Not a week goes by without one of my clients reporting that they have “tight hamstrings.” And not a day goes by that I don’t see folks on social media doling out advice about how stretching your hamstrings is the antidote to all kinds of ailments, including back pain.
But what if tight hamstrings aren’t even the culprit? And what if stretching isn’t always the answer?
Stretching has become the universal prescription for just about everything these days. We sit too much, so we need to stretch more. We have poor posture, so we need to stretch more. We have back pain, so we need to…you get the point. Thing is, I love a great stretching program just as much as the next fitness professional, but it’s time we recognize that making blanket statements about why we all need to stretch our hamstrings specifically is a little short-sighted and uninformed.
So, how do you know if your hamstrings are really tight or if you’re dealing with a separate issue entirely?
The first thing you need to do is determine if mechanical tightness (true shortening) of your hamstrings is really the cause. Here are a few ways to help you decide:
- Try and bend forward to touch your toes while standing. If you can touch your toes, then your hamstrings are not tight.
- If you cannot touch your toes, then lie on your back and try to raise one leg straight up to the ceiling. If you can get your leg beyond an 80-degree angle, then your hamstrings are not tight.
- If you cannot get your leg beyond an 80-degree angle, try using a towel or strap to help you lift your leg or lie with your legs up against a wall. If you can now get your legs to an 80-degree angle, then your hamstrings are not tight.
And if you are constantly stretching and foam rolling and manipulating the hell out of your hamstrings without improvement – you guessed it – tightness may not be your problem!
If you are able to do any of the above with little resistance, then the issue is less about the actual “length” of the muscle and more about your mobility, motor control and nervous system. Remember: your brain controls everything in your body, from breathing, walking, muscle function and more. If your brain perceives a “threat” to your body, it kicks in with a protective response (which can manifest as a feeling of tightness).
For example, say you have damage to your spine or an injury to a disc. In this case, when you try to touch your toes or put your spine in a risky position, the hamstrings respond with what we call protective tightness. This is the body’s way of keeping the disc from getting damaged or further damaged. This is sort of like your brain causing your body to hit the brakes. All the surrounding muscles sacrifice their normal functions to unload the lumbar disc, which leads to a feeling of chronic “tightness” in the hamstrings.
Another reason your hamstrings may feel tight (operative word being “feel”) is if they are doing too much work/overcompensating during functional movements. Think about it this way: your booty is supposed to be doing most of the work when you extend your hip, which is often. Like every single time you take a step. When the gluteus maximus muscles are inhibited or shut off for any number of reasons, the hamstrings will kick in and begin to also perform the action of hip extension. And if your hamstring is doing all of that extra work, of course it will begin to feel tight (although it’s not actually mechanically tight). It’s just overworked and really pissed off. Wouldn’t you be if you were doing a ton of extra work just because one of your teammates got lazy and decided not to show up?
These are overly simplified explanations for an incredibly complicated system that takes place in your body and brain. But at the end of the day, your body deserves to feel and function at its optimal level. And truth is, you owe it to yourself to get properly assessed, diagnosed and treated.
Christa Gurka MSPT, PMA®-CPT