Tight hamstrings is one of the most common findings we have at the clinic. They may simply be painful or just tight. But that tension may cause issues elsewhere in the low back, glutes and in and around the knee. Stretching those tight hamstrings would seem to make sense to try and sort the issue. But whilst stretching those tight hamstrings with some concerted effort may help it isn’t that straight forward.
In this article we’ll be taking a whole mind and body exploration of all reasons that hamstrings get tight, and then discuss if it’s appropriate for you to actually stretch them and if not find the most appropriate option for you to ease those tight hamstrings.
It is this wider package we look to explore in this article. It is for you if:
- You’ve been endlessly stretching your tight hamstrings with no gain
- You’re feeling guilty because you feel you should do some hamstring stretches
- You’ve tried every treatment and stretch under the sun but those hamstring just won’t budge
- You’re just interested in biomechanics, latest research and an alternative approach
The reason hamstrings are such a huge topic is that it is the most commonly injured muscles in sport. And in my experience very commonly injured outside of sport too. As such there is copious amounts of research on the subject. My aim here is to disseminate the research into chunks that have practical implications and compare that with what I have seen clinically over the last 18 years.
What Are The Hamstrings And What Do They Do?
There are actually three hamstring muscles – biceps femoris, semimembranosus and semitendinosus. They originate at the back of the pelvis and attach to either the inside or the outside of the knee as shown. Their main function according to the traditional definition is to flex (bend) the knee moving the ankle up towards your backside. They also assist the glutes in extending the legs backwards in walking and running. Conversely they resist the motion of straightening the knee.
Excitingly, if you’re a geek like me, they are also involved in rotation of the leg. We use this fact to maximise our hamstring stretching in one of the videos below. This means, potentially, if your hamstrings are not performing their function, you could be more susceptible to rotational injuries. Putting your ligaments and cartilage in a more vulnerable position.
Finally, they are heavily involved in keeping us upright. Leading the fight against gravity so that we don’t all topple forwards onto our faces. This is confirmed in dissection by the colour of the ‘meat’. Hamstring muscles are paler in colour than their explosive neighbours which suggests they have more slow twitch or endurance muscle fibres. Suggesting it’s primary function may be postural, rather than as traditionally thought, movement based.
Why Do Hamstrings Get Tight?
Let’s consider this in increasing complexity. Fundamentally all muscles will tighten with straight forward overuse. If you do lots of hamstring curls, deadlifts or sprinting that you’re not used to chances are your hamstrings will be stiff and tight the next day. But they should recover. So why is it that some hamstrings just stay that way?
To me it suggests continual overload. They are simply working too hard most of the time. The following movement pattern is one we see frequently at the clinic and is a common culprit for hamstring overload:
- Hip flexors which lift your leg up in the air (quite important for walking and running!) become short and tight – often as a result of too much sitting, especially with bad posture or depressive type mood
- This in turn inhibits the opposing muscles (our backside or glute muscles) and their ability to perform it’s function which is hip extension. Pushing our leg out behind us. Functionally this is as we push off the floor with our back leg in running or walking
- This sub-optimal pattern leaves the hamstrings to have to compensate to help out. They are designed to assist in the movement, but they are not designed to do all of the work. This leads to their overuse which leaves them feeling short and tight on a long term basis
I discuss this movement pattern in the video below:
This movement pattern is exactly the reason why pretty much to a man, and lady, all cyclists have tight hamstrings.
The postural role of the hamstrings is a further reason for overuse and tension. Anyone with a leant forwards posture will cause the hamstrings to overwork to stop them toppling forwards. This posture can be reflective of a freeze response to stress. As if bracing for impact. Which also give generic tension through the body, not just hamstrings.
I like to call this ski jumper’s posture. This picture is of course somewhat exaggerated of what I see but hopefully you get the idea. People who have this should notice that when standing they have more weight on the fronts of their feet rather than spread evenly through the whole of their feet.
Why Wouldn’t My Posture Be Prefect
Hopefully the previous section made sense to you and you can get a sense of how important posture is to what your hamstrings get up to. But why would your posture be sub-optimal and therefore ask more of the hamstrings?
Previous injury is what is cited in all the literature. This could be direct injury to the hamstrings. Or indirectly quadriceps (thigh), adductors (think groin injury) and glutes (think bottom). But something had to lead to the first of those injuries surely!
I’d say that life was the biggest influence on our posture. Everything that’s gone before. So yes, absolutely previous injury is a factor. Especially serious ones or ones that worry us. Every emotion has an associated posture and over time that changes the way our bodies work.
Assuming you’re sat down right now slump (if you’re not already) in a kind of really hacked off kind of way. Notice how it feels in your body. Put a few of these days back to back and imagine the impact on your body. But a few months or years of this kind of posture and you can get a sense of the profound affect posture and mood can have on our biomechanics.
Here’s our video on the best way to sit to avoid such issues:
Why Are They So Frequently Injured?
I’m sure Biarticular is the word that’s on the tip of your tongue! In plain English that means that the hamstring muscles go across two joints (the hip and the knee) unlike most muscles which just cross one joint. These muscles are more prone to injury.
This is a standard physiotherapy answer. Regular readers will know I like to dig a bit deeper so let’s consider some more options.
We’ve been speaking about the hamstrings role in posture. So far I’ve neglected to mention that the hamstrings are just part of bigger functional unit that opposes the pull of gravity. The fantastic biomechanical bible that is Anatomy Trains calls this the Superficial Back Line – because it involves the superficial muscles on the back of the body.
Effectively these are an entire group of muscles that run from the base of your foot all the way to back of your head to work to keep you upright. Any tension on any part of this line can impact tension and therefore vulnerability into the hamstrings. I’ve included the representation of the superficial back line that we’ve had commissioned below so you visualise the concept:
You can see this in action as I demonstrate in the video below of how to stretch your tight hamstrings… and a few associated muscles too. Using a forward fold I include a stretch into the muscles in the back at the same time as the hamstrings to give a fuller stretch through the back of the body:
What I forgot to mention in the video here is that you can do a little bit of self-treatment whilst you’re in these stretches. You can either use your fingers to release the tight bits or if your feel brave dig a tennis or lacrosse ball. You may also get some release of the hamstring by releasing the arch of your foot. Refer back up to the picture of the superficial back line above if you’re wondering how that might work. You should feel a difference as suggested by this piece of research here.
If you do read the research you’ll notice how it only talks about the immediate effect. You might get lucky and you’ll never have to stretch your hamstrings again. But, more likely, we need to continue to consider the whole body and why you specifically have extra load on those tight hamstrings.
For any fellow therapists out there, Anatomy Trains aficionados or just very keen amateur readers we could also consider the role the hamstrings play as part of the Spiral Line. Look into it if you’re interested. It may be very relevant for you and I have seen that many times at the clinic. But there is only so much we can consider in this article!