Begin with a simple test. Stand up, bend forward at the waist, and try to touch your fingertips to your toes without bending your knees. If you can’t, then your hamstrings – the three muscles that originate at the glutes, run along the backs of your thighs and attach to your tibia – are probably tighter than they should be. Consequently, you have an elevated risk for low-back pain and knee injuries, and your performance in sports and exercise may be compromised. The good news? By incorporating a few simple techniques into your exercise program, you can quickly loosen your hamstrings and thereby reduce your injury risk and improve performance.
Why They’re Tight
So why do some people have tighter hamstrings than others? “In part, it’s a function of body structure due to genetics – some people seem to naturally possess more flexibility than others,” says Sara Wiley, CSCS, associate director of strength and conditioning for athletics at the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities. But even when the hamstrings are not naturally tight, they often become tight to compensate for weakness or instability elsewhere in the body. “Specifically, tight hamstrings are often an indication of weak lower-abdominal muscles and/or weak lower-back muscles,” says Paul Goldberg, MS, RD, CSCS, strength and conditioning coach for the Colorado Avalanche hockey team.
All three of these muscle groups – the lower abdominals, the low-back muscles and the hamstrings – attach to the pelvis. The lower-abdominal and low-back muscles tend to tilt the pelvis forward, whereas the hamstrings tend to tilt the pelvis backward. If either the lower-abdominal muscles or the low-back muscles are weak (both common ailments), these muscles can’t counterbalance the pull of the hamstrings, which will shorten and tighten as they tilt the pelvis backward.
The hamstrings can also tighten in response to a previous injury, either to the hamstrings themselves or another part of the body such as the low back, or overtraining.
Why It Matters
Tight hamstrings present a variety of troublesome consequences, many of which can affect your fitness activities:
Low-back pain: Too-tight hamstrings pull back on the pelvic bone, placing strain on the lower back.
Joint injuries: Tight hamstrings often alter movement patterns during sports and exercise activities, which may put excessive strain on certain joints. “It’s like having bad alignment on your car,” says Greg Roskopf, founder of Muscle Activation Techniques (www.muscleactivation.com), based in Greenwood Village, Colo. “Eventually you get increased wear and tear on the joints.” Take bicycling, for example. Tight hamstrings cause some cyclists to ride with their knees splayed wide, putting strain on the knees and causing injury.
Inefficient movement: Tight hamstrings reduce the efficiency of sports and exercise movements in two ways. First, as noted above, they can limit range of motion – negatively affecting form, limiting stride length and potentially reducing running speed. Tight hamstrings are also unable to properly relax during thigh lifting and leg-straightening movements, creating internal resistance against these movements.
Three Ways to Loosen Up
Increasing hamstring flexibility needn’t be a complicated endeavor, but it does require some focused effort. Experts generally suggest a three-pronged approach comprising: 1) dynamic warm-up exercises; 2) corrective strength training; and 3) postworkout active stretching.
Dynamic Warm-up Exercises
Dynamic warm-up exercises actively stretch the muscles that will be required to elongate in a workout. Below are two that Wiley recommends doing before each workout. Be sure to warm up beforehand with five to 10 minutes of light, nonstretching activity, such as stationary cycling.
Tilt Walk: From a standing position, take one step forward and balance on the forward foot. Tilt your torso forward at the waist until your trunk is parallel to the floor or until you feel tension in your hamstring. Extend your free leg behind you for balance. Slowly return to an upright position and then step forward with the opposite foot and tilt once more. Continue for 30 seconds.
Frankensteins: Begin in a standing position with both arms extended straight in front of you like Frankenstein’s monster. Begin walking slowly by kicking each leg forward as high as possible, aiming to touch your right toe to your right palm and your left toe to your left palm. Keep your legs as straight as possible, and don’t let your trunk flex forward. Continue for 20 to 30 seconds.
Corrective Strength Training
There are two types of strength exercises you can use to overcome tight hamstrings. First, you can strengthen the muscles surrounding and opposing the hamstrings, which helps to reestablish balance among the muscle groups in the lower body. In particular, focus on strengthening the muscles of the lower abdomen and low back. Good exercises are reverse crunches for the lower abs, back hyperextensions for the low back, full sit-ups for the hip flexors, and narrow-stance squats for the muscles of the anterior thigh.
A second type of corrective exercise for tight hamstrings targets the hamstrings themselves. Specifically, Wiley recommends exercises that require eccentric hamstring contractions (where your hamstrings resist their own lengthening, such as during the lowering phase of a squat or lunge) and moving through a full range of motion in the hips, which can help improve dynamic flexibility in the hamstrings. A good example of this type of exercise is the forward lunge, where you take a large step forward and then slowly bend both knees until the knee of your back leg almost touches the floor.
Wiley offers an additional suggestion: “Using some resistance – dumbbells, barbells, a weighted vest, light bands – seems to aid the body in going into a full range of motion and therefore may produce an adaptive response [such as improved flexibility].” She notes, however, that your exercise technique and form should be sound before you add weights. “Never overload an exercise you can’t do perfectly with your body weight first.”
Postworkout Active Stretching
The best time to stretch your hamstrings (and other tight muscles) is after your workout, when your muscles are warm. Instead of conventional static stretches such as toe touches, consider active stretching techniques, such as those described next. Both proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) and active isolated stretching have been shown to produce better improvements in range of motion than conventional stretching approaches.
PNF Hamstrings Stretch: Lie face up with your left leg extended on the floor and your right leg elevated. Loop a towel around the heel of your right foot and hold the ends in your hands. Lift your right leg as high as you can without bending your knee. Pull gently on the ends of the towel to maintain this position. Hold the stretch for 15 seconds, and then contract your hamstrings as though you’re trying to pull your leg back to the floor, but keep your leg from moving by maintaining steady pressure on the towel. Hold this contraction for six seconds and then relax your hamstrings and contract your quadriceps (the opposing muscles), releasing your leg a little farther toward your head. Hold this enhanced stretch for another 15 seconds and relax. Now repeat the sequence with the left leg.
Active Isolated Hamstrings Stretch: Lie on your back with both legs bent. Begin with one foot resting flat on the floor and the other leg elevated so that the thigh is perpendicular to the floor and the shin is parallel to the floor. Loop a strap or rope around the bottom of this foot and grasp the two ends together in your stretching-side hand next to your knee. By contracting your quadriceps, straighten the rope-looped leg completely. Pull on the rope toward your head until you feel a good stretch in your hamstrings (you should feel slight tension, not pain). While breathing normally, hold it for one to two seconds and relax. Repeat this stretch a total of 10 times, then stretch the opposite leg.
Do one or two postworkout hamstrings stretches two or three times per week, incorporating them with your other stretches. Add some dynamic warm-ups before every workout. And whenever you do a lower-body strength workout, be sure to include one or two exercises that require your hamstrings to lengthen against resistance through a full range of motion. If you’re consistent in these efforts, you’ll soon be touching your toes and enjoying the other benefits of optimally functioning hamstrings.
Matt Fitzgerald is the author of several books for runners and triathletes, including Performance Nutrition for Runners (Rodale, 2006).