Tight hamstrings can cause pain, injury, and decreased performance. It’s time to learn how to stretch tight hamstrings in a way that will give you lasting gains.
Hamstring Anatomy & Function
Your hamstrings are a group of 3 muscles – the semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and biceps femoris – running along the back of your thigh.
The hamstrings are multi-joint muscles meaning they cross both your hip and knee joints.
They originate at the bottom of your pelvis, cross your hip, run down your leg, cross your knee, and then end at the tibia of your lower leg.
There are 2 main functions of your hamstrings – one for each joint the muscles cross.
At your hip, your hamstrings contract to cause hip extension, which moves the leg behind the body.
At your knee, contraction of your hamstrings results in knee flexion.
When your knee is flexed, the semimembranosus and semitendinosus, which are the medial hamstrings, work to rotate your lower leg internally .
Your biceps femoris, the lateral hamstrings, contract to rotate the lower leg externally .
When your hamstrings are fully shortened, your hip is extended back and your knee is flexed – a common position when running.
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Conversely, when they are fully lengthened your hip is flexed and your knee is extended. This is the position used in most hamstring stretches.
Hamstring curls and Stability Ball Leg Curls are popular hamstring exercises. Deadlifts are also a common hamstring move – especially stiff-leg deadlifts, which isolate your hamstrings more than regular deadlifts.
Hamstring Strains and Injuries
Hamstring strains are a fairly common injury, due to a couple of reasons.
First, from an anatomical perspective, the long, slim architecture of your hamstring muscles sets them up to be vulnerable to injury and tears.
Another reason is that hamstring muscles are not often intelligently trained and muscular imbalances are common and this is the reason you can actually do something about.
If your powerful quadriceps muscles are allowed to take over and become even stronger while your hamstrings are left in the dust, your hamstring muscles may wear out more easily, for example, when you’re sprinting around a track. This muscular strength imbalance sets you up for a muscle strain .
PLUS, your hamstrings might be doing double-duty, trying to pick up the slack for an underactive gluteus maximus, the muscle that is most responsible for hip extension.
Weak glutes are a big problem in today’s sedentary lifestyle because when we sit on them for hours a day, they lose blood flow and can become inhibited.
Dumping their duties on your hamstrings is a recipe for disaster.
This is especially true when we consider that the glutes are shorter, thicker muscles that are less vulnerable to tears. These muscles are not designed to perform the same tasks in the same way, and when the hamstrings compensate for dysfunctional glutes, pain, tightness and injury are likely.
How Hamstring Issues Can Affect Your Sports Performance
You depend heavily on your hamstrings when running and sprinting.
When you’re sprinting, your hamstrings have to work to decelerate your lower leg as it moves behind you and then quickly transition to pulling the foot on the ground to generate forward power.
This can easily lead to trouble.
At this point in the stride, as you take off from the ground, your hamstring muscles are in a lengthened position – your hip is flexed and your knee is extended. However, these lengthened muscles are also bearing the weight of your body as you press off the ground to move forward – creating a vulnerable position for the muscles and a common point of injury .
Your hamstring muscles also have to stabilize your knee as you quickly change directions while running. Think about juking back and forth on the basketball court and all the internal and external tibial rotation going on at the knee.
If your hamstrings aren’t functioning properly and you participate in sports where you’re changing directions at high speeds, you may be at risk of suffering the “unhappy triad” injury that is tearing of the ACL, MCL and medial meniscus at the same time.
How Do You Stretch Your Hamstrings?
When taught how to stretch tight hamstrings, most of us picture the classic standing hamstring stretch.
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This stretch involves propping your foot or heel up on an elevated surface. You then start to hinge at the hip as you bend forward, keeping a straight leg.
There are a couple of issues with this, the first one being that relying on a static stretch doesn’t do much to increase our range of control.
Even if you gain flexibility with this method, you won’t build strength over this new range of flexibility. Your neuromuscular system is prone to tighten your hamstrings right back up as a defense mechanism to prevent injury. It’s important to learn how to stretch tight hamstrings AND how to strengthen them in order to better prevent injury.
Plus, one study showed that static stretching decreased the explosive power of young soccer players for up to 24 hours after stretching .
And another study found that static stretching was associated with decreased muscle reaction time .
We’ve seen how important hamstrings are to activities like running and quickly changing direction, so loosing speed & reactivity in these muscles can have very big effects.
If you want to lengthen your hamstrings but maintain explosive speed and quick hamstring reactivity during a match, workout, or meet, these studies suggest that static stretching is not the best approach.
How to Stretch Tight Hamstrings for Lasting Effects
It’s time to finally learn how to stretch your tight hamstrings in a better way.
The technique I’m going to teach you today is much more effective and long-lasting than the static approach and doesn’t come with the side effects on explosiveness and reaction time.
This is a variation of a Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) technique. These approaches involve contracting muscles on both sides of the joint as you find length.
I take this approach a step further with my End Range Activation (ERA) method.
Basically, we will activate both the hamstrings and the quads during this move – the muscles that will move us into AND out of the range.
This will help build strength throughout the range and reprogram your neuromuscular system to realize that the range is safe and under your control.
- Stand with your right leg on the ground and your left leg resting on a chair or bench – you should feel a gentle stretch here
- Start to push down into the bench to fire up the hamstrings – think about flexing your knee and extending your hip, both of which will be resisted by the bench
- Hold the contraction for about 5 seconds, then relax and breathe into the stretch
- Activate the quads and hip flexors to bring your leg up off the bench
- Hold for about 5 seconds, then release and relax into the stretch
- Repeat the cycle 2-3 times per leg
Incorporate this technique and you should start to develop increased hamstring mobility and a greater range of control.
However, it’s important to note that to really improve the health and length of your hamstrings, you have to also make sure the agonist muscles are functioning properly.
Remember that if your glute max isn’t doing its part to extend the hip, your hamstrings will try to compensate, becoming more prone to injury in the process.
My Hip Flexibility Solution is a great resource for improving muscular balance and function throughout the hip and lower limb. Check it out if you’re ready to really take your performance to the next level.