I stretch and stretch my hamstrings, but they are still so tight. What am I doing wrong?
Buckle in, my friend. This is a loaded question. We're going for a ride.
Whenever someone asks me what they can do about their chronic hamstring tightness there are 4 questions I have:
- Is the muscle tight and short? Or tight because it's overstretched?
- Is the muscle tight because it's overworked?
- Is it overworked because a nearby joint lacks stability?
- Is it short because a nearby joint lacks mobility?
Now the only way I can tell YOU for certain what's causing your tightness would be with an evaluation. But given that I can't do that via a blog post let me just brain dump for you and let you ponder your body.
Probable Cause #1: The hamstrings are short & tight or lengthened and tight
A quick anatomy lesson - the hamstrings attach at one end to the base of your pelvis and the other behind the knee joint to the tibia and fibula. So, if your pelvis is not in a neutral position, this can greatly impact the length-tension relationship of your hamstrings. (PS you have 3 hamstring muscles)
Your hamstrings may either adaptively shorten if the pelvis is posteriorly tilted, or lengthen if the pelvis is anteriorly tilted. This may be a temporary shift based on your movement, or it can be a chronic adaptation to prolonged positioning for a multitude of reasons.
So yes, it's a thing that your muscles can be too stretched. We're like goldilocks here, we want our muscles to be juuuuust the right length.
Whether shortened or lengthened, an altered muscle length can impact it's strength and it's resting tone. So if you can bend forward and touch the floor with flat palms but your hamstrings still feel tight, that's an example of an overstretched muscle. And if you are laughing at the idea of touching your toes because you haven't done that since 2nd grade, well then you're likely dealing with a shortened muscle.
What to do? Well in simple terms if it's overstretched, strengthen it, and if it's shortened, stretch it...and then strengthen it!
Probable Cause #2: Neurologic resistance due to an overworked muscle
Faulty alignment or faulty movement strategies can cause more activation of your hamstrings to help with imbalanced force absorption. An overworked muscle is a tired muscle, and a tired muscle will, at some point, become weaker and feel tighter.
A common example of a poor movement strategy I see over and over again is an underactive butt muscle (gluteus maximus) that has to over-rely on the hamstrings to do its job, which is hip extension. Think standing up, going up stairs, or the push off phase of running. All of these movements should be powered first by our GMax and assisted by the hamstring.
When the hamstring has to do more than its share of the work it's going to suffer from tension overload and then get mad, and the way it tells you its mad is my sending you a signal that you perceive as tight/tension.
Aside from correcting mechanics, a great way to start softening neurologic resistance to stretching is to breathe!!!
That's it, it's nothing fancy, but you have to be able to breathe through a stretch to allow a muscle that's used to being chronically on to shut off and release tension.
Probable Cause #3: Lack of joint stability
Depending on the position you are trying to get into (ie touching your toes), stability may be the culprit holding you back.
Take a standing forward fold in yoga, for example. I need to have enough core stability to support my spine and pelvis, and joint stability in my ankles, knees and hips in order for my brain to agree that this is a safe movement.
If something is unstable, or if you have a history of injury somewhere along the chain, your body may simply be protecting itself from going back into vulnerable territory.
Solution? Work with a PT to help you identify where the weak link is so that you can free up the need for your hamstrings to overwork. I'll tell you most likely you'll want to check in with your "core" (deep abs, diaphragm, and pelvic floor) and your gluteals (Maximis & Medius).
Once you've stabilized the weak link you should find less neurologic resistance (see above) and therefore much greater freedom of movement.
Probable Cause #4: Lack of joint mobility
Mobility and flexibility are not the same thing.
When I talk about mobility I mean the available range of motion of a joint, the ability of muscle tissue to glide inside of fascial sheaths without restriction, and the healthy extensibility of the ligaments.
What we call flexibility is something more temporary - it's the ability of the body to change its muscle length in order to move into a certain position with ease.
Some people are born more hypermobile. This means their ligaments (ie passive stabilizers, because you can't actively contract a ligament) have a lot more give and they can stretch and bend their bodies like gumby.
This is not necessarily a good thing. In fact I find it harder to re-train and stabilize a hypermobile individual than a hypomobile.
Hypomobile folks are on the opposite end of the spectrum. The joints are stiff, fascia is tight, and ligments thick.
If your ankle, knee, or hip joint lacks full range of motion, your hamstring muscle simply won't be able to lengthen.
A great example of this is a post-surgical total knee patient who lacks full knee joint mobility. The patella isn't gliding yet and the tibia isn't fully mobile on the femur. The result is that the hamstrings cannot fully lengthen, and over time will adaptively shorten (back to problem #1!).
Solution? This one requires the skilled touch of a manual therapist to mobilize your stuck joints! Once you have freedom of movement of all the joints involved, now the muscle is free to explore it's full capacity.
So there you have it, easy right!
Sorry if I just totally overwhelmed you.
I guess my point is this. There are many reasons that your hamstrings are tight, and if it's really bothering you then go find a PT and get it figured out!! You are totally within your rights to do that.
Just please, don't keep stretching and stretching without result an thinking things will somehow change, or that it's genetic, or that it just has to be this way.
Your body is adaptable. Your structure is your structure, yes, but again, the only way you know for sure what's causing these suckers to be so tight is to get it evaluated!
That's what PT's do y'all.
But if you're not ready for that, let me just suggest you try some yoga moves that target the hamstrings. Let me present my case:
- Yoga is not just stretching muscles in isolation. Yoga focuses heavily on spinal alignment. You'll start to understand, and simultaneously correct, any anterior or posterior bias of your pelvis.
- Yoga focuses on breath, which calms the nervous system. This is a powerful way to retrain the brain to feel safe in stretched postures and let go of chronic holding patterns.
- All our standing poses in yoga require co-contraction of the joints, which aids in the stability piece we mentioned. This means you can start working towards safer, more permanent changes.
- Ultimately stretching one muscle statically in isolation doesn't do much for you. It can temporarily relieve tension. But when combined with some more advanced neurological tricks, we can make more meaningful, lasting changes in muscle length.
So really, regardless of the cause, a well intended yoga practice pretty much covers all your bases!
I'd love to see you live on the mat sometime. You can catch me at Tosa Yoga on Tuesday mornings. Namaste!
- Comparison of effects of static, proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation and Mulligan stretching on hip flexion range of motion: a randomized controlled trial: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4763548/
Impact of 10-weeks of yoga practice on flexibility and balance of college athletes: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4728955/
- Flexibility of the elderly after one-year practice of yoga and calisthenics: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25858653