Have you ever felt that familiar stiffness in the back of your thighs? You know, that “pulling” sensation that causes you to hinge at the waist and reach for the floor or throw your leg up on a bench and fold forward, searching for relief from the “tight hamstrings” that you believe you’ve inherited from your father.
After you’ve completed your typical hammie stretches, you feel a little bit better; things have “loosened” up, and you move on with your day. But then a few hours pass, and you find yourself repeating the ritual, seeking a deeper stretch in search of further relief from the nagging “tightness” that you still feel in your hamstrings.
Does this scenario sound familiar? If we take a closer look at the anatomy of the hips and hamstrings, it becomes clear that stretching them may actually do more harm than good.
The hamstrings are comprised of three muscles that all originate below the knee and cross into the hip to attach on the ischial tuberosity of the pelvis (what most people would call the sit bone). Because many of us spend the majority of our days sitting, the muscles in the front of the hip—the hip flexors—become tight and short such that even when we stand up, our pelvis is pulled forward into an “anterior pelvic tilt” by those tight muscles.
If we look at the image below—and consider that the hamstrings are attached to the backside of the pelvis—it is easy to visualize that they are typically in an overlengthened, or “stretched” position, even at rest and as we go through our day-to-day activities. The reason why we feel a sensation of “tightness” even though our hamstrings are not truly “tight” is because our brain is only perceiving tension in the muscle; the brain cannot discern whether this tension is due to true shortening/tightening of the muscle (which would benefit from stretching) or is a result of a muscle that is overlengthened (and would not at all benefit from stretching).
Photo taken from Movement as Medicine
Now that we have a brief understanding of the anatomy of the hamstrings and the typical pelvic postures of humans, it becomes clear why stretching doesn’t yield any long-term benefits. Stretching may cause relief in the short term because, as you stretch you are able to gain a small amount of additional length in the muscle; however, in the long term, stretching an over lengthened muscle will result in instability and can cause injury to the hamstring muscles or tendons.
If we shouldn’t stretch the hamstrings than how should we relieve “tightness”?
Let’s think of the hamstrings (in the back of the pelvis) and hip flexors (in front of the pelvis) playing tug of war over the pelvis’ overall positioning. Ideally we would like equal length and tension between both muscle groups to allow for the pelvis to rest in a neutral position. Based on what we discussed above, in most cases, the hip flexors are winning the tug of war and pulling the pelvis out of neutral and into a forward tilt resulting in overlengthend hamstrings.
There are two ways that we can help shift some power to the hamstrings and move the pelvis back to neutral:
Lengthen the hip flexors
As counter intuitive as it seems to stretch the front of your hip when it’s really the back of your thigh that feels tight, stretching your hip flexors can provide relief from “tight” hamstrings by allowing improved mobility of the pelvis.
Try completing a kneeling hip stretch, as shown in the image below, following these steps: in a half-kneeling position, squeeze your butt cheek and scoop your pelvis underneath you (this should cause you to feel a slight stretch in the front of thigh and hip in the leg that you are kneeling on). Maintaining a tuck of your pelvis and being careful not to arch through your low back, drive your hips forward slightly to intensify this stretch and then return to the start position. Repeat 10x.
Activate your hamstrings
Activating or engaging the hamstrings is akin to giving them an extra teammate in the tug of war competition. Engaging the hamstrings helps to “pull” the pelvis out of the forward tilt and towards a more neutral position.
Try laying on your back with your feet propped onto a chair. Gently dig your heels into the ledge of the chair and allow your pelvis to scoop underneath you (so that your low back feels like it is more flush to the floor). In this position, you should feel your hamstrings working hard;- maintain this position as you take three deep exhales. With each exhale, pull your ribs towards your pelvis (to further accentuate to scoop of your pelvis) and try hard to keep your ribs down as you inhale (which may mean you can only take a small breath in). *See the following pictures and adjoining video for proper technique.
So, the next time you feel yourself wanting to bend forward and stretch those “tight” hammies, try stretching your hip flexors and engaging your hamstrings instead. You might be surprised by how much longer you’ll feel relief!