherapist and clinical director at Complete Pilates, what you can do to improve your range of motion and make the movement more comfortable.

“It is important to realize that it may not be possible for everyone to touch their heels to the floor simply due to their own genetic makeup and what range they have within their skeleton,” says O’Leary.

Even if you’re one of those people, moving your feet closer to the floor in the downward dog pose is a good goal to set yourself, in order to get the most out of the exercise.

“Generally to improve your downward dog, you need to do mobility work around your calves, the backs of your legs and the lower back,” says O'Leary.

O'Leary recommends dynamic exercises instead of static stretching to strengthen and lengthen the muscles in the back of your body. Here are three to get you started.

1 Romanian deadlift

Reps 8-12

Hold a barbell or two heavy dumbbells in front of your thighs and stand with your feet hip-width apart. Keeping a slight bend in your knees, a straight back and the weight close to your body throughout, push your hips back to lower the weight until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, then push through your feet to return to the start. Aim to lower slowly and return to the start powerfully. 

2 Thread the needle

Reps 4-5 each side

Start on your hands and knees. Thread your right arm between your left arm and leg, rotating your torso to reach as far to the left as you can. Bend your left elbow so that your right shoulder reaches as close to the floor as possible. Return to the start then repeat on the other side, alternating sides with each rep.

3 Lateral lunge

Reps 8-12

Stand with your legs wider than shoulder-width apart. Bend your right knee and sit your hips back as you lower to the right, while keeping your left leg extended. Push through your right foot to return to the start and repeat on the other side, alternating sides with each rep. 

Alice Porter

Alice Porter is a journalist who covers health, fitness and wellbeing, among other topics, for titles including Stylist, Fit & Well, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Grazia, VICE and Refinery29. When she’s not writing about these topics, you can probably find her at her local CrossFit box.