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, mobility and diaphragmatic breathing.
What are the hamstrings?
The hamstrings are a group of muscles that run down the back of your leg from the hips to your lower leg, crossing behind the knee joint. 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.
The 12-Step Hamstring Routine
These 12 sequences involve multi-planar movements, stretching, strengthening, alignment and deep breathing. They will force you out of your habitual compensation patterns, lubricate your joints, stimulate blood flow, increase your range of motion, activate weak muscles and relax overactive muscles.
Move through them in this order and repeat as often as necessary.
1. Decompress The Spine: 3-Part Breath
2. Spinal Flexibility: Cat Cow
3. Core Strength: Plank
- Hold Plank for at least a minute.
4. Glute and Hamstring Strength: Locust Pose
Counterpose: Wide-Knee Child
5. Hamstring Stretch: Downward Dog
- You can keep your knees as bent as you need to in order to maintain a straight spine.
6. Hip Flexors Stretch: Low Lunge with Sidebend
7. Glute Stretch: Pigeon
- If your hips are not level, support the hip of your bent leg on a cushion.
8. Hamstring Stretch: Wide-Leg Standing Forward Bend
9. Glute and Hamstring Strength: Bridge + Counterpose: Seated Spinal Twist
10. Quad Stretch: Half-Reclining Hero
- Find a modified version of this pose here: www.yoga15.com/half-reclining-hero
11. Core Strength: Boat and Low Boat
12. Hamstring Stretch: Reclining Hand To Toe
- You can modify this pose by looping a strap, belt or towel around the arch of your raised foot. Hold for 5-10 breaths.
Other things you can do
As well as practicing this routine every 2-3 days, here are some further recommendations:
- Be conscious of your daily movement patterns so that the issue doesn't just continue to reoccur. Try to sit as little as you can get away with and take movement breaks every 30 minutes.
- 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.
You can find more routines to increase your flexibility in the Yoga 15 Flexibility series, available to download on Vimeo. Here is the link:
Photo credit: Fiona Peters