Originally published in Change Your Mind
Hamstrings have such a story to tell.
Everybody has experienced “tight hamstrings,” at some point or another. You get advice from well-meaning friends, family, or even wellness practitioners to simply stretch them out.
You think back to your days of doing the presidential fitness test and remember how the point was to touch the floor. So you crank your body forward and aim your outstretched fingertips for the floor.
If anybody out there has ever pulled a hamstring, you know it’s an icky, gross feeling that seems to linger for way longer than its welcome. Stretching it may or may not help, and if it does, the progress is often painfully slow.
Anatomy of the Hammies.
Hamstrings are actually a group of three muscles: the bicep femoris, the semitendinosus, and the semimembranosus. All three originate at your ischium (or your sitz bones; think, the bones that you sit on), and run down the back of your leg overlapping the back of your knee joint. The bicep femoris attaches to the outside of your knee and the other two attach to the inside of your knee. Together as a team, they flex your knee. (Stand up and kick your own butt. You just worked your hamstrings).
I see this a lot, as a massage therapist. Someone was doing something or another and their hamstring freaked the fuck out.
To the touch, I feel it near the sitz bones. The tendons (the thicker chunk of connective tissue that attaches the softer muscle belly to bone) are what usually end up hurt.
It’s common, you know.
Think about when your knees are in bent positions.
Sitting, for example. A good deal of the population sits for work: They sit at a desk in an office or at home, they sit at a computer, they sit when they get home to unwind with the T.V. or read a book.
When you’re sitting, your hamstrings are in a shortened position, and when they don’t get elongated and worked regularly, they get tight.
Hamstrings also get ignored at the gym.
They suck to work out, I get it, as if leg day didn’t suck enough on its own.
People will usually focus on the quads, the glutes, and even the chronically underactive adductor muscles, but ignore the hamstrings. When you don’t exercise the full 360-degrees of your legs, one side gets stronger than the other, putting an uneven pull on your knees.
Skiers will often blow out their knees because their quads overpower their hamstrings, destabilizing the joint.
To top it all off, they usually get stretched wrong.
Remember how I mentioned we were taught the point was to touch the floor with straight legs? If this is your sole goal, what can happen is…
From this position, hamstring strains can happen, often at that tendon where they heal the slowest.
Also, after all that, your stretch wasn’t that effective, anyway. Now you’re coming to see me (or your PT or your DC) not because you want to, but because you have to…
Proper Hamstring Care.
Firstly, stretch them right.
Here’s a better way to stretch your hamstrings…
If you can’t touch the floor with straight legs while keeping your pelvis and lower back in a proper position, don’t worry about the straight legs just yet…
Bend at the knees slightly. Keep your back flat as you go down towards the ground. Think about popping your tailbone out like you’re a happy dog, sticking that tail towards the sky.
As you lower, you’ll begin to feel that stretch in the middle of your hamstring muscles, and not at that tendon just below your butt.
Rest your fingertips or hands on the ground, and work your legs straight from there. Make sure you don’t round your back or tuck your tail.
Here’s how it should not look…
Here’s how it should look… (assuming you do, indeed, need to bend your knees a little)
You can also use a strap.
Lying on your back with your hips both evenly glued to the ground, hook your yoga strap (or belt, or blanket, or whatever), around the arch of one of your feet.
Straighten the leg and slowly pull it towards you.
Make sure your hips are staying evenly on the ground. Slowly work into a deeper stretch as your body allows.
Holding this pose for longer releases the fascia and deeper connective tissue that can also get tight, restricting range of motion, so make sure you are comfy and relax into it! You can hold it for 60–90 seconds if that is comfortable, but release if you feel any pain.
Also, work them out.
Don’t skip your hammies at the gym.
Three great workouts for your hamstrings include…
Lying on your back, line your ankles up under your knees. Keeping your shoulder blades on the ground and your neck relaxed (chin pointed to the sky), squeeze your butt and hamstrings, lifting your pelvis off the floor
Hold for two seconds, then release. Do 10–15 sets.
Start with your feet hip distance apart. You can use smaller dumbbells, or no weight at all until you get the form right!
Put the dumbbells in front of your thighs so your palms are facing your body. Keep your knees slightly bent and press your hips back as you hinge forward at the waist, bringing the weight to mid-shin height.
Then, squeeze your glutes and hamstrings to straighten yourself back up.
Dumbbell donkey kicks
Get down on all fours, shoulders above wrists and hips above knees.
Position a dumbbell in the crease of your knee. Keep your knee at a 90-degree angle and kick that leg up towards the ceiling. Keep your core engaged so your back doesn’t arch.
Hamstrings have stories to tell, and they’re often sob stories about how they’re ignored on leg day, neglected every day, or traumatized from bad stretching habits.
They scream at me, whining in pain, tensing up, “knotting” at the tendon, and they never want to get better, not without really driving in that lesson on why they got so angry in the first place.
The good news is, you can definitely show your hamstrings love. Start by learning to stretch them correctly. Then, don’t ignore them on leg day. Give them a little strength, a little TLC, and they’ll love you the rest of your life, on every run, hike, jump, or sprint when you need them the most.
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