When you try to touch your toes, how far do you reach? Are you among those who can barely get their hands past their knees?
Maybe you’ve written yourself off as someone who “just has tight hamstrings”.
What you might not realize is that your tight hamstrings are limiting your performance during your workouts and holding you back from optimizing your strength potential.
For anyone who spends the majority of their day sitting, the hamstrings stay in a shortened position for extended periods of time. Over time, your body adapts to this new position, and then when you need to move (for example, to bend down and pick up something from the ground), you’ll move more from your low back instead of from your hips.
Flexibility Test: Are Your Hamstrings Tight?
Both of these tests will help determine if you have proper range of motion. If you lack adequate flexibility, I highly recommend adding stretching to your daily repertoire until you can perform these movements.
Test #1 – Active Straight Leg Raise Test
This test assesses the mobility of the nerves and muscles on the back of your leg. While lying down on your back with both legs straight on the ground, lift one leg up towards the ceiling without bending your knees. You should be able to get to at least 70° of hip flexion with both legs completely straight. If you don’t have a mirror or someone who can measure your hip angle for you, you can use a doorway as a reference.
Test #2 – Standing Hip Hinge
You’re going to use a stick or PVC pipe to help keep your spine in a neutral position. Hold the stick against your spine so it makes contact with your head, upper back, and tailbone. While maintaining these 3 points of contact, bend over from your hips. Look in the mirror to assess how far the stick (and your pelvis) flexes forward – 70° is the cut off I use in the clinic because, if you don’t have that, you’ll end up “cheating” and moving from your low back every time you bend down to pick up something below your knees.
How To Improve Your Hamstring Flexibility
The majority of people who fail the two flexibility tests above (and who don’t have current injuries) do so because of tight hamstrings. Some people may also have tight fascia, or even an entrapped nerve (such as piriformis syndrome or sciatica).
In any case, these stretches and mobilization exercises will benefit everyone, regardless of flexibility. The increased hip mobility will allow you to move properly and enable you to fully utilize your glutes (butt muscles) so that you’re not exclusively lifting with your back muscles.
1. Basic Hamstring Stretch: The Hurdle Stretch
Depending on your starting flexibility, you can do this (1) lying on the floor, or (2) or stretching your leg on an elevated surface. Make sure to lean forward from your hips by pushing your butt back while reaching your belly button towards your knee. Do not bend from your spine when trying to reach forward to your toes!
Breathe deeply, and gently hold the stretch for 30 seconds before releasing, and repeating on the other side. Perform 3x.
2. Advanced Hamstring Stretch: PNF
Some techniques such as Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (or PNF for short) and contract-relax can help increase the effectiveness of stretching. In between reps, bend your knee and contract your hamstrings by pulling your heel towards your butt. Hold for 3-10 seconds, and then straighten the knee again and resume stretching. Contracting the muscle in between reps should help it relax into the stretch even more.
3. Squats & Hip Hinges
In order to optimize the effects of stretching, make sure to perform strength exercises using the range that you just gained. Studies have shown that the majority of increased flexibility will last at least 6 minutes1 after you have finished stretching, so follow your stretch routine with deep squats and hip hinges.
Complete 3 sets of 10 each with moderate weight, moving through your full range-of-motion.
4. Core-Engaged Active Straight Leg Raise
For some people, the problem isn’t that their hamstrings are short and tight, but that their nervous system simply “won’t let go”. Increased muscle tone can impair your mobility as well. There are a number of reasons why this might happen, but the good news is you can decrease the tone and increase your flexibility by strengthening your core.
- First, test yourself with the normal Straight Leg Raise (SLR).
- Then, hold a weight (heavy, but not too challenging) straight up with the opposite arm.
- Now perform the SLR again. If your leg can go farther than before, you have a neuromuscular control issue.
The solution: Work on core control, which will help stabilize your spine so your nervous system can allow your muscles to relax and stretch farther. When you workout, pay special attention to the contraction of your spinal stabilizers.
Whether it’s a test, or an exercise, the hip hinge is a key exercise. This move should be practiced daily until it’s automatic. Once you have the movement down and no longer need help to perform it correctly, start practicing deadlifts.
To do a deadlift, start with a kettlebell or dumbbell between your legs. Push your hips back until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings. Your shins should be directly over your ankles at the end range-of-motion, and your spine neutral. Grab the weight with both hands, and lock your shoulders down your back. Get long through your spine, from head to tailbone. Then, press through your feet and drive your hips forward to bring yourself all the way back up to standing. Squeeze your glutes at the top. Push your hips back towards the wall behind you and keep your shoulders locked as you lower the weight towards the floor between your feet. Your core should stay tight the entire time. Complete 3 sets of 10 reps.
Key Points of Hamstring Flexibility
1. Test your hamstring and hip mobility with the Straight Leg Raise and/or Hip Hinge.
2. If your flexibility is limited, perform the recommended stretches and movement exercises daily. You may need to do them multiple times per day if you spend most of your day sitting.
3. Once you have the hip hinge down, practice deadlifts to maintain and improve the mobility and strength of your hamstrings.
If you have any lingering questions, reach out in the comments below!
- Spernoga SG, Uhl TL, Arnold BL, Gansneder BM.Duration of Maintained Hamstring Flexibility After a One-Time, Modified Hold-Relax Stretching Protocol. J Athl Train. 2001 Mar;36(1):44-48. ↩