Our hamstring muscles, which run along the back of our thigh and connect our hip joint to our knee joint, are prone to getting short and stiff thanks to the lives full of sitting that we lead. “They’re really interesting in the fact that they have impact on two different joints,” says Abbigail Fietzer, DPT, an associate professor in the physical therapy program at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Los Angeles.
Low back pain? Knee soreness? Out-of-whack posture? It could all be because of the hammies.
Fietzer explains that sitting for long periods of time trains the hamstring muscles to shorten and become inflexible, or stiff. Together, shortness and stiffness is known as “tightness.” But that’s not all. Sitting with your legs tucked under you, or in a position in which your knees bend at more than a 90 degree angle, only compounds that effect. That leg posture is usually accompanied by slouching forward in a chair, so you’re sitting on your tailbone instead of your butt muscles, which tell your hamstrings to get even shorter. Womp womp.
Tight hamstrings can make using so many of your other muscles, both while exercising and while going about your daily life, more difficult. For example, if you’re doing a bending-down motion and your hamstrings are tight, you’ll overly rely on stretching in your lower back, which can lead to low back pain.
“You’re making it work harder than it’s supposed to have to work to accomplish the activity,” Fietzer says of the low back.
Or, if you’re standing upright with tight hamstrings, your pelvis might tilt forward, getting your whole posture out of alignment and causing pain in other parts of your body. “If they’re too short or too stiff, they can pull you out of that good standing posture,” Fietzer says.
How you can test if your hamstrings are too tight
Basically, the hamstring is a huge nexus point in your body, and if they’re too tight, they can pull everything out of whack. So how do you know if you have tight hamstrings? There are a couple of simple tests.
Fietzer says, unless you have some pre-existing injury, most people should be able to touch their fingers to the ground when they bend over. Sound like a tall order? That’s probably because your hamstrings are tight!
There’s another test, known as the 90-90 test, that physical therapists use to diagnose tight hamstrings, says Brad Baker, DPT, a performance coach at Future.
“Lay on your back, bend your hips and knees to 90 degrees, so you are in table-top position, and support behind your thighs with your hands,” Baker says. “Straighten your knees into full extension. A positive test, meaning you have tight hamstrings, would be if you are unable to extend your knees to within a 20 degree angle of vertical.”
What to do for tight hamstrings
What’s the verdict? Tight hamstrings? If so, there are ways to loosen those bad boys up.
Fietzer says heating them is the first key to relieving tightness. Your hamstring stretches will be a lot more effective if you use a heating pad before going into stretching. Or you can consider doing a warmup first (or waiting until after your workout to stretch), so you’re heating up the body from within.
She also recommends a dynamic stretching routine over a static one. That is, pairing moves like hamstring extensions with the act of leg swinging or walking.
“Static stretching can be effective, but dynamic stretching is better,” Fietzer says. “So when you make sure the muscle is really warm, and you kind of walk and do sort of gentle leg swings, then put the hamstring on stretch, that’s better than just sitting with your legs out straight in front of you trying to reach for your toes.”
Don’t let your daily miles tighten up your hammies. Cool down post-run with this dynamic stretching routine:
Strengthening your hamstrings can also be the missing component that brings relief.
“If you have hamstring tightness, one of the best things to do is actually to strengthen them through full range of motion,” Baker says. “Exercises like staggered deadlifts, single leg deadlifts, and Romanian deadlifts are great examples of this. Tightness often correlates with weakness, so if you strengthen through full range of motion, your muscles get more comfortable allowing you to access more flexibility.”
And of course, an ounce of prevention goes a long way. Fietzer recommends taking breaks from sitting, and ensuring that when you are seated, to sit upright and plant your feet on the ground with your knees bent at 90 degrees. That, of course, requires strengthening your abs and back muscles.
Who knew keeping your hammies flexy required so many moving parts?
Build a strong core to support better posture with this workout: