“Now just bend down and touch your toes,” is something we’ve all heard a hundred times or more. And if you have chronically tight hamstrings, you probably cringe every time.
Not because you really care about touching your toes.
But because you’ve tried stretching. You’ve tried making your hamstrings work like they’re “supposed to.” And it just hasn’t worked.
And meanwhile your tight hamstrings strain your back and limit your athletic performance.
You’ll probably be glad to know that you’re not alone. Tight hamstrings are a very common problem that can be caused by anything from sitting at a desk all day without any counteracting movements, to a natural disposition toward tightness, to an old injury, to tightness in other areas of the body (usually the hips).
Whatever the cause, the good news is that you can improve your hamstring flexibility, even if nothing has worked before.
The 6 strategies I’ll show you in this article will help you make your hamstrings more flexible, so you can cut out the aches and pains and do the activities you love without restriction.
What Causes Tight Hamstrings and How to Fix Them
First of all, are your hamstrings really the problem?
This may seem silly or obvious, but just because you can’t touch your toes doesn’t necessarily mean your hamstrings are to blame for your limited range of motion. There can be quite a few structures in your “posterior chain” that are limiting your movement (especially if you have a job that requires you to sit or drive for long periods of time).
- For example, your calves (gastrocnemius muscles) cross the knee joint, so restrictions there can make keeping your knees straight harder than it should be.
- Also, the connections from your deep hip muscles (glutes, piriformis, gemelli, etc.) can affect the ease in which your pelvis tilts, thus affecting how you bend forward at the hip.
- Another factor could be the tightness of the fascial interconnections between your muscle groups (picture this as your muscles being “stuck together,” and thus they don’t slide freely beside each other).
- Then there’s joint restrictions at your lower back and pelvis, which can cause increased tension throughout your hips and legs. With these, people often feel much more freedom in their motion after doing exercises that limber up the spine (without stretching their legs much at all).
Or it could be a combination of all of the above, which is definitely common with flexibility issues.
So, yes your hamstrings may be tight, but that might just be a small part of the problem (an outward symptom) and you’d want to address all of these issues first.
6 Flexibility Tips to Release Tight Hamstrings
There are a lot of things you could do to begin stretching out your hamstrings for greater flexibility, but here are 6 tips to improve your movement and flexibility now, and get rid of that “ropes in the back of the legs” feeling:
1. Don’t force any stretch, ever
You’ve heard this advice before (we’re sure) and probably ignored it.
You may have thought, “If I just work on it harder and push through, my flexibility will improve.” But the trouble with this philosophy is that when you’re working on flexibility, your muscles (and nerves) aren’t passive structures.
So, stretching too forcefully or too quickly will activate a “stretch reflex,” which increases muscle tension and resists the stretch.
Don’t fight yourself on this one! Here’s what you can try instead:
- Pick a stretch, and rock slowly back and forth into the stretch several times.
- Focus on having an even, steady breath.
- Every few repetitions, hold the stretch for a bit and see where you’re at.
After a 30 seconds or so, you’ll likely find yourself further into the stretch with much less strain than before. Easy, right?
2. Bend your knees when you begin stretching
Yup, go ahead, it’s fine.
Bending forward with straight legs is great if you can do it, but otherwise it’s not the best choice if you’re having trouble moving even a few inches forward in the straight leg stretch position. So, bend your knees and take the slack off the calves and hamstring attachments at your knees.
Focus instead on maintaining a flat or slightly arched back, and keep your chest up and hinge forward at your hips.
3. Work other areas first to relax the hamstrings
As we mentioned earlier, the source of your flexibility issues could be the result of the other areas of your body, rather than just your hamstrings.
4. Don’t hold static stretches for so long
The results of many flexibility research studies have consistently shown minimal increased benefits for holding a position longer than 15 – 30 seconds. This is why we recommend doing shorter holds with more repetitions (especially if you’re just starting out with flexibility work).
Longer holds may be helpful if you’re working on a specific issue (and after you’ve already spending some time working on shorter holds), but don’t spend minutes in a position in an attempt to improve especially when you are just starting out.
Holding for a longer period of time can be useful in certain situations, but that takes experience and practice to figure out if that’s best for you.
5. Follow up with active, dynamic movements
Have you ever noticed that your flexibility gains from an earlier training session seem to disappear once you try to work on the position again? This can be frustrating, and this phenomenon is often caused by a lack of increased movement in this new range of motion.
What does that mean? Use it or lose it, of course!
The retention of range of motion requires active use in the new range, otherwise your body reverts back to your old range of motion in that position. Essentially, you need to re-educate your body to move in this new range. Dynamic exercises such as deep squatting, leg swings, full range jumping, and kicking drills work very well.
With that in mind though, keep the intensity low and well within your limits, and don’t do prolonged stretching before any heavy exercise.
6. Try just one flexibility technique at a time
The five tips listed above are the best general tips we have to improve your flexibility right now. There are quite a few other methods you can try as well:
- Foam rollers
- Contract-relax stretching
- Tack and stretch
There’s nothing wrong with trying any of these methods, but beware of trying everything at once. If you try out too many methods at once, you won’t know which method in particular works best for you, or worse, you won’t know which thing could possibly set you back.
After reading this you probably have a good idea of what you think will work best for you. Give that a shot! Try it for a couple weeks, then check your progress and re-evaluate.
Essential Hamstring Stretches to Improve Mobility
Armed with the 6 tips above, you’re well prepared to practice some essential hamstring stretches without worrying about injuring yourself or overdoing it.
The following video shows fundamental hamstring stretches that just require an elevated surface—a bench, chair, table, or anything sturdy enough to put your foot on. Just as described above, ease into the stretches with smooth rhythmic movements into and out of the stretch, followed by a short holding period.
I show a few variations in the short video, but just choose one that you are comfortable with at first, then feel free to play around with the techniques to see what works best for you!
If standing up while practicing these movements places too much strain on your hamstrings, the following video shows you seated variations with various modifications you can use. The key is finding what is most comfortable for you, and allows you to get the best movement in this area.
As you can see, improving hamstring flexibility is less about sitting in boring, painful stretches, and more about getting some gentle movement in whatever ranges are good for you.
Make Faster Progress with a Proven Method
It’s a great feeling when you start noticing that your hamstrings are getting looser.
But if tightness is getting in your way or causing you pain, that feeling probably can’t come fast enough. The tips above, along with the exercises shown, will help your hamstrings get looser more quickly, without the fear of injury that often accompanies hamstring stretches.