Asking how to stretch your hamstrings is like asking, what’s the meaning of life? I say that because, although I get asked how to stretch the hamstrings all the time, there’s no simple answer. In this episode I want to expand your idea of what the hamstrings are and what stretching them actually means.
What actually are the hamstrings and what do they do?
The hamstrings are three muscles, They cross over two joints, the hip and the knee. And that means they influence both of the joints. The primary job of the hamstrings is to bend the knee. They also help with hip extension.
What is this obsession we have with stretching hamstrings about, and why is that not the whole story?
One reason is because people can feel tangible tightness in that area behind the legs. They can feel it when they lean over to the ground and pick something up. They can feel it when they’re running or doing yoga or other movement. The second reason is that when people experience lower back pain, they’ll go to a doctor and the doctor will say they need to stretch their hamstrings.
That might be the case. But I want you to start thinking about the hamstrings as a longer set of muscles that actually connect to a variety of muscles. So when we talk about stretching the hamstring, we actually have to think about that entire area. Because just to stretch that area behind the thighs would be a little reductionist. There’s so many other things tugging and pulling on it that we’re not going to accomplish what we want to accomplish by the traditional methods of stretching the hamstrings.
We need to see how the tightness of the entire back fascial line affects posture and therefore affects movement, like leaning over to get something off the floor, otherwise known as the standing forward fold like we do in yoga. If we are feeling that the tightness of the back is pushing the front forward, that would be first need to be addressed. We need to look at posture and get everything in alignment so we’re starting in a good position. Then, as you fold forward, what is happening? Where is the tightness most dramatic? I would say for a majority of people, it’s less than in the back of the legs, and it’s more in the lower back or maybe the mid back. And so the effort and endeavor to stretch the hamstrings isn’t really going to change much of the feeling of tightness. Where most people actually need to open up and get more space is in the low to mid back.
How to test if the tightness is in your hamstrings or your back
Come up to a wall and turn so your butt is facing the wall and your head is facing away from the wall. Walk away a bit so that you can bring your left foot on the floor. And then with the right foot, step up onto the wall in somewhat of a 90 degree angle. Your hands can be on a chair, they can be on blocks. If you’re more open in the back fascial line, they might be on the ground. But what is happening when you put one leg on the wall and one leg on the floor? What is happening to your back? Does it immediately respond by rounding? Or does it feel okay? For many people who claim they have tight hamstrings, it actually could be that they’re rounding in the spine. They’re tight in the spine, but they’ll feel it in the hamstrings.
How to stretch the whole area that affects your hamstrings
Staying on the wall, make sure your hands are in a good position so your back can stay straight or lengthened. Your right foot is behind you on the wall, not very high, just straight back from your right glutes, at a 90 degree angle maximum from the left foot, and then really get that spine length. The spine stays long, it’s not crumpling and rounding. The left knee can be bent. It does not matter if that has to bend a little bit. But if you want to stretch your hamstrings well, keep your spine long and straight. Keep your chest open, don’t round the shoulders, keep the head lifted without getting the chin up. And see if you can hold this for a number of breaths. This is a great way to stretch your hamstrings. And you’re doing it in a way that will actually help your connective tissue expand and stretch.
If you don’t think you’d be able to do that, walk it back a little bit. Think more about bringing just the leg up a little bit off the ground, or you can even face the wall. Put your left foot back a little from the wall. The right foot is behind that but they’re not staggered, meaning they line up with your front frontal pelvic points, like two train tracks. Left foot in front, right foot behind and then the hands are on the wall. Start to bend the knees as much as you need to and then hinge at the hips.