If you have tight hamstrings, you are in good company! That sore feeling along the back of your legs is felt by both men and women, young and old, athletes, weekend warriors and couch potatoes alike and if you’re like us, a good hamstring stretch is always welcome!
With so much regular use, hamstrings are like one of the belts under the hood of your car. Without proper preventative car care, a belt can break without warning and leave you in a lurch. So it goes for your tight hamstrings.
Without proper care, one quick move could lead to the dreaded “pop” sound leaving you with any injury that takes a long time to heal.
So rather than waiting for the worst to occur, let’s look at how to loosen tight hamstrings and learn some hamstring exercises and stretches for flexibility.
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Anatomy of the Hamstring
You can take better care of your car if you have a basic understanding of what goes on under the hood. Likewise, you can take better care of your body if you have a basic understanding of how it works.
So here is a little “Hamstring 101” to keep in your back pocket.
A hamstring is a group of three muscles that run along the back of your thighs which include:
The hamstring muscles start at the bottom of your pelvis, cross the knee joint, and end at the lower part of your leg. The hamstring muscle allows you to bend your leg at the knee as well as extend your leg straight back.
Knowing this you can imagine that almost every activity from running to cycling to jumping to squatting involves your hamstrings. No wonder hamstring tightness is so very common and why a hamstring stretch feels so good.
What Causes Tight Hamstrings
You might be surprised to learn that both heavy activity and inactivity alike can cause tight hamstrings.
Repetitive motion that contracts the hamstring over and over is going to tighten the muscle. Think of running several miles or cycling on some rolling hills.
In contrast, sitting for long periods can cause the hamstrings to shorten and tighten as well. The inactivity allows the hamstring to sit in one spot and develop a “muscle memory” as if it is okay to always be in that position.
There are many other reasons hamstrings get tight. Here are a few:
1. Bad Posture: One of the reasons for tight hamstrings is that your hamstrings come to the rescue to help when other parts of your body don’t do their job properly. If you have poor posture and your hips are consistently in an anterior tilt (forward position), your hamstrings are overstretching to help compensate and protect your back. Do you stand with your butt and stomach pushed out? An anterior tilt in your hips could come from tight hip flexors, too much sitting, or just because it is your normal stance. It is good to have an analysis done to check your posture and, possibly, learn how to stand in a neutral pelvic position.
2. Glute Underuse: If your glute muscles do not learn to fire as needed, the hamstrings step in and compensate leaving them overused and overly tight. Improper firing of the glutes is very, very common. If you work out regularly and have tight hamstrings no matter how much you stretch, you might want to get an assessment by a trainer or physical therapist and determine if you are using your glutes properly when exercising.
3. Hamstring Exercise Overuse: If you are a runner, you probably know this feeling well. If you go out for your first outdoor run of the year, or increase your mileage, you just might wake up and notice your hamstrings are super sore the next day. When hamstrings go through that repetitive motion over and over, they are working and, like all other muscles, they get sore!
4. Too Much Sitting: Have you heard the phrase “sitting is the new smoking?” There are so many reasons that sitting is seriously bad for your health, but tight hamstrings are a residual casualty of sitting too much. So if prolonged sitting creates hamstring tightness, make sure you are getting lots of standing and walking breaks in your day.
5. Born This Way: You may have been born with tighter and/or shorter hamstrings. If you have shorter hamstrings, you will likely experience more hamstring tightness. Simply put, your hamstrings are contracting and expanding with bigger force than your counterparts with longer leg muscles. Other factors you can’t change: men usually have tighter hamstrings than women, and older people have tighter hamstrings than younger.
How To Prevent Tight Hamstrings
Going back to our car analogy, you can’t make a not-new car perform like a brand new car. But with regular maintenance and care, it will perform better than if you don’t do anything to keep it running smoothly. The same goes for our bodies and, specifically here, our hamstrings.
Proper care will help prevent tight hamstrings and the potential injury that is to follow. The two best ways to make that happen are:
Proper warm-ups with dynamic exercises that put your legs through full range of motion to warm and loosen the hamstrings, and
A hamstring stretch routine after a workout to lengthen the hamstrings and keep them flexible
Below are two routines for you to try. The first is for anyone at any time, but specifically great as a pre-workout routine to prepare the hamstrings for movement and warm them up properly.
The second one is a post-workout hamstring stretch that should be done once your muscles are warmed up.
Hamstring Exercises To Loosen Tight Hamstrings
The key to loosening tight hamstrings is a dynamic warm-up. Prior to a workout or even before going out for a nice walk, take just a few minutes for dynamic, range-of-motion hamstring exercises!
Here are some Get Healthy U favorites:
The inchworm is one of the best warm-up and hamstring exercises around. It is great for the hamstrings, lower back, and entire front of the body. Try 5-8 reps.
2. Frankenstein Walk
Stand tall with both arms straight out in front of your shoulders. Walk forward kicking one foot at a time up to the straight arms. Keep the foot flexed and avoid bending your back or legs. Stay stiff.
3. Standing Leg Swing
Stand tall and hold your arms out to the side of your body at shoulder height. Step back into your right foot, then swing that right leg up and back to that spot 8 – 10 times. Switch to the left.
4. Plank with Alternating Hip Extension (straight leg)
Begin in a full high plank position. Squeeze the right leg and lift it until it is level with your body. Alternate right and left legs 10 times total. Keep abs tight and don’t let your back sag.
5. Active Straight Leg Lift (one knee bent)
Start by lying on your back with one knee bent and foot on the floor. The other leg will raise slowly up and down 8 times. Then switch. Make sure to keep your foot flexed on the leg that is moving.
Hamstring Stretch Routine For Flexibility
After you’ve worked out or maybe finished a long day of yard work, it’s a good idea to stretch out your warm hamstrings for more flexibility and less tightness.
Here are some great hamstring stretches to help you accomplish that. Be mindful not to over-stretch. Going too hard or too deep can be counter-productive.
Find a place in each stretch that is just slightly uncomfortable and hold it for 5-8 deep breaths. If you feel pain, you’ve gone too deep.
1. Downward Dog
Downward dog is a staple in any yoga practice for a very good reason- it works! It’s a perfect way to stretch out the entire back of your body including your hamstrings, calves and lower back. All of these muscles work together so stretching them all is important.
2. Pyramid Pose
Pyramid pose can feel a bit deep for many with tight hamstrings. In this case put your hands in a low bench, chair, or yoga block. Elevating your hand will give you that deep stretch without overdoing it.
The seated hamstring stretch is a combination of lower back and hamstring together. If your low back is also tight, this one will be a bit intense. One tip is to wrap a towel or sweatshirt around your feet instead of trying to reach your toes. Remember, keep a long spine during this stretch: don’t do the humpty-hump with your back!
By taking this long-legged stretch to a “lying down” position you remove the backstretch that comes with bending forward. This gives you a chance to focus solely on your hamstring. Once again, if this stretch is too deep or too hard to get into, take a towel or long sleeve shirt and wrap it around your foot holding the two ends in your hands for the stretch.
This stretch is a great pairing with the lying big toe stretch front above. Stay in that same position and then gently glide the leg over to the side.
6. Happy Baby
This is a great way to finish. Be more relaxed in your Happy Baby pose. Don’t over-stretch. Just relax and let your legs be relaxed as well!
Pro-Tip: Spend time with a foam roller!
Pin these hamstring exercises for later!