Hamstring stretching – why you need it in your life

Ok, it’s not a cure for cancer, nor will it solve any love life dramas. However, a good dose of hamstring stretching can improve your day, and even help your posture.

Most muscle groups in the body do one of 2 things when weak: they tighten, or they lengthen. You may have naturally longer or shorter hamstrings, depending on your build, and the natural posture that “fits” your skeleton. 

Static hamstring stretching (holding a stretch) can be really beneficial to allow the golgi tendon organs (GTOs) to inhibit the muscle spindles from activating. Translated: holding a stretch helps to relax the muscle so you get the benefit of the soft tissues lengthening. A good guide to what feels like a “stretch” is thinking of it on a pain scale. If 10 out of 10 is the most pain you can imagine, and zero is no pain at all, a stretch shouldn’t go above 3.

Now, to hamstring stretching.

If you struggle to reach your toes, there’s a good chance it’s because your hamstrings are short (see the picture above).

Shorter hamstrings pull down on the back of the pelvis, and act to tilt the pelvis backwards. This flattens the lower back, and can weaken the muscles at the back of the hip (the gluteals). Amongst other things, this can cause back pain. Stretching and lengthening the hamstrings can help ease back pain by correcting the pelvic tilt.

So, how do we stretch the hamstrings? Keep going back to the pictures above with the tilt of the pelvis. Consciously being able to tilt forwards or backwards will build or reduce the sensation of hamstring stretch in any position. It’s also a really useful way of reducing tension and stiffness in your lower back.

Image from bodymotion.co.uk https://bit.ly/35SOa6m

In standing: starting with the trickiest one. Stand with the leg to be stretched in front, knee straight. Slowly bend your back knee and bend forward from the waist. You’re aiming for a nice long spine. Cueing your bottom to stick out behind you can help here. The stretch might come on immediately, or you might need to adjust your stance. Hold for 30 seconds, and then rest a few breaths before repeating. Do 3 on each side, for good measure.

In sitting: my favourite. Sit side on to your bed or the couch, with both buttocks on the surface (otherwise it’s a real challenge!) Stretch out the leg on the bed, keeping the other on the floor. Sit tall (this will tilt your pelvis forward), and bring your chest forward towards your thigh. Don’t worry about keeping the knee straight. And pulling the toes back will bias stretching the sciatic nerve, which won’t enjoy the 30 seconds or so you’ll spend in this position. You should feel a stretch in the back of the thigh, not the calf.

In supine (lying on your back): take a hold of your calf (or the back of your thigh if you can’t quite reach). Gently draw your thigh back towards your chest, straightening the knee until you feel the stretch. If this is too tough, bend the other knee and place that foot on the floor. If you need a challenge, stretch that opposite leg out resting the heel on the floor.

With a partner: traditionally called proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, then more recently referred to as muscle energy techniques (or METs; let’s face it, much easier to pronounce). Similar to supine, your partner will hold the stretching leg at the point of tension (not pain). Gently try to bend the knee against the pressure of your partner (20% effort), and hold for 10 seconds. Then relax and allow your partner to stretch the leg for 10 seconds. Repeat twice more, holding the last stretch for 25-30 seconds.

Go on, try it just now.

Like everything in life, stretch in moderation. Over stretching any muscle in your body could lead to injury. We need a healthy dose of strengthening as well as stretching for all our muscle groups.

If you have any questions or would like to book an appointment to see a physiotherapist, please call Physioflexx on 01560 483200.