Quick. Take 15 seconds and read the questions below. I’ll wait 😉
If you answered ‘yes’ to one or more of them, chances are you suffer from tight hamstrings.
I say ‘suffer’, because chronically tight hamstrings can lead to a variety of conditions and injuries, including poor posture, lower back pain, knee instability and an increased risk of injury during sports and exercise. There’s even some recent evidence linking longevity to the ability to touch your toes (although I’m sure that there’s more than flexibility affecting this relationship; too much weight around the middle also makes it hard to touch your toes 😉 ).
The three muscles that make up the hamstring complex (the biceps femoris, semitendinosus and semimembranosus are collectively referred to simply as the ‘hamstrings) are located on the back of the upper leg.
They cross both the hip and the knee and as such function to both tilt the pelvis backward (also referred to as ‘hip extension’) and bend (or ‘flex’) the knee.
In weight-bearing exercises (for example, squats and lunges), they also work together with the quadriceps (the large muscles on the front of your thighs) to move the torso up and down.
Common causes of tight hamstrings
- genetics; general flexibility is determine, in part, by body structure. If you’ve always had poor, all-over flexibility you can blame your parents. That’s not to say you can’t improve on what nature’s given you though. You’ll just need to stretch regularly and consistently (and may never be able to match the performance of your favourite yoga instructor).
- weak core muscles; like the hamstrings, the muscles of the lower abdomen and back attach to the pelvis. Their job is to tilt the pelvis forward. If either the lower-abdominal muscles or the low-back muscles are weak, they can’t counterbalance the pull of the hamstrings, which will shorten and tighten as they tilt the pelvis backward. In addition to stretching the hamstrings (see my 4 favourite stretches for tight hamstrings, below), you’d also be wise to add some core strengthening exercises to your weekly routine.
- too much sitting; when you sit for long stretches of time you limit the range of motion through which both the hamstrings and the hip flexors work. As a consequence, the lower back becomes tight, as do the hamstrings and calves. Limiting sitting time, as well as performing full range of motion stretches (see below) will help to combat lifestyle-induced hamstring tightness.
- previous lower back or knee injury; often, when we injure one muscle, other muscle groups compensate. Sometimes they overcompensate, leading to stiffness, injury or inefficient motor patterns, even after the initial injury has fully healed.
When stretching the hamstrings (or any other muscle group), keep the following guidelines in mind:
- stretching is more effective when muscles are warm (at the end of your workout, after a gentle warmup or after soaking in a hot bath)
- stretches should be static rather than ballistic to prevent injury
- stretch only to the point of resistance, never to the point of pain
- aim to straighten the limb without locking the joint
- hold stretches for 15 to 30 s, relax and repeat
- use props (e.g., yoga blocks, straps, towels, door jambs) to support stretches than are challenging for you
- build stretching into your regular exercise routine (10-15 minutes, 3 or more times per week)
4 Stretches for Tight Hamstrings
Need ideas for stretching the rest of your body? One of the following posts may be exactly what you’re looking for:
- Essential Stretches for Mid-Life Exercisers
- 5 Benefits of Stretching more Frequently (with a guided video stretch)
- Exercises for knitters and sitters
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