Whether you’re a star marathon runner or simply walking to work everyday, you’re likely to experience some level of hamstring tightness from time to time. Common sense tells us that when a muscle feels tight, stretch it! But there’s more to it than that. And, depending on the cause of tightness, basic stretching may prove futile. So, we talked to a handful of industry experts to break down the most common causes of hamstring tightness and how to loosen up in the long run.
Your Butt is Asleep
But, I thought we were talking about hamstrings. Indeed we are. Muscle, bone, and various connective tissue keep the body deeply connected. So, a weakness in one area may cause other areas of the body to suffer from overcompensation. “Underactive glutes may lead to over-active hamstrings in order to take up the slack in several common leg movements,” says Dr. Eric Degis, an NYC-based chiropractor. Overactive hamstrings, he explains may lead to a shorter resting state for the muscles and, ultimately that tight feeling.
Strengthening your butt is a must. “You need to re-program the glutes to fire more efficiently and retrain the hamstring to assist and not dominate any hip extension movement,” advises Degis. Exercises such as glute bridges, donkey kicks, and clamshells activate the muscle group. You can follow these targeted glute isolation exercises with compound movements, such as squats and deadlifts. This practice combined with a regular stretching routine will help alleviate your hamstring stress.
Posture is the Problem
Whether you realize it or not, you may suffer from excessive anterior pelvic tilt. Say what? No need to worry. Anterior pelvic tilt, or APT, is a common postural position in which your lower back and hip flexors are extra short and your hamstrings are extra long. In other words you’re probably standing with your butt and stomach pushed out. Instead of keeping everything neutral. This results in overstretched and weakened hamstrings, which causes that tightness. In this case, stretching an already overstretched hamstring will only compound your issue.
“In many cases chronically tight hamstrings are not a result of the muscles being short and needing stretching, but more likely they are in a constant state of length due to one’s posture, causing a sensation of feeling tight,” says Scott Carvin, a former Division 1 sprinter at the University of Tennessee.
A weakness in one area may cause other areas of the body to suffer from overcompensation.
You can correct or improve your posture over time, if necessary. First, lie flat on your back. “If you have enough space under your lower back to slide an entire hand through, you have a great opportunity to train yourself to be more in control of your posture,” says Zachary Deckelbaum, a certified strength and conditioning coach and Kinstrech master. Then, bend your knees and plant your feet. Next, push your lower back to the floor and squeeze your butt forward slightly. Hold that position for five seconds, relax, and repeat for 15 reps. Each time you squeeze your butt and hold, you are training the hips to sit in the correct neutral position, explains Deckelbaum. And, eventually, you can use this neutral position at the end of compound movements such as squats, deadlifts and step-ups.
You Sit Too Much
“Humans sit. They sit a lot”, says Degis. “The lack of movement and the overall position of the hamstring complex while sitting is problematic.” No offense! We’re pretty much all guilty as charged. And experts agree that it really is that serious. In fact, “sitting for prolonged periods may be the single most debilitating position that humans can put themselves in,” stresses Carvin.
You guessed it: sit less. “If possible, replace your chair with a standing desk.” says Degis. “I have treated thousands of sedentary people for hamstring issues as well as lower back issues and the simplest advice I give them is, get off your butt and invest in a standing desk.” Couple that standing with a daily plan of glute activation followed by stretching and you’ll be on the fast track to relieving your hammies.
“The body hates being immobile,” agrees Deckelbaum. “Sneak in small movement breaks, like standing butt kicks and standing high knee holds, several times throughout the day and you’ll see a positive impact overtime.”
You Injured Your Hamstring Before
When you push a muscle beyond its limits, strains or tears in the hamstring may occur. The healing process leaves scar tissue that essentially shortens the fibers of the muscle and limits the range of motion. And, believe it or not, your memory of the injury causes a shortening of the muscle to avoid future harm.
“During the injury, there is a neurological response that causes the hamstring to shorten to protect itself,” says Degis. “This learned response may influence a new habit or actually program the muscle to be shorter.” It’s great that our bodies look out of us, but not so great for our hamstring tightness.
Seek out a professional medical opinion and address the injury immediately. “Aggressive myofacial or medical massage work should be done at the appropriate time after the strain occurs,” says Degis. “Active release technique (ART) coupled with the proper assisted stretching can be used to break up adhesions in the hamstring and then reprogram its resting length. The older or more chronic the situation, the longer it takes to undo the effects of the old strain.”