The Myth of Tight Hamstrings
Oh, hi. Stop stretching your hamstrings.
I said it. “But Nancy, they’re tight!” I believe you. 100%. But stretching is not the solution. If you believe that tight hamstrings are a curse from the womb, and specifically a curse of tissue quality, that the problem is inherent to the hamstring, and that the way to overcome this curse is to stretch, stretch, stretch, you’re not alone. Most people think of the hamstrings like a rubber band. The rubber band has a certain quality of elasticity inherent to it, and it can be stretched over time. But let’s think about this. The rubber band stretches out because a percentage of the microscopic bonds inside the band are breaking. And as the rubber band is stretched out, it loses tension, which is what makes it useful. But this isn’t even really how muscles work. Muscle tension is controlled by your nervous system; your muscles contract and relax according to your nervous system’s orders. That means that tight hamstrings are tight because your nervous system wants them that way, and/or because of existing mechanical tension. We’ll go over both of these factors. In short, stretching has it’s place, especially active stretching (when you use your own opposing muscles to stretch instead of mechanical tension lent by weight or leverage), but stretching is almost never the right way to manage hamstring tension. (An example of active stretching would be the prototypical yawning reach stretch.) Also, although your hamstrings don’t work like rubber bands, your ligaments do, and flexibility earned through constant stretching is often due, in part, to lax ligaments. Enter joint instability. “Okay, great, Nancy,” you might be thinking. “But what do I do if I can’t stretch?” Well, first we’ll go a little more in depth into what problems contribute to tight hamstrings, and then we’ll go over some solutions! PROBLEMS:
First off, tight hamstrings are often are already stretched by the position of your pelvis. Quadriceps and hip flexors pull the front of the pelvis down and weakened abs and hamstrings lose the tug-of-war. Check out the image below. On the right is the pelvic position I’m talking about.
The reasons why you end up in this situation are myriad, but the way to get your pelvis back to neutral is by activating the hamstrings rather than stretching them! Stretching the hamstrings will reduce their ability to keep the pelvis neutral and so will not solve the problem. And just to be clear, the hamstring curl machine is not going to have much carryover effect. You have to learn to integrate the hamstrings in your daily movement. Another cause of tight hamstrings is general instability. Your system compensates for poor motor control with tension in an effort to keep you safe.Think about what your body feels like when you step out onto ice. You likely keep your hands thrust out, shoulders up, your whole body tense tense. Muscle tension is a sign that you feel unstable or threatened. This inverse relationship between stability and hamstring tension can be illustrated by doing the following:
Reach down to touch your toes. See how far you can get.
Then squeeze a ball or yoga block between your thighs. HARD. (This stabilizes you!)
Find and feel your heels. See if you can activate your hamstrings just a bit.
Reach down to touch your toes again and see how much farther you get!
Reposition the pelvis using neuromuscular techniques such as those taught by the Postural Restoration Institute. This includes inhibiting the offending muscles and activating the hamstrings and adductors, then getting your system to accept the changes. (Sounds mystifying? I can help!)
Strengthen the abs, especially the inner abs, which attach to the front of the pelvis and will help pull it into neutral and give the hamstrings slack.
Train core stability. Increased stability will give the limbs something to leverage against (a solid core) as well as contribute to an overall sense of stability and control, which will reduce compensatory tension in the limbs! One of my favorites is here. It builds core stability while integrating gentle active stretching. Just make sure your low back stays on the floor!
Train single-leg balance while keeping a neutral pelvis. You will increase stability and train your nervous system to accept the new pelvic position. Don't arch or curl your back, but instead think of your pelvic floor opposing your diaphragm. Keep the relationship between the ribcage and pelvis constant throughout the movement. I like to keep a thumb on the bottom ribs and a pinky on the point of the hipbone to give a little feedback. And remember not to let the resting hip hike up higher than the working hip!
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