How to address tight hamstrings

How to address tight hamstrings

When you feel the familiar pain of a sore hamstring, it’s natural to think you should stretch it. But when the muscle is tight because it’s overstretched, stretching won’t fix the problem—it’s already overstretched. In this case, it is helpful to look at the opposite muscle group to find out where the problem is. Here’s a quick anatomy refresher to help us understand this problem.

The hamstrings attach to the ischial tuberosity, which is a part of the back of the pelvis where runners often feel pain. The opposite muscle group is the quadriceps, which attaches to the front of the pelvis. The hip flexors assist the quadriceps, connecting to the front of the pelvis and the lumbar vertebrae of the lower back, just above the pelvis.

The hamstrings and quadriceps work in opposition to keep the pelvis stable; however, the movements and forces involved in running make this task very difficult. Imagine guy wires attached to either side of a telephone pole: the pole is our pelvis and spine, the wires are our hamstrings and quadriceps. The cables, or our opposing muscle groups, maintain tension on the pole and hold it in its proper position.

However, the pelvis has movement, so keeping it balanced becomes much more complicated. Quadriceps are generally a stronger muscle group than hamstrings. This is evident when lifting weights, as most people can push more weight on the leg extension machine (quadriceps) than they can on the leg curl machine (hamstrings). This is a normal strength difference, and when the muscle groups stay within their normal strength difference ratio, all is well.

But this ratio can become too unbalanced, especially for runners. Typically, the quadriceps win the strength battle, pulling the pelvis into a slight anterior rotation or forward tilt. The hip flexors also participate in this action, assisting the quadriceps.

As the pelvis rotates and shifts, it elevates the hamstring attachment point, pulling the muscles up and overextending them. In the massage world, this is sometimes called a “long block.” Meanwhile, the hamstrings hang on to their attachment site for dear life.

Of course, all this activity increases the risk of injury. Again, imagine the pole, which is now pulled to one side by a stronger cable. The other cable, the hamstrings, is stretched and overstretched or lengthened. Anterior pelvic rotation also results in tight and shortened quadriceps, hip flexors, and back muscles.

Then, to make the problem even worse, when we run, we swing our leg forward, which further lengthens the hamstrings. This increases stress, especially at the attachment site, with risks including tendinitis and even muscle tears. Pain is the first warning sign, and it is wise to pay attention to this sign.

So, now that you understand how hamstrings work, let’s figure out how to solve the problem…

Here are 5 key stretches and strength moves to help give your tight hamstrings some TLC.

Single leg glute bridge


      Lie down with bent knees. Lift one leg and lift your core with the other. With your body straight, hold the movement briefly and repeat. Add 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps to your routine twice a week.

      Lying hamstring stretch

      lying hamstring stretch


      Lying on your back, extend one leg up in the air and gently pull your toes toward your front, helping the movement by using your hands on the back of the thigh of the lifted leg.


      woman doing plank exercise at home in los angeles

      lechatnoirGetty Images

      Strengthen your core and abs with planks. Rest your weight on your toes and forearms. Stretch your stomach muscles, keeping a straight line with your body for 30 to 60 seconds.

      cow cat

      tight hamstrings

      On all fours, inhale and tilt your pelvis back, hooking your tailbone up. Draw in the navel, look up, exhale and tilt the pelvis forward. Engage your tailbone, round your spine and drop your head.

      Standing quad stretch

      stretching for runners


      While standing, core braced and shoulders back, bend one leg behind you and pull your foot toward your back, using the hand on that side.

      How to take care of hamstrings

      • Ice the attachment site immediately after any exercise for 15 to 20 minutes. Try wearing compression shorts to help support affected muscles as well.
      • Train with the rock climber or swimming to maintain your cardiovascular fitness. Climbing stairs uses a smaller stride, so this action may not strain your hamstrings.
      • Massage can help relax tight muscles, improve flexibility, facilitate circulation and healing, and restore joint range of motion.
      • See your doctor if the pain is persistent, if you are limping or altering your gait in any way, and especially if you notice any bruising.
      • Physiotherapy can help heal hamstrings and correct any muscle weakness or imbalance.

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