The hamstrings tend to end up being the scape goat for a lot of life’s problems.
Low back pain? Tight hamstrings!
Hamstring strain? Tight hamstrings!
Bad blind date?? Yeah it’s probably those tight hamstrings of yours.
And the cure for all of life’s problems according to your old school football coach was stretching your hamstrings.
But hold on a second, what if I told that your hamstrings in and of themselves may not be tight and may not be the even be the root of your problem? Think about it, has your hamstring stretching routine actually help your back pain? If you’ve been stretching for years with no long-term relief, then maybe it is time reconsider your plan of attack.
Before we can go further into why you have tight hamstrings, let’s go over the general anatomy and function of the hamstrings.
Anatomy and Function
The hamstrings are actually a group of 3 biarticulate muscles, or muscles that cross and act upon two joints. All 3 of the muscles originate on the ischial tuberosity, or the “butt bones”, and cross the hip and knee joints.
When people think about working their hamstrings they think knee flexion. This knee flexion action also helps to provide stability of the knee in close chained movements, preventing anterior glide of the tibia on the femur. Basically the hamstrings support the ACL and are important in preventing ACL injuries.
The hamstrings also have an effect on the hips. They help assist the gluteus maximus in hip extension, a pivotal piece in athletic and everyday performance.
So What Causes Your Hamstrings To Be Tight?
A common fallacy is that the hamstring muscles become shortened. Unless you have had a previous injury or you keep your knees flex for most of your life, the likelihood of the muscle actually being shortened is slim.
If you can rule out any neural tension (from disc bulge to a nerve entrapment), then you may be dealing with protective tension. Your body is really smart and will do whatever it takes to protect itself, and the tight hamstrings you are experiencing may be for your protection.
This protective tension of the hamstrings is typically seen in those who exhibit excessive anterior pelvic tilt. An arched lower back and a “bulging”(not due to body fat) abdomen, are characteristic of someone who has an anteriorly tilted pelvis.
The hamstrings of those with anterior pelvic tilt are always “on” or helping to resist against further tilt. So is stretching going to help your back pain?? In fact it may make it worse as your hamstring “tightness” could be providing you protection against further extension-based back pain.
So How Do I Fix it?
Well the biggest thing that you must address is the anterior pelvic tilt. Many factors can cause this but they can all be categorized by one term, “lower cross syndrome” or LCS for short.
LCS is characterized by tight thoracolumbar(low back) extensors and hip flexors and weakness of the glutes and deep abdominal muscles.
So with taking LCS into consideration you can see three areas that need to be addressed; Glute activation, anterior core recruitment, and hip flexor flexibility.
Our desk job lifestyles can cause the glutes to “shut off” as they are sat on and put on stretch all day. The glutes help in posteriorly tilting the pelvis as well as take some of the extension requirement off of the hamstrings in powerful triple extension like sprinting and jumping.
A couple exercises to help “wake them up” and get them stronger can do wonders.
The MiniBand Side Shuffle Great for activating and strengthening the hip abductors. Simple and effective I like them for warmups A simple way to progress the intensity…move the bands down. The further from the hip the more activation of the hip abductors, glute med specifically, was seen. To make it even harder?? Add in a rotational component but putting the bands around the forefoot.
Another move you should do daily?? The hip bridge. Many of us spend 8-10 our days sitting on our butts…effectively "shutting off" our glutes. This can be detrimental to our performance and can lead to injury. The hip bridge helps to counter the sitting all day and "activate" your glutes, helping increase performance and protect your low back.
Anterior Core Recruitment
The anterior core is pivotal in “anti-extension” of the lumbar spine but it acts upon the pelvis to do this. The anterior core assists the glutes and hamstrings in creating anterior pelvic tilt.
My favorite cue to recruit the core is “ribs down”. A rib flare is often a sign in most folks of poor anterior control as they fall into extension of the lumbar spine.
Rib flare picture.
With the “ribs down” cue, here are a few exercises to help teach proper anterior core engagement as well as strengthen the muscles of the area as well.
I wrote a full article here on the deadbug but here are a couple videos of deadbug variations.
The plank is one of the best ways to train your body to resist extension of the lumbar spine, but it can be progressed to make things even harder with exercises like “stir the pot” and ab wheel rollouts.
Here are couple examples.
Hip Flexor Mobility
So wait, I am not supposed to stretch my hamstrings but stretching my hip flexors will help? Yes. Our daily lives of sitting for hours on end has led to shortened hip flexors in most of us, further feeding into anterior pelvic tilt.
Add some soft tissue work in with some self myofasical release and you may see some relief from your back pain as well as hamstring tightness.
Check out a post on proper hip flexor stretching here.
So just because a muscle is tight does not mean it necessarily needs to be stretched. The tightness may just be a symptom of a more global dysfunction. So if you have tight hamstrings, try attacking these 3 areas of concern and see if it does not make a difference for you.