Stretching it out isn’t always the best solution. Try these 10 ways to address tightness instead.
It’s almost natural to stretch out any sore or tight areas of the body, especially when gearing up for a run. But the truth is that’s not always the best remedy—particularly when it comes to treating tight hamstrings.
The reason: When muscles like the hamstrings are tight it’s often because they’re over-lengthened (or overstretched) already. Just think about when you’re sitting on the couch, legs extended in front of you, up on the cushion—that’s your hamstrings in a lengthened position. So stretching will only reinforce that lengthened position, which may actually irritate the muscle even further.
To treat hamstrings, it’s usually helpful to look at the opposing muscle group (a.k.a. your quads), or adjacent muscles like your gluteus maximus, to figure out where the problem lies. Here’s a quick anatomy refresher to help us understand what causes tight hamstrings, then how you can prevent and treat this type of discomfort.
Main Causes of Tight Hamstrings
The hamstrings attach to the ischial tuberosity, which is a part of the posterior (back) aspect of the pelvis and is typically where runners feel pain. The opposing muscle group for the hamstrings is the quadriceps. The quadriceps muscles attach to the anterior (front) aspect of the pelvis. The hip flexor muscles assist the quadriceps in movements like hip flexion (when you drive your knee up on the run, for example), and they attach on the anterior (front) aspect of the pelvis as well.
The hamstrings and quadriceps muscle groups work as opposing muscles to keep the pelvis stable; however, the movements and forces involved in running make this task much more difficult. Picture wires attached to either side of a telephone pole—the telephone pole being our pelvis and spine, the wires being the hamstrings and the quadriceps. The wires—or our opposing muscle groups (hamstrings and quads)—maintain tension on the pole and keep it in its proper position.
Now that you have the anatomy down, here’s when that can go wrong and the specific causes of tight hamstrings:
Unlike the telephone pole, the pelvis has movement, so keeping it balanced becomes much more complicated. The quadriceps are generally a stronger muscle group than the hamstrings. This is evident when lifting weights, as most people can push more weight on the leg extension machine (quadriceps) than they can lift 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.
On the other hand, this strength ratio can become off-balanced, especially for us runners. When this happens, it is typically the quadriceps that win the strength battle and begin to pull the pelvis into a slight anterior rotation or forward tilt (picture a slight arch in the low spine). The hip flexors get in on this action, too, and assist the quadriceps.
As the pelvis rotates anteriorly, it raises or elevates the hamstring attachment site, which means the hamstrings get pulled up, and as the pelvis shifts, they become over-lengthened.
In the massage world, over-lengthening of the hamstrings is sometimes referred to as “locked long.” The hamstrings hang onto their attachment site for dear life—and of course, that can lead to tight hamstrings.
Over-lengthening a muscle greatly increases its risk of injury. Again, picture the telephone pole now being pulled to one side by a stronger wire. The other wire, or the hamstrings, is being pulled and is overstretched or over-lengthened.
Stress on Lengthened Hamstrings
Along with over-lengthening the hamstrings, pelvic anterior rotation also shortens our back muscles. The typical scenario is tight, shortened quadriceps; tight, shortened hip flexors; tight, shortened back muscles; and tight but over-lengthened hamstring muscles.
To compound the problem further, when we run, we swing the leg forward, the hamstrings are even further lengthened, and the stress on the hamstrings, especially at the attachment site, is increased even more. This additional stress puts your hamstrings at a greater risk of injury. This can result in tendonitis and even muscle tearing. Pain is the first warning sign, and you are wise to pay attention to this signal.
Another cause of tight hamstrings is muscle weakness, particularly of the glutes, which play a key role in your stride. “The hamstrings work as a secondary ‘booster’ for hip extension [when the leg swings behind you], but are not the main movers. If the gluteus maximus becomes fatigued, or the hamstring ‘co-activates’ with the gluteus maximus, the hamstrings may also undergo excessive strain,” explained John Vasudevan, M.D., associate professor of clinical physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Pennsylvania and codirector of the Penn Medicine Running and Endurance Sports Program. This can lead to tightness, he explains.
Smaller muscles adjacent to your hamstrings, like the piriformis (located behind your glute muscles) and quadratus femoris (a small muscle of the hip) can fatigue when you fail to properly utilise your glutes, Vasudevan adds. This will also result in pain that presents as hamstring pain, near its insertion point, he says.
So, now that you understand what causes tight hamstrings, let’s figure out how to solve the issue. Here are 10 expert-backed tips to help you give your tight hamstrings a little extra TLC.
How to use this list: Each of the hamstring exercises and hamstring stretches below are demonstrated by Jess Movold, Runner’s Wold run coach, so you can learn the proper form.
You can repeat a stretch 2 to 3 times, if you’d like. Hold each stretch for about 15 to 20 seconds, with a 5-second break to release some of the tension between stretches before going ever-so-slightly deeper into the next stretch, says Vasudevan.
How to Prevent and Treat Tight Hamstrings
1. Stretch and roll your quadriceps and hip flexors regularly. Try this standing quad stretch:
How to do it: Stand with feet hip-width apart. Bend left knee, foot coming behind you, and grab with left hand. Tuck pelvis slightly forward, bring knees closer together, engage left glute, and then send left knee back until you feel a stretch. Hold for about 30 seconds. Then repeat on the other side.
2. Gently stretch your hamstrings:
How to do it: Lie faceup. Extend one leg straight up in the air, foot flexed and gently drawing toes toward forehead. Gently pull leg toward chest with hands. Hold for about 30 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
3. Warm up your spine by performing a cat-cow, low-back stretch, and/or pelvic tilt exercise to stretch your low-back muscles:
How to do it: Start on all fours, with knees right under hips and hands right under shoulders. On an inhale, arch spine and look up toward ceiling, dropping belly toward floor. On an exhale, pull belly button up toward spin and tuck chin to round spine. Continue alternating.
4. Strengthen your core muscles, especially the abdominal muscles, by incorporating planks into your routine:
How to do it: Place forearms on the ground, elbows right under shoulders and step feet back. Body should form a straight line from head to heels. Engage entire body and breath deep as you hold.
5. Strengthen glute and hamstring muscles with single-leg glute bridges:
How to do it: Start lying faceup, knees bent and feet planted on the floor. Lift right leg up, foot off the floor. Arms extend down by sides. Drive through your left foot, engage glutes, and lift hips up toward the ceiling. Slowly lower back down and repeat. Then switch sides.
By performing this move one leg at a time, you can identify imbalances. Focus on moving the muscle through its full range of motion, hold it briefly at the top of the action, and then slowly lower hips back down. Add 3 sets of 10-12 reps to your routine twice per week.
Other Ways to Address Tight Hamstrings
- Ice the attachment site immediately after any exercise for 15 to 20 minutes. Try wearing compression shorts to help support the affected muscles while doing physical activity, too.
- Cross-train with the stair climber or swimming to keep cardio up. Stair climbing uses a smaller stride, so this action may not bother your hamstring. (If it does, try something else.)
- Massage therapy can help by relaxing tight muscles, improving flexibility, facilitating circulation and healing, and restoring joint range of motion.
- It’s common for spine-related pain to present as hamstring pain in the back of the thigh. The association of low back pain, numbness, tingling, or weakness may signal a separate neurologic issue, and an absence of tenderness when pressing on the hamstrings may be a sign that the pain is referred from elsewhere, says Vasudevan. In that case, chat with your doctor.
- You should also visit your physician if the pain is persistent, if you are limping or altering your gait in any way, and especially if you notice any bruising.
Physical therapy can aid in healing the hamstrings and correcting any muscle weaknesses or imbalances.