Friday, July 22, 2016

Stop Stretching Your Hamstrings

If I had to pinpoint one "tight area" about which many people complain most, it's the hamstrings. I'll often find gym-goers using multiple methods to stretch those stubborn muscles: asking a partner to push them deeper into a stretch, or yanking on their legs with bands. Yet, somehow, despite their forceful, repeated efforts, the hamstrings seldom seem to sustain lasting changes in flexibility or range of motion.

Stop and think before you yank your hamstrings into oblivion.

I've mentioned in previous posts that I'm not much of an advocate for static stretching. Today I want to explain why the hamstrings, in particular, do not warrant stretching, and what you can do, instead, to create a more lasting increase in hamstring flexibility.

The hamstrings are a very important muscle group for athletic performance. They are two joint muscles, meaning they both flex the knees and extend the hips. While strong, these muscles have a tendency towards facilitation (overworking). When a muscle gets tight, that typically means it's working hard for another muscle that's inhibited, or not firing properly. In the case of the hamstrings, we're usually looking at gluteus maximus/medius dysfunction and/or core dysfunction. In short, if your hamstrings are chronically tight, you have to check the muscles upstream in the kinetic chain and see how they're firing (or not).

In this video, Dr. Kathy Dooley demonstrates how one can alleviate tension in the hamstrings just by getting the core to fire properly. This is one such exercise that you can utilize before a heavy squat or deadlift session just to encourage proper core activation. You'll notice that doing this exercise regularly will have a dramatic impact on your hamstring flexibility. It has been more immediately effective with my clients than the traditional stretching methods, as this exercise attacks the source of instability and weakness, rather than trying to treat the symptoms.
This Bushman puts Kim Kardashian to shame.

The "core," or, in this particular case, the rectus abdominis, is an antagonist of the hamstrings. What this means is that as the hamstrings lengthen/relax, the rectus abdominis flexes the lumbar (lower back). For example, in a forward bend, in which we are standing and reaching over to touch the ground, our knees are extended, lengthening the hamstrings. The trunk is in flexion, assisting the hands in reaching towards the floor. If we do not have adequate strength in the rectus abdominis, the hamstrings won't be able to relax enough to let you get lower. In short, strengthening a muscle's antagonist can work wonders in releasing it from tension.

Similarly, weakness in the gluteus medius/gluteus maximus can result in tight hamstrings. Both the glutes and the hamstrings work synergistically as hip extensors. You've probably heard of the term "glute amnesia" before, which connotes butt muscles that don't activate properly. The cause of this is too much time spent in hip flexion (read: sitting), and not enough time running, jumping, and lifting! Now, if your glutes don't show up to the (hip extension) party, then someone has to take over their job. You've guessed it: the hamstrings are now responsible for the majority of your hip extension! No wonder they're in a perpetual state of tension–they're holding onto your hips for dear life.

What are the best ways to tackle these movement dysfunctions? Here are some of my favorite exercises:

  1. GHD hip extension
  2. Barbell hip thrusters
  3. Single leg RDLs
  4. Single leg squats on box
  5. Bird dogs
  6. Deadbugs

So while stretching the hamstrings may give you some immediate relief, you have to analyze why they're getting tight. If you continue to repeat the same process and it just isn't working, it's time to find a new plan of attack. Work those glutes and strengthen that core, and you may just free yourself of your constant need to stretch your hammies.

Works Cited:

  1. Dionne, Cassie. "Stretching Your Hamstrings Isn't Always Best." Breaking Muscle. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 July 2016.
  2. Dooley, Kathy. "Dooley Noted: Core Instability Hiding as Tight Hamstrings." YouTube. YouTube, 04 May 2013. Web. 19 July 2016.
  3. Nickelston, Perry. "Top 10 Muscle Imbalances and What To Do About Them #1." Stop Chasing Pain. N.p., 2 May 2016. Web. 11 July 2016.
  4. Yessis, Michael. "Stretching The Hamstrings." YouTube. YouTube, 25 July 2011. Web. 12 July 2016.


  1. Great review of this most frequently visited topic in the strength and conditioning practice of critical thinking coaches. As an Athletic Therapist, I would just like to add to your well made points! I do agree that if athletes possess chronic hamstring tightness, and they find that static and dynamic methods of stretching aren't yielding better length-tension outcomes in hamstring -length-tension tests, then definitely look for antagonistic/stabilizers recruitment patterns from the abdominals and glutes. I have found though that inhibited muscle groups like the glutes and lower abdominals "show up" as you say, much differently in conventional testing methods like muscle-testing rather than using function testing, like single-leg stability tests (Tredenlenberg test, or Poliquin's CLAP test for mutlti-planar stability deficits. All that said, some athlete's level of integration and development might still require the "static-stretching" gear to appreciate their real tension points. For example, using the anterior pelvic tilting or hip hinging to incur proper lengthening of the hamstrings vs. just bending over and not respecting how the hamstrings need to be properly stretched. These same athletes may still exhibit decent strength values in the g-max and medius. Also, the posterior chain is a long chain, particularly for the 16 year old hockey player.. there are many connections, to verify where tension is mitigating hindrance of movement patterns, i.e. plantar-fascia, lower-leg fascial bag compartments, and hamstring fascia. So, from a post-injury perspective, some athletes may require that static stretching approach for a period in order to process proper biomechanical stretching applications to appreciate their situation and which muscles are tight and which are weak and inhibited and not doing their job?
    Many thanks for allowing comments to be added to your article. Its early Sunday morning, and I was in commentary mood! : ) All the best. Jean

  2. Sorry, I forgot one comment. From the testing perspective, lying supine and testing hamstring length-tension is still relevant and practical. But, lying supine and stretching with a strap pulling the leg into a stretch has been shown to be not nearly as effective for stretching hamstrings (all of them) due to the single-leg stance and related recruitment of abdominals, and frontal-plane glutes to level the pelvis. Standing beside a bench and placing a foot out on a certain height level to stretch hamstrings gives the athlete a certain appreciation of how shorter length of the hamstrings will affect their ability to "stand tall" particularly maintaining a neutral spine, or slight anterior tilt of the pelvis. Lying supine won't give the closed-kinetic feedback to the person stretching and as what a posterior-pelvic tilt is doing for their posture.

    1. Hi Jean! Thank you so much for your poignant feedback. You definitely bring up some good counterpoints for stretching. I can certainly see what you mean regarding stretching the superficial back line as a whole to create some postural changes. I always love to hear different opinions/perspective! :)