Tight hamstrings are one of the most common conditions I treat as a doctor of physical therapy. They can be a contributing factor to knee pain, hip pain, and even lower back pain. It’s important that you keep tension out of your hamstrings and it’s important that you do it the right way to maximize effectiveness and minimize injury. Today I wanted to share with you six of the best ways to stretch out your tight hamstrings.
Best Exercises To Stretch Out Tight Hamstrings
- Myofasical release – foam roller and softball.
- Seated Hamstring Stretch – great for stretching the entire posterior chain up the back of the leg.
- Supine Active Knee Extension – an active stretch that’s great for people who need a less-aggressive option.
- 3-Way Hamstring Stretch – stretch the entire hamstring from top to bottom with this one.
- Contract/Relax Technique – engage the neuromotor component to decrease muscle guarding response and stretch even further.
Keep reading below for detailed instruction on how these exercises are performed!
What Are Your Hamstrings?
Your hamstrings are the muscles that are on the back of your upper thigh. They originate on your “sits bones” (ischial tuberosities), course down the back of your leg, wrap around to the front of your knees, and insert into your tibia in the front.
Hamstrings Are A Two-Joint Muscle
We commonly think of the hamstrings as the muscle that bends our knee. This is entirely true, however because it originates up on your sitter bone it also crosses your hip joint in the back. That being said, your hamstring not only flexes your knee, but it also extends your hip joint.
This unique arrangement is important when we talk about the functions of the hamstrings and discuss how we can maximally and safely stretch them out.
What Are The Functions Of The Hamstring Muscles
Because they cross two joints, the hamstring muscles serve two primary purposes and passively contribute to a third.
- Knee Flexion – when activated, your hamstring muscles bend your knee. Stand on your left leg and bring your right heel up to your buttocks. That’s your hamstring performing that motion.
- Hip Extension – because it crosses the hip joint, the hamstring also contributes to the motion of hip extension. Stand on your left leg, keep your right leg straight, and pull your straight right leg back behind you. That motion is hip extension.
- Posterior Pelvic Tilt – because your hamstrings attach on the bottom of your pelvis, if they are tight they can cause your pelvis to “tip” backwards (or posteriorally). This motion is referred to as a “posterior pelvic tilt” and can be a problem with back issues.
Are Tight Hamstrings Bad?
Tight hamstrings aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Many people have tight hamstrings and live completely normal lives. Problems arise when there’s too much tension in the hamstrings and they start to pull excessively on other structures. They can contribute to pain in the knee, the hip, and even the lower back. In fact, I dare say 4 patients out of 5 who come in to see me with low back pain also have some tightness in their hamstrings. If you have tight hamstrings you’re also more prone to tears and other injuries.
How To Stretch Tight Hamstrings
When we talk about stretching tight muscles and increasing length in an area, there are two important components to be addressed. First, we have to perform some kind of muscle release technique. This can be a massage, a foam roller, or even a tennis ball/lacrosse ball. Second we have to follow up with some aggressive stretching, but it has to be done the right way to increase range of motion and decrease potential pain/injury.
CHECK OUT THE FOLLOWING VIDEO FOR DETAILED INSTRUCTION ON HOW TO STRETCH YOUR TIGHT HAMSTRING MUSCLES
1. Myofascial Release with Foam Roller – put a foam roller on the floor and sit with your hamstrings resting on top of the roller. Use your arms to lift your buttocks off the floor and roll back and forth over your hamstrings. This can also be performed with one leg on top of the other for a more concentrated/aggressive myofascial hamstring release. You should perform this for about 60 seconds on each side.
You can also do this with a foam roller over the edge of a bench to really enhance the release. This technique requires less upper body strength and is a little easier for a more efficient foam roll experience. See the video above for how to properly perform this technique.
(Foam Rollers are one of my favorite pieces of at-home equipment. They’re so versatile and there’s so much you can do with them to stay healthy and flexible. They’re inexpensive and don’t take up much space. Check out this link to pick up your own foam roller today!)
2. Myofascial Release with Softball – you can also perform a myofascial release with a softball. Sit on a hard chair with your knees bent. Place a softball under your hamstring muscle and slowly extend your leg. This is a way that you can perform an active release technique to your hamstring muscle. Spend approximately 20-30 seconds on one area and then move the softball to another part of your hamstring. Repeat all the way up and down.
3. Seated Hamstring and Calf Stretch – when we talk about maximizing the stretch to the back of your leg, the hamstring is but one small contributing component. I try to promote stretching the “entire kinetic chain” – getting a good stretch from the calf, through the knee joint, and all the way up into the hamstring muscle.
Sit on the edge of a bed with your right leg on the ground and your left leg out straight. Grab a belt, towel, or sheet and put it around your foot. Now pull the towel to stretch your calf, focus on straightening your leg, and sit up nice and tall. You should feel a good stretch in your calf, behind your knee, and in your hamstring muscle. Hold 20 seconds and repeat three times.
For this type of stretching, I HIGHLY recommend the “STRETCH OUT STRAP” but OPTP. They’re a nice long length, a lower profile, strong and durable, and interwoven with handles to make stretching more convenient. CLICK HERE to pick yours up today!
4. Active Knee Extension Stretch – A great stretch for those who might not be able to tolerate full extension (leg out completely straight). Lay on your back and, with your knee bent, grab with your hands behind your thigh. Hold your thigh in this position as you slowly straighten out your leg. Straighten your leg as much as you can until you feel a stretch behind your knee. Hold for 10 seconds and then release. Repeat 10 times.
5. 3-Way Supine Hamstring Stretch – A great way to stretch the entire hamstring group. Lay on your back with a towel, sheet, belt, or “Stretch Out Strap” around your right foot. Keep your left leg straight and down on the table, and use the strap to raise your straight right leg up towards the ceiling. You should feel a stretch behind your knee.
Now, unlock (slightly bend) your knee slightly and pull further on the strap. You should feel a stretch a little higher up the back of your leg.
Now unlock (slightly bend) your knee even more and pull further on the strap. You should feel a stretch even slightly higher up your hamstring muscle.
Hold each position 20 seconds.
6. Contract/Relax Technique – One of the most-effective ways to stretch your tight hamstrings by turning off the neuromotor component that often limits a deeper stretch.
Get into the same position as #5 listed above with your left leg straight, and a towel (belt, sheet, Stretch Out Strap) around your right leg. Use the strap to lift your straight right leg up towards the ceiling.
Now hold this position firm with your arms as you push down with your right leg. It should be as if you’re trying to lower that leg down towards the floor, but your arms are not allowing it. Contract for about 5 seconds.
Now as you relax, pull with your arms to “take up the slack” you just created and stretch your hamstrings even further.
Repeat this procedure one more time to get into a maximum stretch in your hamstrings.
There you have them! Six of the most-effective ways to stretch out your hamstrings. These have worked for my clients for years and years and I know they can work for you as well.
Increasing your range of motion in your hamstrings is important in treating knee stiffness, hip pain, and even lower back pain. Keeping your hamstrings loose can also help you to avoid injury. Regularly performing these 6 exercises can help decrease tension/pain in your hamstrings and keep them nice and stretched out.
Looking for more great stretches for other parts of your body?
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