Photo credit: Fiona Peters
Tight hamstrings—as with other areas of inflexibility—are often just one element in a set of inter-related muscular imbalances. And as you may have already discovered, regularly stretching your hamstrings is not getting you any closer to touching your toes.
When you stretch a chronically tight or overactive muscle without correcting the cause of the dysfunction, you may experience temporary relief, but it's unlikely to get to the root of the problem. As always, we need to take a multi-dimensional approach that combines stretching, strengthening, increasing mobility and diaphragmatic breathing. And when you put all these elements together, you get an effective routine for starting to release tension.
What are the hamstrings?
The hamstrings are a group of 3 muscles that run down the back of your leg, from the hip to your lower leg, crossing behind the knee joint: the semimembranosus, semitendinosus and biceps femoris. They are responsible for hip extension and knee flexion.
What are the main causes of tight hamstrings?
- Tight hip flexors The hip flexors (psoas, iliacus, rectus femurs and tensor fascia lata) become tight from spending the majority of the time in a shortened position – sitting at a computer, in the car, in front of the TV etc.
- Weak glutes Overactive hip flexors inhibit the glutes through a process known as ‘reciprocal inhibition’. As the muscles on one side of a joint become overactive, the antagonist muscles become underactive or ‘inhibited’. In the absence of glute strength and engagement, the hamstrings are forced to assist in stabilizing the hips and core and get tighter.
- Tight spinal erectors (lower back) The other synergistic muscles – the spinal erectors and adductor magnus – also have to work harder to compensate for a lack of glute strength and so become tight.
- Tight quads The quads get tight, especially in athletes, from overuse.
- Lower back and SI joint problems Shortened hip flexors, weak glutes, tight lower back muscles and overdeveloped quads can cause the pelvis to tilt forward. Pelvic misalignment can inhibit glute firing and force lower back muscles and hamstrings into compensatory tightness.
- Weak core Try this test to see how a weak core can affect hamstring flexibility.
- Perform a toe touch and make a mental note of your range of motion in the hamstrings.
- Now, sit down with good posture and squeeze a pillow between your knees slowly for 40 reps. Squeeze….1…2...release. You can do 2 sets of 20. Don’t squeeze the pillow with maximum force. Go to about 50%.
- Repeat the toe touch. If you have an inhibited/weak core, you'll notice the difference in your hamstring flexibility.
These 12 mini-sequences make up a complete solution for working on tight hamstrings. They will force you out of your habitual compensation patterns, activating weak muscles and relaxing overactive ones.
1. Decompress The Spine: 3-Part Breath
2. Spinal Flexibility: Cat Cow
3. Core Strength: Plank
4. Glute and Hamstring Strength: Locust Pose
Counterpose: Wide-Knee Child
5. Hamstring Stretch: Downward Dog
6. Hip Flexors Stretch: Low Lunge with Sidebend
7. Glute Stretch: Pigeon
8. Hamstring Stretch: Wide-Leg Standing Forward Bend
9. Glute and Hamstring Strength: Bridge + Counterpose: Seated Spinal Twist
10. Quad Stretch: Half-Reclining Hero
11. Core Strength: Boat and Low Boat
12. Hamstring Stretch: Reclining Hand To Toe
Other things you can do
- Be conscious of your daily movement patterns so that the issue doesn't just continue to get worse. Try to sit as little as you can get away with and take movement breaks every 30 minutes when it is unavoidable.
- Foam roll your inner thighs, hamstrings, shins, calves, quads and glutes.
- Sports massage stimulates blood flow, realigns muscle fibres and can help to reduce tension.
Let me know if you have any questions on how to put together your own routines from the poses that you have learnt from the videos. Substituting postures can be a good way to keep you from hitting a plateau.