Hamstrings – the muscles in the back of your thighs.
Most people have tight and weak hamstrings. Even those who do squats frequently. You see, squats mainly work the quadriceps but don’t activate the hamstrings as much.
Hamstrings have a huge effect on the body than you may think. They determine things like posture, athletic performance, overall strength and injury risk. So it’s necessary to have strong and flexible hamstrings.
In fact, tight hamstrings are known to cause pain in the lower back. Since hamstrings attach to the pelvis, when they tighten, the pelvis tilts and this causes the lumber spine (lower back) to be arched.
Now, to avoid all these possible problems you should strengthen and stretch the hamstrings.
And don’t assume that you’re naturally stiff because you can’t touch your toes when you bend. Most of the people you see doing splits are not naturally flexible. Flexibility is attained through practice and frequent stretching.
First, let’s look into why many people have tight hamstrings.
Why hamstrings get tight
So here are common reasons for tight hamstrings.
Sitting for long hours
Sitting down all day is the number one reason for tight hamstrings. These muscles usually shorten when we sit down. So if they’re in a shortened position every day, they’ll eventually become tight.
In my article about bad posture I mentioned how sitting can also distort upper body posture. So you have to reverse the many negative effects of sitting if you sit for long hours.
Anterior pelvic tilt
This is when the front of the pelvis tilts back and back of the pelvis rises. The common causes of this are weak abdominal muscles and long hours of sitting.
Realize that some degree of pelvic tilt is normal in humans. And women have more anterior pelvic tilt than men. But extreme cases can tighten the hamstrings, distort posture and cause back pain.
Previous hamstring injuries
If you’ve ever experienced a muscle strain before, those muscle tissues may not have recovered to their full length.
Frankly, your hamstrings may not be too tight to do much damage, especially if you exercise. But you will definitely benefit from improving their flexibility.
How to stretch hamstrings
Before I share the stretching techniques with you – here are stretching rules you should stick to, according to Jarlo from gold medal bodies:
Don’t hold static stretches for more than 30 seconds
Studies show that there are no additional benefits to holding static stretches for more than 15–30 seconds.
Instead of holding the stretch for long, hold shorter stretches several times. I may note that longer holds are beneficial in some situations but they’re not necessary when you’re trying to loosen the hamstrings.
Don’t force stretches
While it’s good idea to push yourself during training – it’s a totally different case when it comes to stretching. Muscles usually become tense and resist movement when they’re forced to stretch. And pushing them further can cause injury.
Instead, do the same stretch several times – each time stretching a little further than before. In no time, you’ll be able to stretch deep without feeling pain.
Stretch related muscles
The hamstrings cross from the hips to the knees. And as I mentioned earlier, the hamstring tightness can be caused other parts – like the pelvis.
Therefore, stretching the calf and hip muscles can also loosen tight hamstrings.
Warm up before doing static stretching
Have you ever noticed it’s harder to do simple stretches when you haven’t warmed up?
Doing light exercises like squats and jumping jacks will get your blood flowing and make it easier to stretch.
Use one flexibility method at a time
As you’ll see later, you can stretch your hamstrings using foam rollers, tables and so on. Even though these different methods work, use one stretch technique at a time. That way you’ll be able to know what works for you and stick to it.
Exercises for stretching the hamstrings
Standing hamstring stretches
As the name suggests, you’ll perform this exercise while standing.
To perform: Place one foot on a high surface – the height of surface will depend on your flexibility. If your hamstrings are too tight use a low platform about your knee-height, then use higher surfaces as you become more flexible.
Once you place the foot on the surface, press it with your arms to straighten it if it isn’t extended fully.
Hold that position for 15 to 20 seconds then switch legs.
You can make the stretch more intense by reaching the toes of the extend leg with the opposite arm.
Floor hamstring stretch
To perform: Sit on the floor with one knee bent sideways – such that your toes touch the inner thighs of the opposite foot.
Then straighten the opposite on the floor while and try to keep your back flat and stick your chest out.
Touch the toes of the stretched foot with the opposite arm to stretch the hamstrings fully.
Reclined hamstring stretch
To perform: Lie flat on your back, and then raise one foot high while keeping the butt on the floor.
Keep the raised foot straight, then grab its thighs with both arms and pull it towards the chest. Pull it as deep as you can and hold that position.
