Tight hammies? It might not be what you think…
In most of the people I’ve worked with, “tight” hamstrings are actually very rare. A simple test to check if your hamstring flexibility is to lay on your back with one leg straight on the floor and the other straight up, with your heel extended to the sky. If you can get the leg that’s raised to 90 degrees, you have pretty decent range of motion. Another test is a simple forward fold. Stand up and reach toward your toes. If you can touch your toes on the standing reach, and/or can “pass” the lying hamstring test, and your hamstrings still feel “tight” here’s what might be going on…
I keep putting “tight” in quotations because the hamstrings can be “tight” in two different ways, for two different reasons. The hamstring muscle can be tight because it’s in a chronically shortened state. If it’s tight because it’s shortened, you won’t be very good at the lying on your back test. And in this case, stretching your hamstrings will help you.
But more commonly, hamstrings are tight because they’re in a chronic state of being stretched. Imagine pulling on a rubber band. It becomes taut when it’s stretched; it’s not tight because it’s shortened, it’s tight because it’s stretched. The same thing can happen to your hamstrings. They’re plenty flexible, and stretching them won’t help long term. The solution lies in addressing the cause of the lengthened hamstrings, and usually it has to do with tight hip flexors (which are the muscles on the front of your hip that make your leg lift up in front of you).
If you’re a civilized human living in the 21st century, you probably have tight hip flexors. We spend most of our day in a “comma” position; seated with our arms out in front of us. Driving, on a computer, eating, texting … all these activities shorten the muscles in the front of our bodies (including hip flexors) and stretch the ones in the back of our bodies (including our hamstrings). If you’re a runner or a cyclist or a desk jockey, your hip flexors are working overtime.
So, if your hamstrings feel tight because your hip flexors are tight, your best bet is to stretch your hip flexors, not your hamstrings. Your hamstrings are already stretched, which is why they feel tight, Loosening up the hip flexors will allow the hamstrings to chill out and return to their optimal length.
Spend a few minutes a day holding a hip flexor stretch like the one below for at least a minute on each side. Stretch them especially after long bouts of sitting. Your hamstrings will probably begin to feel better after a few days!