Fixing Your "Tight" Hamstrings

One issue I hear pretty often is that people have "tight" hamstrings.  Now, I'm somewhat among this crowd, because my legs are far from those of a supple leopard*, and for 364 days in elementary school, I would wake up fearing the dreaded sit and reach test. 

As such, I tend to do a lot of corrective work on my hamstrings/hips, but you'll rarely see me do any normal stretching.  Why?  Because simply stretching your hamstrings is a waste of time.

Think about it - if just stretching your hamstrings worked, why would so many people be so tight back there?  Before we talk about how to correct the issue, it's important to talk about WHY you may have tight hamstrings, and like much in this field, there's no easy answer. 

The best way to think about it all, is that the reason your hamstrings are tight is because they're picking up the slack from somewhere else.  Some people may have a weak anterior core, others may not breathe correctly, while others may have both of those AND a titled pelvis.  Thus, the tightness you feel in your hamstrings may be protective or neural tension, and it's there to help you survive....but that doesn't mean you can't reach your dreams of touching your toes.

 If you can get this high without the foot on the ground turning out, it's all good....in the leg raise hood.

If you can get this high without the foot on the ground turning out, it's all good....in the leg raise hood.

First, you need to see if you actually have an issue back there, or if it's all in your head. For that, you'll need to lie down in a doorway, lining up the door frame with your knee.  With your feet together and toes up, raise one leg keeping it as straight as you can, as you keep the other leg on the floor.  If your ankle can easily pass the doorway with both knees straight (and that toe on the down leg pointing straight up) then you do NOT have tight hamstrings.

If you're like my right leg, however, you'll struggle to even get to the door frame.  And, that's a problem as it will not only impact certain exercises, like deadlifts, but a poor leg raise will come back to bite you in other patterns.  Furthermore, you'll simply feel and move a lot better once it's all corrected.

So, how do we fix it?  Here are two staples that work for most people, although certainly not everyone.  The first video, is simply putting my foot on a wall, and raising my other.   It looks a lot like stretching, and while we're getting a big hamstring stretch, we're working on a lot of other things that could be causing this movement problem (opposite hip, core sequencing, etc.)

The next exercise is a progression that is pure evil....but in a good for you sort of way.  Assume the same position as above, but this time you're taking your foot off the wall a few inches.  Leave it there, raise the other foot, and try not to curse my name when you're done.

 

Why do these two exercises usually work?  To be honest, I'm not really sure.  I could rattle off a few possible reasons, but it's easiest just to say that we're trying to correct the pattern, and these two exercises correct a ton of different issues.  

This doesn't mean you need to stop working hard in the gym, but a few sets of these here and there will go a long way to fixing your leg raise issue.  Once again, it doesn't matter WHY your hamstrings are tight, but it does matter that it gets fixed.

To conclude everything, (and proof that all this theory does work) here are two pictures below of my rebellious right leg**:

 

 Before..

Before..

 After!

After!

*The cold New England weather isn't helping.

**My right leg really isn't the issue, it's actually stability in my left hip.  Why would stability in the opposite hip make a difference?  Well, that's longer than a blog post....just know that it does!