Let’s see how smart you are. What is the name the muscle group that when used as a verb means “to thwart” or “to render powerless or useless?” An injury to this muscle group is very debilitating. In fact, it can take an elite athlete a year to fully recover from a strain or tear to this muscle group. If you said “quadriceps” you are wrong. If you said “triceps” you are wrong. HINT: look at the title of the article. The muscle group is the hamstring. Have you ever felt “hamstrung” or feel that someone is “hamstringing you?” To reduce your chances of you hamstringing yourself by injuring this muscle group be sure to do regular hamstring stretches.
The hamstrings comprise three muscles: the biceps femoris, the semitendinosus, and the semimembranosus. It is located on the back of your thigh. It is a unique muscle group as it crosses two joints – the hips and the knees. Most muscles only cross one joint. So any movement that requires extending your leg back or flexing the knee activates the hamstrings. The muscle is under maximum stretch when the hip is extended and knee flexed simultaneously.
The hamstrings are the brakes when you attempt to slow down while running. This requires the hamstring to stretch while it is contracting or what is called an eccentric contraction. This differs from a concentric muscle contraction where the muscle shortens when contracting. Think of the biceps in the upper arm contracting as you curl a weight. Eccentric contractions are more strenuous to muscles and tendons and it is during the eccentric contraction that muscle and tendon injuries occur. Think of the biceps in the arm again. After you curl weight and then lower it so that your elbow is straight you will feel more tension in the biceps muscle during this eccentric contraction than with the concentric contraction or lifting of the weight.
Athletes can usually play through most mild muscle strains but even the mildest of hamstring injuries will shut an athlete down. If you ever had a hamstring injury you know this from personal experience. It is virtually impossible to do anything athletically (well enough) with a hamstring injury.
It is felt that by improving flexibility and strength in the hamstrings that injuries to the hamstrings can be reduced.
Exercises for Hamstrings
There are several exercises for the hamstrings both for strengthening the hamstrings as well as stretching them. In this article, we will focus on how to stretch tight hamstrings.
There is no shortage of ways to stretch the hamstrings which begs the question is there a best hamstring exercise? The short answer to that is probably not but in general, it is best to exercise muscles in a functional way – in a manner that simulates daily use or athletic use of a muscle group.
The hamstrings can be stretched while standing, sitting, and lying down. There are several ways to stretch the hamstrings in each of those positions. We recommend that you pick one stretch that involves standing, one that involves sitting, and one that involves lying down. For variety, you can change the specific exercise in each of those positions from time to time.
Basic Stretching Tips
The following tips apply to any muscle group you stretch.
- Warm-up your muscles for five minutes before stretching. In fact, it is best to stretch after a workout is completed.
- Stretch until you feel mild discomfort, but not pain particularly sharp pain.
- Don’t bounce or force a stretch.
- Be sure to breath when stretching and relax into the stretch.
- Hold each stretch for 30 seconds then relax.
- Stretch a minimum of three times a week.
Standing Hamstring Stretch
The standing hamstring stretch is the most functional hamstring stretch as it mimics how we normally use our leg and hamstring during activity. First, the foot of the side being stretched is on the ground (unlike in the seated or lying positions). Secondly, body weight is being applied to the stretch unlike in the seated or lying positions).
If you are stretching the right hamstring you have the right leg straight with heel on the ground in front of you. The left leg is partially flexed at the hip and knee. You lean forward placing your hands on the bent left leg while keeping your back straight. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds. As tension in the hamstring muscle releases you can lean forward further to reapply a comfortable stretch. Then switch leg and repeat stretching each muscle five times.
Lying Hamstring Stretch
The advantage of the lying hamstring stretch is that it better isolates the hamstring muscle and takes the role of the back out of the stretch. You may be able to sit and touch your nose to your knee simply because you have great flexibility in your back and not really isolate the hamstring. In other words, the lying stretch makes sure that the stretch is coming from the hamstring and not your back as a result of leaning forward.
In this stretch your lying on the ground on your back. If stretching the right hamstring bend your hip and knee at 90 degrees and have left leg straight out on the ground. Interlock your fingers of both hands behind the right knee then try to extend the knee straight as far as you can and hold the stretch for 30 seconds. Your goal is to eventually get the stretched leg pointed upward towards the ceiling or 180 degrees. A modification of this stretch involves pulling the leg being stretched towards the chest while straightening the knee for a deeper stretch. Hold each stretch for 30 seconds and repeat 5 times on each side.
Seated Hamstring Stretch
If stretching the right hamstring you would sit on the ground with right leg straight and in front of you. You bend your left knee bringing your left foot towards your thigh inner thigh. Then bend at the waist. You can stretch a different part of the hamstring by either bending towards your right foot or left foot. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds and repeat 5 times for each hamstring.
Why Stretch the Hamstrings?
Now that we discussed how to do hamstring stretches, why should you? Tight hamstrings restrict motion of the pelvis and increase the stress on the lumbar spine. Think of it this way. When you bend over at the waist you are stretching your hamstrings and lower back. If your hamstrings are tight you have no choice but to make the lower back work harder to complete the movement.
Tight hamstrings pull the pelvis backwards which has the net effect of reducing the normal lordotic curvature of the lumbar spine. This makes the lumbar spine straighter putting more pressure on the intervertebral discs while over-stretching and weakening the lumbar muscles.