After 15-30 seconds return the foot to starting position and switch legs. Do this several times for each leg.
Foam rolling is one of the most effective ways to reduce muscle tension. It’ll deeply massage the hamstrings and loosen them.
To perform: Place the foam roller on the floor then rest both your hamstrings on it. Place your hands on the floor, behind you and keep your back straight.
Then slowly roll up and down the foam roller – keep the feet straight throughout. Keep going even if you feel slight pain, but if the pain is severe stop. Roll for 30 seconds and repeat several times.
If you’re experienced with foam rolling, you can stretch one leg at a time.
How to fix weak hamstrings – strengthen them
Strengthening the hamstrings will improve your overall strength and boost athletic performance. In fact, these exercises will help loosen the hamstrings a bit. And they will also strengthen the glutes muscles – which are vital for core and full body strength.
Now say goodbye to weak hamstrings – here the best bodyweight exercises for hamstrings.
Single leg deadlift
The single leg deadlift targets the hamstring more than most leg exercises do. And it’ll also improve your flexibility and balance.
It might take some time to execute this exercise if your legs are weak but it’s definitely worth it.
How to perform
Stand upright with feet together.
Bring the torso forward and downwards as you simultaneously lift the left foot backwards. The supporting knee should be slightly bent.
Keep your back straight and go down until you touch the floor on one hand or both – depending on how flexibility.
Return to starting position by lowering the leg and raising the torso at the same time. Repeat until failure and do the same number of reps for each leg.
If there’s one exercise that’s always in my workout routine it’s the split squat. It stretches and strengthens the hamstrings.
Stand upright with hands on the waist and then place one foot on a surface behind you (surface should be your knee-height).
The rear foot should be bent at a 90 degree angle and front foot should remain straight.
Lower yourself by bending the front knee. Go down until the rear knee almost touches the floor and the front knee is bent at a 90 degree angle.
Then slowly rise until the front foot straightens then repeat.
Russian leg curl
I’m not a big fan of this exercise because it puts pressure on my knees. But some people don’t feel any discomfort while doing it so you can give it a try.
It’s an advanced exercise that can increase hamstring strength fast.
Kneel on a pillow or a soft surface to reduce pressure on the knees.
Ask someone to press your heels on the floor or wedge your feet under a rail or a steady couch.
Keep the thighs hips and torso aligned in a straight line.
Tighten the glutes and lower yourself – use the hamstrings to support the body. Once you get on the floor use the arms to push yourself off the floor and reverse the movement.
Try to engage the hamstrings when doing this exercise. For more hamstring activation do the exercise without hand-support.
A great beginner exercise for someone with weak hamstrings.
Place your upper body (lie on your stomach) on a sturdy and high table that’s about your hip-height. Your hips should be on the edge of the table and the knees straight.
Use your arms to keep the torso on the table and then raise your legs and squeeze the glutes at the top.
Slowly lower the feet to starting position and repeat.
Tip: avoid rounding your back when doing this exercise.
Sliding leg curls
This is a great hamstring exercise which strengthens both knee flexion and hip extensions at the same time.
You need a smooth floor to do this exercise.
Lie flat on your back with knees bent and arms on the side – place your feet on a piece of cloth to ease the sliding. Or use sliding exercise discs.
Slide your feet forward until the buttocks almost touch the floor. Then slide back to starting position and repeat.
Keep your hips extended throughout and avoid sinking the hips when doing this exercise.
With these exercises you’ll be able to strengthen your hamstrings and even loosen them up. Lastly, I got a few remedies for pulled hamstrings if you injure yourself during training.
Tips for pulled hamstring
This is not a treatment method of any sort, you should see a doctor is you pull or strain your hamstring. These are just remedies you can use before you see the doctor.
Place ice of the pulled hamstring to reduce pain and inflammation. Do this for immediately after the injury – you can even apply it several times a day for 10 – 15 minutes.
But this may not help a lot if it’s a major injury. But it’ll help relieve the pain before you see a doctor.
Rest from training
Never train a muscle when it’s injured. Especially not the hamstring since it’s so sensitive.
Give the muscle time to repair and avoid putting pressure on it.
Just because the hamstrings are out sight doesn’t mean you should ignore them. Just add some of these exercises to your regimen and stretch the hamstrings after your workouts.
How often do you train and stretch your hamstrings?