In this article, I will address the subject of tight hamstrings rather than an injured or sprained hamstring. I have found tight hamstrings to be a common complaint in the clinic, with runners and triathletes often finding them hard to release by stretching the muscle alone.
The hamstrings are a group of three muscles at the back of the thigh. They go from the sit bones at the top of the leg down to either side of the knee – 2 to the inside and one to the outside. The main functions the hamstrings are involved in is bending the knee and also extending the whole leg backwards. They help you to accelerate when running. Therefore they often get injured in sprinting activities or sports requiring fast changes of pace and direction e.g. soccer.
Your hamstring also has a role in posture as they attach to the pelvis via the sit bones; they help to keep the pelvis level by working with other muscles attaching to the front and back of the pelvis from the legs, back and abdominal area.
Aside from specific sporting activities, hamstring tightness is also caused by other factors such as nerve supply, antagonist (opposing) muscles and problems with the back. It can be for these reasons that stretching the hamstring alone can be ineffective.
Compression of the sciatic nerve: The hamstrings receive their nerve supply from the sciatic nerve which originates in the lower back and travels through the gluteal area into the hamstrings, and from there down into the calf and shin. If the sciatic nerve is aggravated e.g. it is trapped between tight muscles in the back or in the gluteal area (in particular a small muscle called the piriformis) or is compressed at the spine it can cause the hamstring to tighten up. For this reason, sometimes stretching out the back and the gluteals can free up the hamstrings significantly. If you have pain or pins and needles anywhere down the path of the sciatic nerve (gluteals, back of the thigh and lower leg) see a qualified practitioner for assessment and treatment.
Posture and tight hip flexors: Pain and ache in the hamstrings can also be due to an imbalance in the muscles around the hamstring. Tight hip flexors can tilt the pelvis forward, pulling the sit bones upwards and as a result put the hamstrings on a continuous stretch leading to an aching feeling when it is exercised. The hip flexors can be very dominant, and tighten up when seated for long periods, during sports requiring high leg lifts such as kickboxing and sprinting, or sports requiring a flexed posture e.g. hockey or cycling. Tight muscles in the lower back also help to tilt the pelvis forward. This creates a deeper than normal curve in the lower back. This posture is also associated with weaker abdominals. Stretching the hip flexors and the lower back is important to help the pelvis to be correctly aligned and to take the pressure off the hamstrings.
Flat back posture: This posture occurs when the hamstrings are so tight they tilt the pelvis backwards flattening the normal curve in the lower back. This leads to a weakening of the quadriceps (front of thigh) and back muscles.
Weak gluteus maximus: The hamstrings work with the gluteus maximus – the largest of your gluteal muscles – to extend your leg behind you. If your gluteus maximus is weak it can cause the hamstrings to overwork
Back problems such as herniated discs and degeneration can cause the hamstring to tighten up. If you have back pain you should get this assessed and treated by a qualified practitioner. This will help with your hamstring tightness.
Genetic: Some people are just born with naturally short hamstrings
Bike set up: if you notice your hamstrings tighten up after cycling check your bike set up, in particular, your saddle height and saddle position because if incorrect this can be a contributor to hamstring tightness.
How to release tension in your hamstring
Get your back and hips assessed to see if there are muscles imbalances, back problems or incorrect posture contributing to your tight hamstrings.
Get a massage for the back, gluteal and hamstrings to help loosen out the whole area.
Stretch your back, gluteals, hip flexor and hamstrings regularly. Consider yoga classes if you are not good at stretching at home by yourself.
Develop your core strength to ensure that the muscles around the trunk and pelvis are strong and to correct imbalances in muscle strength. As outlined above, deviations in the ideal posture can cause weakness in various muscles in the legs, abdominals and lower back. Re-strengthening these in combination with stretching can help improve postural anomalies.
Sample Stretching Exercises
These sample exercises should not be undertaken without consulting your doctor first. All exercises are undertaken at your own risk.
Knee to Chest – stretches out the lower back
Lie on your back on a firm surface
Hug one knee to your chest and hold it for 30 seconds
Repeat on the opposite side and do it three times on each side
Gluteal Stretch (described for the right side)
Lie on your back
Bend one knee and rest the foot against a wall, the leg should be bent at the hip and knee. This is the supporting leg. Place the other leg in front of the support leg.
A stretch should be felt in the gluteal area on the side being stretched. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat 3 times on each side
Stretch for hip flexors
The stretch should be felt at the front of the hip and down into the top the thigh.
Kneel on the knee of the side to be stretched. Put the other foot out in front of you
Lean the hips forward and bring the shoulders backwards
A stretch should be felt at the top of the thigh. Raise your arms over the head to get a better stretch if necessary. Rest your knee on a cushion should kneeling on one knee causes discomfort.
Hold the stretch for 30 seconds and repeat 3 times.
Posterior Leg Stretch
This exercise stretches the whole of the back of the leg from the gluteus maximus, hamstrings and calf
Place the heel up on to a small step in front of the body
Keeping the leg as straight as is comfortable lean the body forward
A mild stretch should be felt in the back of the thigh. You may also feel a stretch into your calf.
From this position point your toes towards your head. A deeper stretch can then be felt. Hold for 2 seconds and repeat this 10 times
Hamstring Stretch – Lying Down
Lie on a firm surface face up
Bend the knee up and place a towel around the arch of the foot. Grasp the towel by the two ends. Keep the head on the ground
Using the towel draw the straightened leg towards the head until a mild stretch is felt in the back of the thigh. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds and repeat 3 times.
Moving the leg a little to the right or left can isolate the stretch to the inner or outer hamstring.