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:
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.
- Dionne, Cassie. "Stretching Your Hamstrings Isn't Always Best." Breaking Muscle. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 July 2016.
- Dooley, Kathy. "Dooley Noted: Core Instability Hiding as Tight Hamstrings." YouTube. YouTube, 04 May 2013. Web. 19 July 2016.
- 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.
- Yessis, Michael. "Stretching The Hamstrings." YouTube. YouTube, 25 July 2011. Web. 12 July 2016.