Whether your hamstrings are super stiff or noodle like, there are a few things we should all know about the muscles in the back of our legs. First of all, “the hamstrings” are not one muscle, they are in fact three muscles that have been bundled into a group. Secondly, the hamstrings are an integral part of the back line or posterior chain, working with the surrounding muscles and fascia to give the body strength and mobility. Last of all, strengthening the hamstrings is one of the best things you can do for your whole body, regardless of whether your feel stiff or flexible.
Movement is key for daily life, if the hamstrings are stiff they can prevent us from completing basic tasks like bending over, running or picking something up. Interestingly, when the hamstrings are overly mobile and not strong enough, the same symptoms can creep up on us. Whether you are a desk jockey just wanting to be a bit more mobile, or a yogi with both feet behind your head, a little hamstring work will go a long way.
When a part of the body feels tight or stiff there can be a combination of things going on. If we don’t move through wide ranges of motion on an almost daily basis our bodies begin to adapt to short ranges of motion. A few posts ago I mentioned fascia, and the idea of being “fuzzed over” with connective tissue. Mobility and movement are very much use dependent. This is where the catch phrase “use-it-or-lose-it” really applies. If we rarely use a part of our body in wide ranges of motion, our nervous system decides to take that range of motion away from us. A lot of feeling tight or stiff can actually be coming from the nervous system, meaning we have to address the nervous system if we want to make changes.
The nervous system responds well to moderate dosages of controlled strengthening movements through all ranges of motion. This means that if we want to create more mobility in a part of the body we have to actually strengthen it and learn to create tension, rather than releasing it. This is an interesting idea to experiment with, next time you go into a stretch, notice if you are trying to relax into it? Is it even possible to contract the muscles and tissues you are stretching?
Everyone knows someone who is on the over-all stiff side, who has been going to yoga for years and has never become flexible. Logic tells us if we are stiff, we should stretch. But the ways we stretch have significant effects on how we will be able to move in the long term. Here are a few ways to work with your hamstrings in both active and passive movements.
Tip 1 – Change Your Seat
If someone has really tight hamstrings one simple thing they can do is move around more. This works particularly well for people who sit for long hours. Stand up as much as possible, if you have to remain seated, slide one foot up onto the chair as well, or tuck one leg under you. Switch sides and just keep moving, this will keep the blood moving more in the lower body and change the downward pressure on the upper hamstrings and glutes. Although this is considered a more passive stretch or movement, the variation alone can be helpful.
Tip 2 – Strengthen as You Lengthen
Begin standing, come into a an anterior tilt and begin hingeing forward from the hips, keeping the spine neutral. Bend as far forwards as you can without letting the spine round, until you begin to feel a stretch in the back of the legs. Repeat this movement, next time you get into the stretch notice if it is at all possible to contract the hamstring muscles as you are stretching them. Sit on the floor wearing socks and big the heels into the floor creating tension in the hamstrings. Maintain that tension as you begin hingeing forwards.
Tip 3 – Don’t Ignore the Rest of the Chain
Rather than looking at only the hamstrings, notice if there are other parts of the posterior chain that could use a bit of help. I recommend starting with the feet, ankles and calves, as these three parts are usually in rough shape. Massaging the feet can be a good intro to releasing tension along the back chain. Practicing a few calf stretches and calf raises is another great way to get mobility into the lower part of the legs.