It can often seem like there are two kinds of people in the world – flexible people and those who… well, aren’t. This distinction seems especially noticeable when you fall into the “not flexible” camp.
So what’s the deal? What are the causes of tight hamstrings? How can I improve my flexibility?
There’s a few factors that contribute to a lack of hamstring flexibility, such as:
Truly tight hamstrings
Decreased back/pelvis mobility
So let’s take a look at some of these factors and some strategies you can use to improve your hamstring flexibility...
First of all, are your hamstrings really the problem?
This may seem silly or obvious, but just because you can’t touch your toes doesn’t necessarily mean your hamstrings are to blame for your limited range of motion. There can be quite a few structures in your “posterior chain” that are limiting your movement, especially if you have a job that requires you to sit or drive for long periods of time.
For example, your calves (gastrocnemius muscles) cross the knee joint, so restrictions there can make keeping your knees straight harder than it should be.
Also, the connections from your deep hip muscles (glutes, piriformis, etc.) can affect the ease in which your pelvis tilts, therefore affecting how you bend forward at the hip.
Another factor could be the tightness of the fascial interconnections between your muscle groups. Picture this as your muscles being “stuck together,” and so they don’t slide freely beside each other.
Then there’s joint restrictions at your lower back and pelvis, which can cause increased tension throughout your hips and legs. With these, people often feel much more freedom in their motion after doing exercises that loosen up the spine, like the roll over, without stretching our legs much at all.
Or it could be a combination of all of the above, which is definitely common with flexibility issues.
So, yes your hamstrings may be tight, but that might just be a small part of the problem (an outward symptom) and you’d want to address all of these issues first.
How should you go about doing that?
There’s a lot of things you could do to begin stretching out your hamstrings for greater flexibility, but here are 7 tips to improve your movement and flexibility now, and get rid of that “ropes in the back of the legs” feeling:
1. Don’t force any stretch, ever
You’ve heard this advice before (I'm sure) and probably ignored it.
You may have thought, “If I just work on it harder and push through, my flexibility will improve.” But the trouble with this philosophy is that when you’re working on flexibility, your muscles and nerves aren’t passive structures.
So, stretching too forcefully or too quickly will activate a “stretch reflex,” which increases muscle tension and resists the stretch.
Don’t fight yourself on this one! Here’s what you can try instead:
Pick a stretch, and rock slowly back and forth into the stretch several times.
Focus on having an even, steady breath.
Every few repetitions, hold the stretch for a bit and see where you’re at.
After a 30 seconds or so, you’ll likely find yourself further into the stretch with much less strain than before.
Try an elevated surface – a bench, chair, table, or anything sturdy enough to put your foot on. Just as described above, ease into the stretches with smooth rhythmic movements into and out of the stretch, followed by a short holding period.
I do a few variations in my classes but just choose one that you are comfortable with at first, then feel free to play around with the techniques to see what works best for you when trying them out at home.
2. Keep your knees soft when you begin stretching
Yes, go ahead, it’s fine.
Bending forward with straight legs is great if you can do it, but otherwise it’s not the best choice if you’re having trouble moving even a few inches forward in the straight leg stretch position. So, keep your knees soft and take the slack off the calves and hamstring attachments at your knees.
Focus instead on maintaining a slightly arched back, and keep your chest close to your legs with relaxed arms hanging down towards the floor. Resist the urge to try and touch it as this will make you over-stretch!
3. Work other areas first to relax the hamstrings
As we mentioned earlier, the source of your flexibility issues could be the result of the other areas of your body, rather than just your hamstrings.
Work on back and hip stretches, and also calf stretches before your usual hamstring work – you’ll probably notice you have a much better range of motion right away!
4. Don’t hold static stretches for too long, 3 breaths in and out max.
The results of many flexibility research studies have consistently shown minimal increased benefits for holding a position longer than 15 – 30 seconds. This is why I recommend doing shorter holds with more repetitions, especially if you’re just starting out with flexibility work.
Longer holds may be helpful if you’re working on a specific issue and after you’ve already spent some time working on shorter holds, but don’t spend minutes in a position in an attempt to improve especially when you are just starting out.
Holding for a longer period of time can be useful in certain situations, but that takes experience and practice to figure out if that’s best for you.
5. Follow up with active, dynamic movements
Have you ever noticed that your flexibility gains from an earlier Pilates session seem to disappear once you try to work on the position again? This can be frustrating, and this phenomenon is often caused by a lack of increased movement in this new range of motion. So why does that happen? Use it or lose it, of course! Go on and do your hamstring stretch on a daily basis to improve in your next Pilates session.
The retention of a range of motion requires active use in the new range, otherwise your body reverts back to your old range of motion in that position. Essentially, you need to re-educate your body to move in this new range. Dynamic exercises such as squatting, side leg kicks, the saw and leg extensions will all encourage this new range of movement.
With that in mind though, keep the intensity low and well within your limits, and don’t do prolonged stretching before any heavy exercise.
6. Try just one flexibility