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Can't Touch Your Toes? Your hamstrings are not tight

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If I had a nickel for every time someone mentioned their hamstrings being tight. I’d have a lot of nickels! Most of us have felt the sensation of our hamstrings tightening up. You did some deadlifts the day before, you go to pick something up from the floor, and it feels like your muscles are closer to guitar strings than human flesh. That’s an acute response to training, but when we are feeling this tightness in our day-to-day, what’s really going on? Do our hamstrings need to get longer? There may be more than meets the … thigh.



Anatomy can give us a lot of clues, so here is a rear view of someone’s upper leg. If we take a look at how the hamstrings (Semimembranosus, Semitendinosus, and Biceps femoris on the diagram) attach at the pelvis (bones of the hip), we can see the influence the hips have on the hamstrings. If I tilt the front of the hips down or away from your face right now, the origin of the hamstring moves higher, away from the knee. This will increase the resting length, aka a stretch, of the hamstring.  


If your hamstring is already lengthened because of the position of the pelvis, it’s gonna have to stretch even further than its already-lengthened resting state when you go to move, like touching your toes. This pushes the demands of the muscle too far, creates that annoying twang, and deceives you into thinking your hamstrings are a villain when they’re actually a victim! Picture a rubber band or a hair tie. Pull one end, and it gets stretched, right? “Duh, Austin, yes, of course.”  To get this elastic back to resting length, would you pull on the end harder or ease your grip (Not too fast, don’t snap yourself!)? “Duh, Austin, I’d ease up.” Well, this is essentially what’s going on with your hammies! That stretched sensation is what you’re already feeling, so essentially, you need to “ease up” on that tension.

So, what do you do? Well, based on what causes your hamstrings to feel tight, I’d argue the solution lies in movements that allow your pelvis to tilt the other way! This means utilizing exercises for the upper hamstring, like glute bridges and squats.  If you look at the model again, these movements essentially pull the back side of the pelvis down, allowing your hamstrings to feel less tension at rest.  We can also address the lower abdominal musculature, pulling the front side of the pelvis up! Leg lowering, deadbugs, and bear crawls are all great examples of exercises I’d use to get the lower abs fired up and pull the pelvis into proper position. Try saying that last part 5 times fast.


Now, I don’t want to blacklist stretching.  It can be great for getting your nervous system to relax, and, if your position and breathing are right, can provide meaningful changes to your body.  But we need to look at the context of the stretch to see if it’s actually helping, and if your symptoms keep coming back, it’s probably only a temporary source of relief and not your best option.


Thanks for reading everybody!

Coach Austin

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