These days, tight hamstrings are a common issue with many people. A tight hamstring complex can lead to a limited range of motion when performing various compound movements, an altered state of pelvic alignment, and make us more susceptible to injury during everyday activities such as running or stair climbing. So what is the protocol for dealing with such a common diagnosis? It might not be what you’re thinking. In fact, the most common technique, stretching, could in fact be impeding your efforts to relieve some of the tension in your posterior leg muscles. In order to fully understand this we must first look at some basic anatomy and kinesiology.
The hamstring complex is comprised of 3 main muscles: the semitmembranous, the semitendonous and the biceps femoris. The main action of these muscles is to flex the knee and extend the hip. These actions play a major role when performing activities such as walking, climbing, kicking and standing up. The antagonists – the muscles that perform the opposite function to the hamstrings – are the hip flexors and the quad complex, which, in turn, are responsible for hip flexion and knee extension. Because many of us today spend a lot of time sitting at desks, driving in cars or sitting in front of a computer, our hips spend an excessive amount of time in flexion and that causes those muscles to become tight or overactive. On the flip side, lots of sitting lengthens our hamstring and glute complex, and glutes specifically become under-active. Generally speaking when we have an overactive muscle which is shortened and “tight,” we want to try and lengthen it by using a variety of stretching techniques. The most common method is static stretching where we stretch and hold it for 20-30 seconds, increasing the elasticity of the soft tissue and restoring the proper length tension of that muscle.
However, static stretching and lengthening the hamstring is counterintuitive as the muscle is already lengthened. Because of this we want to focus on inhibitory techniques that help release some of the tension in the hamstring complex and strengthen the glutes, so the hamstrings don’t over compensate and take on even more work than needed.
The most effective technique to alleviate hamstring tension is foam rolling. Using a tennis ball, lacrosse ball, or an Orb will give a more direct focus on specific areas of the hamstring that are tight. This is best done at the beginning of a workout before your muscles are warmed up. Find tight areas, apply pressure, and massage the soft tissue. This relaxes the muscle and reduces some of the overactivity. After inhibitory techniques, it is best to perform some dynamic movements that incorporate multiple muscle groups, through a full range of motion on a multi-plane level. Examples include body weight squats and body weight lunges with a torso rotation.
Next on your list is to strengthen your glutes. Your glutes are the main muscle mover during hip extensions. If your glutes can’t perform the action effectively, your hamstrings are going to take over and become dominant. Strengthening the glutes will allow you to properly activate them during exercises and movements and give your overworked hamstrings a much-needed break. An example of glute activation would be a floor bridge where you lie on your back, bend your knees, and extend your hips towards the sky until you feel your butt squeeze tightly at the top of the motion. Bring the hips back down towards the floor and repeat. Another way to activate your glutes is by doing body weight squats. Make sure that you keep your chest and torso lifted, drive your weight into your heels when standing, and sit back to a position that is at least parallel to the floor. These simple movements can be added at the beginning of your workout to “wake up” your posterior and get it ready!
In order to alleviate some of the stress from the hamstrings we want to lengthen the muscles of the hip complex that are pulling and causing the hamstrings to become lengthened. Tight hip flexors can cause your pelvis to misalign – it also causes your hamstrings to act like piano wires that become tighter and tighter. Lengthening techniques or static stretches are best done after a workout when the muscles are warmed up and you are less likely to “pull” a muscle. Examples of lengthening techniques would be a kneeling psoas (a vital core muscle!) stretch and a standing TFL (tensor fasciae latae) stretch. Foam rolling the hips can also help decrease some of the over-activity in that area. Increasing the length of these muscles allows the hamstrings to return to their proper length and can dramatically decrease symptoms of overactive hamstrings such as low back pain.
As you can see, the initial instinct to stretch tight hamstrings may not be the best approach and in fact may be the exact opposite of what your body needs. By looking at the hamstrings as part of a system that involves antagonists and synergists to perform movement we can see that it is best to inhibit the hamstrings using self administered release techniques, strengthening the glutes and lengthening the shortened muscles of the hip flexors that are a direct result of excessive sitting. These simple steps described above can easily be incorporated into your workout for 5-10 minutes. Your hamstrings will be relieved, your posture will be optimized and your ability to perform functional and compound movements will become more effective and less prone to injury.