Starting position and instructions
Lie on the floor with your legs straight and your lower back in a neutral position (neither flat on the floor nor deeply arched). Your partner should half kneel at your right hip and lift your right leg, placing their hand around your knee to keep the leg straight. Your leg rests on your partner’s shoulder and they lunge forwards, pressing your leg into further flexion at the hip.
Get them to initially provide gentle pressure, stopping as they feel a resistance. After 2030 sec, your hamstrings will begin to relax slightly and your partner can apply further pressure for another 10sec. When they release the tension, make sure they do so slowly avoiding any recoil from the muscle.RELATED: RECOMMENDED PLANS FOR YOU
“Your partner should half kneel at your right hip and lifts your right leg, placing their hand around your knee to keep the leg straight”
Place a small pad on your partner’s shoulder and a small rolled towel under your back to make the position more comfortable. Allowing the knee to bend slightly takes the emphasis away from the lower portion of the hamstrings at the knee and places it on the upper portion attaching into the buttock bone (ischial tuberosity).
With the foot relaxed, the stretch focuses on the hamstring muscles, but if you pull your foot and toes towards the body (‘dorsi-flexion’) the focus changes to the sciatic nerve travelling from the lower back down the back of the thigh. This neural (nerve) stretch can be further increased by bending (flexing) the neck and drawing the chin onto the chest. The stretch then passes through the whole length of the neural membranes covering the spine and sciatic nerve.
Rotating the leg changes the emphasis of the stretch between the inner and outer hamstring muscles. Rotating the straight leg inward (toes coming together) stretches the outer hamstring (‘biceps femoris’) while rotating the leg outwards (toes moving apart) stretches the inner hamstrings (‘semimembranosus’ and ‘semitendonosus’).
If the leg is drawn across the body (hip adduction) as it is stretched upwards the action will also target the outer leg structures the tensor fascia lata muscle and the ilio tibial (ITB) band running down the side of the leg parallel to the trouser seam.
Points to Note
This exercise is most effective when used with PNF stretching. PNF (Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation) uses the muscle’s own reflexes to improve the stretch. Two reflexes are especially important. The first (‘stretch reflex’) uses the fact that after a firm isometric (held/static) muscle contraction there is a reduction in muscle tone in the period immediately following release (the muscle tone dips below normal values for about 10sec – the ‘refractory’ period – before coming back to normal levels).
This is used in ‘Contract Relax’ (CR) stretching. Next in the PNF sequence you should press your straight leg down onto your partner’s shoulder to tighten your hamstrings for 10-20sec. Release the contraction, pause for 2-5sec and then have your partner apply the stretch. You should notice that your leg stretches more. The second reflex uses the fact that when one muscle contracts the muscle on the opposite side of the joint (the ‘antagonist’) relaxes slightly.
This reflex known as ‘reciprocal innervation’ underpins the second PNF stretching technique called ‘Contract Relax Agonist Contract’ (CRAC). To perform this technique you press down on your partner’s shoulder as just described, but instead of just relaxing as they apply the stretch, you should try to pull your leg into further flexion. This action, using the hip flexor muscles, encourages the hamstrings (and hip extensor muscles) to relax still further so your movement range is enhanced.
Hamstring tightness is an injury risk factor – the less elastic a muscle is the more likely it is to tear during rapid uncoordinated actions. So this hamstring stretch can be used both as part of a rehab programme following injury and a ‘prehab’ programme within general training. From a postural perspective, the hamstrings are also important.
They attach up into the buttocks onto the sitting bone and pull the pelvis backwards (‘posterior tilt’), flattening the lumbar spine. With prolonged sitting and especially driving, tight hamstrings will flatten the back excessively placing stress onto the lumbar tissues. Over a long car journey, this may result in postural lower back pain.
Stretching tight hamstrings and practicing a correct sitting posture are key elements of prevention for this type of pain. Tightness in the Sciatic nerve may occur as a result of back pain and as pain eases a person may still be left with neural tightness. By using this stretch, the sciatic nerve is lengthened and if the toes and foot are pulled towards the knee the emphasis on the nerve is increased.
If the nerve is tight, this can cause a tingle and ache in the calf and sometimes the toes. Providing this is mild and reduces as the stretch is slowly repeated, the nerve is stretching out. Be cautious, if the tingling is intense or if it occurs regularly throughout the day, see a physiotherapist for specialist treatment.