When we talk about the hamstrings, we're referring to the three muscles in the back of the upper leg. They are the biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus. Collectively, these hamstring muscles help us walk, run, and generally move about. They also make it possible to bend the knees, such as when squatting down.
While tight hamstrings may occur from time to time, if they retain their stiffness for long periods, it can lead to other issues. And one issue that people may not realize as a consequence of constant hamstring tightness is pain in the lower body.
The body's musculoskeletal system is a complex network. It is a web of interconnected muscle, tendon, ligament, and bone. So, when one soft tissue is consistently taut, it can pull other areas out of alignment.
For example, a tight hip flexor can cause the pelvis to rotate forward. This is called anterior pelvic tilt. Research has connected anterior pelvic tilt with reduced lung function. It can also weaken muscle in the glutes, abs, and back. This weakness means reduced support for the lower back, potentially leading to pain.
Tight hamstrings can cause lower back pain as well. In fact, SPINE-health reports that this tight muscle is a "common contributor" to pain in the low-back area. But it can also cause pain in various parts of the leg.
Pain in the hamstring area is sometimes called ‘hamstring syndrome.' One researcher explains that hamstring syndrome involves pain that starts at the ischial tuberosity (the bottom of the pelvis) and runs down the back of the upper leg.
Other studies have connected hamstring muscle tightness with knee pain and even pain in the foot. Though, because this pain isn't in the hamstring itself, some may fail to make the connection.
Engaging in repetitive movements can cause tightness in the hamstring muscle. Running and sprinting are two such activities that involve repetitive motion. Sports that rely on the lower body can stress the hamstring, causing it to tighten. Football, basketball, tennis, and soccer all fall into this category.
Tightness can also be a result of being sedentary. When you sit for long periods, the hip flexors shorten. You may notice this when you go to stand up and can feel a twinge in the hip area. This shortening can lead to hamstring tightness.
Pain is one potential sign of hamstring tightness. The back of the upper leg may feel tender to the touch or hurt when you move around.
If you find it hard to bend forward and touch your toes without bending your knees, you might also have tight hamstrings. Though, tight calves can also make this position more difficult. So, pay attention to where you feel the stretch when doing this movement. If it's in the back of the upper leg, it's likely that the hamstrings are the issue.
There are a few hamstring flexibility tests that can help determine if there is tightness within this muscle group. One involves sitting on a chair with both your hips and knees at 90-degree angles. Straighten your right leg and lift your right foot toward the ceiling. If this feels difficult or you're not able to lift it too high, you might have tight hamstrings.
Try this test with your left leg too. This can help you identify whether the issue exists equally on both sides or if there is more tightness in one hamstring over the other.
If pain exists, it's important to rule out a hamstring injury. While tightness can often be eased with flexibility training, an injury may be better served by resting the impacted area. A hamstring strain is one such injury. Rest, ice, compression, and elevation will often help reduce pain that occurs due to a sprain.
If the pain is severe, medical treatment may be necessary. The doctor may test for muscle tears or other issues, such as proximal hamstring tendinopathy or a pinched sciatic nerve. Identifying the root cause of the pain can help determine the best course of treatment.
If you believe that you have hamstring tightness, stretching exercises can help. These stretches work by elongating this muscle group and the surrounding soft tissue. This results in greater flexibility. Here are three exercises that provide a good hamstring stretch:
There are many different ways to do a standing hamstring stretch. One option is to stand up straight and bend forward at the hip, trying to touch your toes without bending your knees.
Another is to extend your right leg while standing and place your right foot on a bench or the seat of a chair. Place your hands on your right leg and bend forward slowly. Do the same with the left leg.
This hamstring stretch can be performed while sitting on a bench or the floor. Either way, bend the left leg while leaving the right leg extended. Slowly bend forward and try to touch the right foot. Repeat on the other side.
More advanced exercisers may prefer this option. This stretch is similar to a seated hamstring stretch except that you will be on your feet rather than seated. Or like a single-leg squat, but the extended leg will touch the ground at the heel. With the leg extended, slowly bend forward toward the toes on the extended leg. Repeat with the opposite leg.
A foam roller can also be used to stretch the hamstring. A foam roller assists with myofascial release. It's also a great way to massage the tight muscle when you don't have someone around who can massage it for you.
To reduce hamstring tightness with a foam roller, sit on the roller so it is at the top of the hamstring muscles. Next, use your arms to balance your body while slowly allowing the roller to go down the back of your upper leg. If your foam roller is long enough, you can do both legs at a time. If it is shorter, do your right leg and then your left leg, or vice versa.
Yoga offers many benefits. It boosts strength and balance, reduces stress, and can even help relieve back pain. Certain yoga poses also provide a good hamstring stretch.
Downward Facing Dog is one to consider. People with tight hamstrings often find it difficult to straighten the legs when in an inverted "V." Have these individuals straighten them as much as they can to produce a stretch without going to the point of pain. Over time and with enough practice, this pose should begin to elongate the entire back of the leg, allowing the entire leg to straighten more.
Seated Forward Bend is another pose helpful for easing hamstring tightness. It also helps open the hips. Again, if touching the toes is an issue, just bend forward as far as you can go. Try to bend a little further each time.
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