Tight hamstrings can be a… well, pain in the back of the legs.
Thousands, if not millions, of people are plagued with tight hamstrings. The causes of tight hamstrings are often misunderstood, and the wrong protocols for stretching are often employed. Tight hamstrings, or improper stretching, can lead to further damage, including strains and tears. Hamstring strains are an unbelievably nagging injury, and can put you out of competition, or stall serious gym sessions, for quite awhile.
Your hamstrings are very large, predominantly fast-twitch muscles on the back of your thighs. Hamstrings attach at the lowest point of the pelvis, and travel down your legs, finally settling just below the knee. Due to the muscle’s position, your hamstrings control knee flexion — moving your heel toward your behind — and aid in hip flexion — pushing your hips forward. Aside from helping you bust out killer dance moves, your hamstrings’ fast-twitch muscle fiber make up help you run fast and jump high.
In order for a muscle to truly become tight, it must remain in a shortened position repeatedly for a very long time. A large percentage of the population has truly tight hip flexors — which run from your spine, cross your hip and attach to your thigh — because they spend too much time sitting. In a seated position, your knees are flexed, but your hips are not extended; this shouldn’t cause the hamstrings to fully shorten. Avoid sleeping with your thighs straight down from your torso with your knees bent; this causes a full hamstring contraction and can lead to tight hamstrings.
Muscles contract in small sections that span the length of the muscle called sarcomeres. As a muscle shortens and becomes inactive, it loses sarcomeres. Shirley Sahrmann, a legendary physical therapist and author of multiple textbooks, has conducted research that showed that stretching truly tight muscles will only result in 10-15% of your possible maximum length. Sahrmann showed that strength training throughout a full range of motion is much more effective at adding sarcomeres to a muscle.
The scientific name for tight muscles is “shortened” muscles; this is a much more fitting term because the muscle itself often has nothing to do with its length. Muscles are simply contractile proteins; they cannot think, and only do what your brain instructs them to do. As you sit and read this, your brain is sending millions of signals throughout your body, gathering information and returning it to your brain to make decisions. Your brain is regulating your heart rate, digestion, body temperature and the length of many of your muscles.
Your brain recognizes instabilities throughout your body, and tries to protect these fragile areas by limiting mobility. Muscles are easy for the brain to control via the neuromuscular junction. If you lack core stability, your brain recognizes the high risk of spinal injury and tightens surrounding muscles — in this case the hamstrings. Physical therapist Gray Cook and others believe that by restoring core stability, the hamstrings will receive the message to lengthen on their own. In the words of Greg Roskopf, founder of the Muscle Activation Technique, “muscle tightness is actually a secondary symptom of muscle weakness.”
If you have experienced a previous hamstring strain or tear, you probably have adhesions and scar tissue built up in the injured area. These wounds will limit your range of motion and appear to be tight muscles. Connective tissue damage can be seen in the muscle itself, or the fascia — the dense connective sheath around the muscle. If you believe you have adhesions or scar tissue, focus on self myofascial release like foam rolling, or receive manual massage to restore your range of motion.
The Tight Hamstring Take Away:
Knowing the cause of your hamstring tightness will allow you to treat the condition properly. Ironically, stretching is very seldom the key to fixing the problem, but it is a good idea to incorporate light stretching while addressing the main problem. In my time working with patients in physical therapy and clients in the gym, I have come across more protective tension issues than anything else. I was plagued with chronically tight hamstrings, and gained about 30 degrees of extra hamstring range of motion in four weeks by focusing on restoring my stability. Stretching was an afterthought, and it paid off in the end. Chalk another one up for core exercises.
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References: Muscle Motion: Muscle Bound, Charlie Weingroff: Shirley Sarhmann Workshop Day 1 Notes, Gray Cook: Expanding on the Joint-By-Joint Approach, Eric Cressey: 5 Reasons You Have Tight Hamstrings
Originally posted 2013-08-03 10:49:36.