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Help! My Hamstrings are Tight!

Lots of people are under the impression that their hamstrings are too tight, like a pair of pants that shrunk in the wash. These muscles run down the back of the thighs from the pelvis to below the knees and can wreck havoc in all sorts of ways, particularly in the yoga studio, doing forward bends, or sitting on the floor with the legs straight out. Otherwise, they are not really a bother. Tight hamstrings can be something you go through life without ever knowing about. Until someone tells you “wow your hamstrings are so tight!” 

Other times, your hamstrings feel tight. There is actually a sensation that annoys you. You get regular massages and stretch every day, apparently to no avail. 

So what is really going on with hamstrings? Are they “tight?” What is a tight muscle anyway, and how does it get that way?

The hamstrings are three muscles (on each leg, so six total) that attach to your ischial tuberosity, or “sit bones” – if you sit upright on a hard chair, you will feel these two “bumps” on the bottom of the pelvis that you can sit up on, or rock back on. They cross the knee and attach to the top of the lower leg, so they can act on the hip (extending it) and knee (flexing it).  

When someone comes to me with tight hamstrings, it’s important to take an objective measurement to see if their hamstrings really are short or are they normal. If they are short, they won’t feel tight, because they are at their normal resting length, but they can be affecting range of motion of the hips and spine. My advice then is to stop shortening them all the time. Things that shorten your hamstrings:

  • Shoes with heels
  • Sitting with the knees bent
  • Sitting with the pelvis slumped
  • Standing with the tail tucked under (post tilting)
  • Always keeping the knees bent a little when standing
  • Never using full ranges of motion of the hip
  • Any combination of the above.

Now, the person who says their hamstrings feel tight is another story. It’s very hard to be objective when you are going by what something feels like. For example if the hamstrings are actually being lengthened, they will feel tight—but they are being pulled apart. If your reaction is to stretch them, they’ll be getting more pulled apart and you’ll end up making the problem worse. An example is if you are doing downward dog in yoga, and the hamstrings are getting lengthened, but you can’t get your spine to come out of flexion so you pull on them even more (usually by dropping the heels and/or cranking the tailbone up with the back muscles). You’ll be in that position saying “my hamstrings are so tight!” but they are just at their end range. Forcing them is not going to make them “less tight” or result in longer hamstrings. You might even create excessive loads to the connective tissue (tendons) that attach the hamstrings to the sit bones, resulting in proximal hamstring tears – which is a common injury in yoga.

If your hamstrings feel “sore” – this is often interpreted as “tight” – for example, after a day where you’ve worked your hamstrings more than usual (weightlifting, climbing, squatting etc.). Or maybe you’ve been sitting on the tendons for a long time, compressing them. Moving is great, go for a walk, but try not to obsessively tug on the hamstrings because they feel sore. They might be micro damaged and pulling on them might make the healing process take longer or result in more damage.

Ponder this: most of us have chronically short hip flexors (those muscles in the front of the hips) due to our habit of siting all the time, and then exercising on bikes and running or stepping or rowing etc, so much more flexion. But do they feel tight? Hmmm. If the muscles on one side of the joint are short and the other side long, what side is the sensational one? That’s right; it’s the long side – the muscles getting pulled on are the ones you feel. So if you respond by stretching, it’s only potentially making the problem worse. Stop wailing away on your muscles! If you go by sensation, you’ll just maintain the status quo. Learn how to be objective about your ranges of motion and work diligently but safety to increase them if it’s warranted. Making these decisions based on how your muscles feel might be leading you down the wrong track, or even the road to injury.