Tightness in the hamstrings seems to plague just about everyone these days. This is a far-reaching issue which can lead to low back pain, injury, and ineffective form when exercising. And traditional static stretching might be making the problem worse.
To fight tightness in your legs, let’s learn a little more about this muscle group and why traditional static stretching won’t fix the problem, plus I’ll give you 3 unique hamstring stretches that everyone should be doing.
A Plague of Tight Hamstrings
Tightness in the hamstrings is a common complaint. Why is that?
As we know, issues in our body aren’t isolated – a fact that’s often behind hamstring problems.
Tightness or imbalanced strength in the quadriceps and hip flexors can lead to anterior tilting of your pelvis and ultimately, tight, strained hamstrings.
Another common contributor is weakness in your glutes. If your glutes are weak, your body will start to rely too much on your hamstrings – making them overused and over-tight.
Spending too much time sitting on your butt can lead to weak glutes (check out these gluteus medius exercises so you can learn how to address this issue and build stronger, more balanced hips) , which might explain why so many of us are now dealing with tight hammies.
Before we can delve into this any deeper, we need to learn a little more about the hamstring muscles themselves.When we say hamstring, we’re really talking about a group of 3 individual muscles that work together to provide key movements in your leg – the biceps femoris, the semitendinosus, and the semimembranosus.
These muscles all run down the back of your leg to cross two joints – your knee and your hip – making them two-joint muscles, except for the short head of the biceps femoris, but you can forget about that because it’s such a small muscle.
Your hamstring muscles all start at the ischial tuberosity – a bump on a pelvic girdle bone that bears the weight when you sit down. (You may have heard the ischial tuberosities called the “sit bones.”)
Actually, take a second and lift one butt cheek and sit on your hand…
That boney part of your bum you may feel pressing down is your ischial tuberosity, and the origin of all your hamstring muscles.
Your biceps femoris lies most laterally. It has two “heads,” or different places where the muscle starts – the long head and the short head.
The long head is the part that connects to your ischial tuberosity, while the short head attaches to your femur.
Your semitendinosus muscle lies medial to your biceps femoris, somewhat in the middle of your leg. Your semimembranosus lies underneath, and is the most medial head of the hamstrings.
Down past your knee, tendons cross the knee joint and connect these hamstring muscles to the bones of your lower leg – your tibia and fibula .
These muscles of the hamstring work together to flex your knee and extend your hip by bringing your leg back .
As your foot hits the ground, the two-joint hamstring muscles are elongated at both your hip and knee joints. As you push off the earth to move forward, the muscles contract.
This quick transition from flexion to extension across two joints – especially when combined with imbalance in antagonizing muscles we discussed earlier – can make your hamstrings vulnerable to injury, strain, and yes, chronic tightness .
Beyond the Hamstrings
Tightness in your hamstrings can also cause issues like knee problems and significant low back pain.
This wide range of issues makes sense when we consider what we’ve learned about the hamstrings.
These two-joint muscles play a key role in movements we do all day long every day, and effects of tightness along their extensive length can be far-reaching.
Plus, tightness in the hamstrings can prevent you from properly setting up for moves like squat and deadlift. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that bad form can contribute to injuries and hinder effective strength building.
If you can’t properly build strength with moves like deadlifts and squats, that may mean your glutes are weaker than they should be…
And as we already learned, weakness of the glutes is a contributor to hamstring tightness…
Now we find out that hamstring tightness may inhibit your ability to perform glute-strengthening moves?!
Whew, that’s really a vicious cycle, isn’t it? So, how do we fight it?
Static Hamstring Stretching Won’t Cut It
You might think based on what every gym teacher taught you, that the cure for tightness in these muscles seems obvious – you just do some hamstring stretches, right?
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
You see, classic static stretching is not the be-all end-all to tightness that so many of us were taught it is.
You can learn more about my 3D flexibility system here to learn more about why this is.
But the bottom line is that traditional static hamstring stretching is missing key components to allow your body to become more flexible in a way that promotes long-lasting results.
Static hamstring stretches just address the symptom of “tightness” without paying any mind to what might be causing that tightness.
It’s kind of like popping a pain pill for a broken arm.
Yeah, you might feel a bit better for a little while, but that pain is coming back and will keep causing problems until you get to the doctor and get that arm fixed.
