In order to effectively train the hamstrings, you need to understand what they are. They are a group of 3 muscles located on the back of the thigh that cross over the hip and the knee. They can perform hip extension and/or knee flexion. These actions will be brought up later, so remember them.
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On a daily basis, we get clients that complain about their hamstrings being “tight,” asking what they can do to loosen them or to stretch them. Has that ever happened to you? Have your hamstrings ever felt tight? What do you do? You end up stretching and stretching and then stretching some more. What you don’t know is that you may be doing more harm than good, & making them tighter and tighter with each and every stretch session.
There are a bunch of reasons why your hamstrings could or would be “tight”, but my experience as a trainer and an LMT has shown me that it is more likely due to an unstable or weak core.
What happens when you have poor core strength/control is that other muscles have to pick up the slack. In the case of gluteal strength your hamstrings, and to an extent your back, end up picking up the slack to stabilize the hip. This is your bodies’ protective nature taking over. Your body will do whatever it takes to ensure stability, even if it means engaging muscles it shouldn’t.
This, over time, leads to that feeling of tightness. The more and more you stretch it out, the more and more protective your hamstrings get; so they tighten even more to protect the stability of the joint.
The best way to get your hamstrings to relax? STOP STRETCHING THEM! Oh and work on core strength and stability.
Give it a test:
Here is a great way to test if your hamstrings are actually tight or if it’s more of a core issue. Using the active straight leg raise test, see where your end range of motion is for the leg (it should be close to 90 degrees).
Once you find that end range, perform a side plank for 10 seconds and then retest the range of motion. A second little trick is to do a few belly breaths, where you breathe and try to expand your stomach as much as you can.
After either one of these tests, it is more than likely that you’ll end up with a bigger range of motion. This would indicate that your hamstring “tightness” is more due to your core strength.
However, if the length or range of motion doesn’t change, then maybe it is in fact a hamstring tightness, although there can be a few other factors in play like past injuries or current injuries.
In order to build more mobility through the hamstrings, we’re going to have to build stability through the hip at the same time. What you want to avoid while working on your hamstring mobility is getting the lower back involved.
In any hamstring stretch, you want to avoid the hips/low back rolling off the floor. Here are 2 great mobility exercises.
Hamstring exercises to increase mobility
1) Banded Leg Lowering: This is useful to increase length in the hamstrings but also requires keeping the core under control.
2) Using a “contract-relax” PNF technique can also help to increase flexibility. This is done by bringing your leg to its end range, holding the stretch for a few seconds, backing off 20% out of that stretch and contracting your hamstrings either against a partner or isometrically, then stretching the hamstrings once more and bringing the leg into a new range of motion.
*Note* It shouldn’t burn or be painful. DO NOT stretch to feel pain. It should be comfortable.
Hamstring exercises for strength
Training the hamstrings for strength requires using exercises that utilize both actions listed in the beginning of the article, hip extension and knee flexion. A great example would be the deadlift.
In addition you want to program exercises into your routine that work each action by itself, such as leg/hamstring curls & good mornings. Another requirement when it comes to building strength through the hamstrings is to train them through eccentric and concentric contractions.
What this means is that you want to engage the hamstrings as your bring your knee and hip closer together but also and probably more importantly as you bring them further apart.
My Top Three Hamstring Exercises
2.- Leg Curls (Discs, TRX, Ball)
3.- Good Mornings (Barbell or Band)
Try incorporating these into your training program both for strength and for recovery.
One last little tip that can prevent further tightness and instability. Be conscious of how often and how long you sit. Sitting for long periods of time can significantly affect your hamstrings in terms of length, “tightness,” and activation.
The more you sit, the more your hips spend in a compromised postion/tilt, the more “tightness” you’ll feel. Try to limit sitting time, or if you can’t, periodically take breaks, stand up, and move a little.