Hamstrings – notoriously tight from athletes to beginners, the hamstrings are a challenging muscle to keep flexible. But perseverance with this will not only improve performance but will ease the pain. Here is info about the muscle and the best way to stretch it
The hamstrings run down the back of the thigh from the pelvis to the shin bone. It crossed both the hip and knee joint and has different sets of origin and insertion points. Made up of three muscles (semitendinosus, semimembranosus and bicep Femoris) that work together to bend the knee and extend the hip.
In order to stretch this muscle properly you have to work around both the knee and hip joint. There is high tension in this muscle (needs to be, to create power) but to gain a little bit more “give” you have to encourage the muscle to move in a functional manner. This means that your stretching should mimic the movement patterns that you tend to do in your activity (running, cycling, football etc) as well as concentrating on the different insertion points and position of the pelvis in relation to your leg. This does sound complex, but basically, don't be too still and stiff when stretching your hammies.
Like all good postural work, aligning the bone structure before working the muscle and firing the nervous system, gives you better results and movement patterning. Take your time to watch your posture and be aware of your body - once you are familiar with this, it will bring you big dividends as you will then naturally move into the correct position for maximum benefit. Here are some basic tips to help you.
For the pelvis to be in the best position, you will need to get the hips/pelvis in an “open” position. Roll the pelvis down, without bending the knees. Tail bone down and have the sensation that the "cup" of the pelvis is holding your abdominal contents in place (and not "spilling out")
Think about rotating the pelvis over the hip joint - lifting the tail bone up at the back and brining your lower abs towards you thighs, without over curving your back – you really want to feel this in the seat of your pants. The attachment is on the “ischium” – so think – “itchy bum” and you should get where you want to lift!!
Breathing out hard and contracting your abs really helps as it lifts the spine into the right position to move forwards.
At this point, the muscle will start to resist the movement. It will feel like a muscular contraction, and you will have to work with your body to get the best out of the stretch - this means, understanding that stretching is on a scale of "exquisite pain", breathe at the point when the "stretch reflex" kicks in (and automatic contraction of the muscle to prevent tearing)
To to encourage the stretch reflex to relax and allow the muscle to lengthen, you will need to move in and out of the stretch slowly, repeating the movement at least three times and holding in the stretched position for around 6 – 10 seconds.
However, I do find though that it works well to move into position, breathe in, breathe out, move out of position, then repeat, then on the 3rd time, stay in the position longer and on each out breath "wriggle" a little bit until the hamstring relaxes.
You can do this type of stretch in a standing position if you are beginning to exercise – on a run, at the start of your gym session etc. Place one leg slightly in front of the other, bend the supporting leg and lift the tail bone, breathe out and lower your stomach to your leg. Although this does feel kind of nice, and I certainly want to do this after a bit of running, there is not much evidence to show that stretching does much good before exercise. However, if you enjoy, then please, go for it...
It is better to stretch at the end of your session, and it can be easier to do this in a seated position – either on your back or seated
To get a good stretch when lying down, you will need to extend your leg to the ceiling and hold with both hands – try to keep the leg straight and hold the ankle or use a bungy cord or towel under your foot - keeping the leg straight is best and it is ok to lift your head and shoulders off the floor at this point if it is more comfortable – you should be focused on the hamstring. Use the strength of the arms to “encourage “the leg to fold towards the body - always aiming for the thigh to come closer to the lower abs. Again repeated stretching works well.
It can help to point and flex the ankle joint (try not to point toes or you may get cramp) as this irritates and thus fires a relax mechanism to the siatic nerve. Once you have slowly repeated the movement, you should find the leg increases range and you will be able to lower towards your body more.
Another trick to use, is to tighten the front of the leg (quad) and press with force the whole leg into you hands/towel, Press and hold for a second and repeat 3 times - again, you should see a relaxing of the hamstrings and instant improvement of your range. Always stay in the improved range for around 5-10 seconds to get the body used to it.
Whilst still/static stretching is great for beginners and those with injury, if you are fully fit and doing a lot of sport or exercise then use a more dynamic way to stretch by holding for about 3 seconds and then swapping legs – extend the opposite leg away from your for a great supporting stretch on the hip flexor, and try to do about 10 of these in succession. This is taken from the Pilates exercise - Single Leg Stretch - and is super successful in getting good range of movement, and increasing resilience in the muscle. You need to use the strength of the arms to encourage movement towards the body, whilst at the same time, encouraging the quad to fire and straighten the legs throughout the stretch. Aim to lift your upper body off the floor and aim for the forehead to the knee caps.
The seated position is great, but needs some attention in its execution (please note a no-no for lower back pain peeps). So sit with both legs extended away from you. Flex your feet (pull toes towards your body) and press tail bone back. Extend both arms above the head with some degree of tension to engage the lower back. Breathe out hard, draw belly button to spine and extend forward to hold feet. If you are struggling to do this, it is ok to bend your knees. Use your arms to pull the body closer to the thighs – the “closed chain” of having pressure under the feet and tension in the arms will help you stretch further. Relax and repeat. On the third repeat, have an “open chain” stretch where you do not hold the feet, but work hard to get the legs straight. Press forwards as much as you can, relax, and then “wiggle” your body closer – keep pushing the hips back.
Ideally, you should aim to stretch every day. Don’t be fooled by the urban myth that being flexible makes you weak (there is a basis to this, but being tight in the muscle will make you weaker...!). If the opposing muscle is tight, then the agonist (the one doing the work) will be compromised. So tight hamstrings won’t let you lift enough on your squats and slow you down running...
PS to be “hamstrung” is an actual phrase taken from an old method of torture, where the hamstring tendons (feel them behind your knee) were cut to stop a person from being able to walk....always look after your hamstrings, they are important xx