Well, consider me your flexibility doctor! And here’s my prescription for you…
For one, you’ve to build strength in the extended range of motion – that is, if you want your flexibility to be sustainable and improve in a way that’s functionally beneficial to you.
All this means is you’d like the improvements in hamstring flexibility to show up in your athletic performance. Like, say, in an effective kick with an impressive range of motion.
To effectively improve hamstring flexibility, you’ve also got to do some reprogramming of your neuromuscular system.
You see, when you try to just focus on flexibility without increasing strength, your brain will reflexively tighten your muscles back up to protect you.
While this might sound like frustrating news, it’s actually a good thing – your body is trying to protect you from injury in a range of motion you can’t safely control.
And once you know how to work with your neuromuscular system to improve flexibility, it’s not such a pain in the ass. (And it may literally prevent actual pains in the ass!)
So, what should you include?
A well-rounded, sustainable, and highly effective approach to hamstring flexibility should include strategies like mobilizing the joint before stabilizing in the new range of motion, building strength in the right places and deactivating overactive muscles.
With that in mind, let’s get to our unique hamstring stretches for flexibility!
3 Unique Hamstring Stretches Everyone Needs
1. Supine Active Knee Extension
- Lay flat on your back to start
- Leave your left leg outstretched as you flex your right hip to bring your right leg toward your chest while keeping a neutral lumbar spine
- Your right thigh should extend straight up from your hip – but allow your knee to bend and heel to relax down toward your glutes
- Slowly and with control, start to straighten the right leg – maintaining that natural curve in the lumbar spine
- Continue to straighten your leg and reach the toes toward the sky (your range of motion will likely increase as you do more reps)
- Start to bend at the knee, bringing the right heel back down towards your butt
- Resist the urge to grab the back of your thigh – instead let your hip muscles build strength as they maintain the position of your femur
- Repeat 10 times with control and then switch legs
2. Standing Active Knee Extension PNF
- Switch legs and repeat for 2 sets of 3 cycles on each leg
- Keep alternating – lift, relax, drive down, relax – for 3 full cycles
- Relax again and feel the stretch for 5 seconds
- Release the stretch and contract your hamstrings to drive your heel down into the surface for 5 seconds
- Relax your foot back on the surface so that you feel a mild stretch, holding for 5 seconds
- Stand up straight and contract to lift the heel off the surface for 5 seconds
- Start with one foot outstretched on the surface
- For this stretch, you’ll need to find something that you can rest your leg on that’s both stable and the proper height. Experiment until you find the right spot!
- This “proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation” or PNF exercise will allow you to strengthen the hamstrings and antagonizing muscles in an extended range of motion
3. Hip Hinge with Adduction and TKE
- Start standing with straight legs
- Hinge at your hips and reach down to grab your leg just below the patella
- Internally rotate your legs while contracting your quadriceps to straighten the legs – this will lead to “terminal knee extension” or TKE
- Keep squeezing your legs for 5 seconds – making sure to stay internally rotated so that your adductor muscles along the inside of your thigh are activated
- Release and come back up to standing with control
- Repeat for 5 to 10 reps
These 3 exercises are a dream team for your hamstrings for several reasons. For one – they put you in different positions: standing and supine.
They also incorporate both open and closed chain exercises. In open chain movements, like the Supine Active Knee Extension, your foot is free to move, and in closed chain, like the Hip Hinge, your feet stay still while your body moves.
Plus, these exercises build strength in not only your hamstrings, but also in the antagonists – your quads and adductors.
What’s more, the terminal knee extension (TKE) in the final exercise is an important knee health requirement related to hamstring length. By focusing on the end range of motion or hyperextension of your knee, you build strength in an important and vulnerable area.
Now you don’t want to go too far with TKE but you do want to aim for between 0° and 5° of knee extension for healthy knees.
In short – these exercises combine a lot of factors in my 3D flexibility system that I mentioned earlier.
These 3 exercises build functional strength across several different muscles in a new range of motion, which will immediately allow you to use and keep the flexibility you gain.
In turn, this helps provide your neuromuscular system with reassurance that these moves are safe, supported by strength, and thus do not need to be combatted with reflexive tightening.
Everyone should be doing these hamstring stretches. Give them a try and I’m sure you’ll feel the benefits.