Targets: hamstrings, calf muscles, buttocks and back.

Starting position and instructions

Lie on the floor with your left leg straight, then bend (flex) your right knee and hip to 90 degrees. Hook a folded towel around your right foot, holding one end of the towel in each hand. Broaden your shoulders, gently bracing them back onto the floor to avoid a round-shouldered posture.

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Rest your upper arms on the mat and attempt to straighten your leg by pressing your foot into the towel while drawing your toes back. Gently tighten the thigh muscles to press the leg out straight and hold the stretched position for 30-40 seconds. Aim to keep your hip, knee and foot in a straight line. Relax for at least 30 seconds before repeating.

Variations

Instead of a towel, use an exercise band. Make sure that the band is in the centre of your foot, rather than round the toes to guard against slipping, and turn your head to the side for increased safety. Using an exercise band changes the stretch from static to dynamic. As you press into the band (dynamic) and the leg lengthens, you have to coordinate muscle length and tension far more than when simply holding the stretch (static).

Fastening the towel over your toes will pull the toes towards you. Combining this movement with flexion of the neck will throw stress on to the neural tissues and sciatic nerve and away from the hamstrings. Initially you may not be able to straighten your leg. Performing the stretch with the knee slightly bent, throws the emphasis of the stretch up toward the hamstring attachment within the buttock (ischial tuberosity).

To change the emphasis to the lower portion of the hamstrings closer to the knee, lower the leg slightly and lock it out straight. Rotating the hip (inward or outward) will change the emphasis of the stretch to the inner hamstrings (semimembranosus and semitendonosus) or the outer hamstring (biceps femoris). You should regularly vary the emphasis of stretch to work the muscles groups being stretched differently.

Uses

“The act of pulling the foot towards the body will also stretch the Sciatic nerve, this is a useful technique following low back pain”

There are several stretching methods available to target muscles. Static stretching (stretch and hold) is the most common and consists of placing the limb at a certain movement range and holding the position so that the muscle gradually relaxes as its tone reduces. This reduction in tone is due to a muscle reflex (autogenic inhibition), which protects against excessive tension in the muscle tissues.

The stretching method used in this exercise (reciprocal innervation) uses the muscle tone created in the quadriceps to relax the tone of the hamstring muscles as they are being stretched. For this to happen most effectively, it is important to tighten the quads maximally for about 10 seconds and then relax. If holding the stretch for 30-40 seconds, you may tighten a couple of times, whilst each time relaxing further into the stretch.

Hamstring stretching is important both for posture and correct lumbo-pelvic motion during lifting (see Nov edition). Increasing hamstring flexibility can change both the range (amount) and quality of movement by lengthening the muscle, changing muscle tone and affecting muscle resistance. This last feature is important during activities requiring explosive actions such as plyometric (jumping) training and dynamic/explosive sports actions.

As the foot is pulled upward into dorsiflexion several things occur. The calf is placed on stretch, lengthening the long calf muscle (gastrocnemius). Muscles are contained within tissue envelopes called fascia. The fascia of one muscle attaches to the next to create a connective tissue pathway called a myofascial line.

In this stretch, the act of pulling the foot upwards and curling the toes, tensions the myofascial line stretching from the foot, through the knee, across the buttock and up the spine – the posterior longitudinal line. This type of fascial stretch can be important where an individual has tightness over several bodyparts. Fascial stretching is especially important after an injury where swelling can literally stick fascia down and prevent its normal movement.

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The act of pulling the foot towards the body will also stretch the Sciatic nerve, this is a useful technique following low back pain. Back pain often results from inflammation of the lumbar tissues. The swelling formed during this process can spread to the Sciatic nerve causing pain from nerve irritation – this is called Sciatica.

Over time, the nerve can be left tight and its normal sliding action reduced. By using this stretch, the sciatic nerve is lengthened, and if the nerve is tight, you may experience a tingle and ache in the calf and sometimes the toes. The feeling may even travel as far up as the buttocks. Nodding the head to place the chin on the chest (cervical flexion) will increase the stretch on the nerve still further by tensioning the membranes covering the spinal cord.

This type of stretch is only useful if there is very mild tingling in the nerve and the tingle reduces as the stretch is maintained. If the tingling stays, or is intense you would need to see a physiotherapist specialising in sports injuries as the nerve may be compressed and may require specialist treatment prior to exercise.

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