First things first - I want to thank everyone that came out and made it to my nutrition seminar yesterday afternoon. We had great attendance for such a sunny, warm afternoon, and there were some really great questions that made me think. In fact, Richard Simmons even made an appearance (albeit through the wacky picture on the right).
For those that missed it, I can only say that you missed a fun time and that you need to eat more plants. Seriously. You do.
Anyway, one issue that's been on my mind recently has been our general feeling that we always need to stretch and have "long" hamstrings. As I've said before, anytime we get "tight" it's for a specific reason, and blindly cranking on muscles because "it feels good" can be a recipe for disaster.
Hear that, Presidential Fitness test!? Sit and reach, be damned!
So, what's changed the view on hamstring stretching/tightness? Well, our view and understanding of general anatomy has really progressed since a few years ago. It's no longer the 1950's where sit-ups are king, and men are generally jerks about their coffee:
The hamstrings are now thought of as a pelvic stabilizer, in addition to the helping out with our hips and legs. Now, it doesn't take a fancy degree to realize that when the words "pelvic" and "stabilizer" are used in conjunction, it's probably a pretty important muscle.
That said, most people can really be broken down into two main groups - those that can't touch their toes, or the loosey goosey types that can (or even palm the floor).
On the tight side of the spectrum, whenever someone comes in that can't come close to touching their toes, I immediately start looking at their hips. Why? If someone's pelvis is tilted forward (as most people's are) their hamstrings are already going to be stretched to the max even if they're do nothing but standing. If that's the case, then it explains why someone can't touch their toes - because you're trying to lengthen a muscle that doesn't have any more length. Just like trying to make your arms longer, there comes a point when it simply doesn't make sense.
To fix the toe touch problem, the solution is not to crank on muscle that's already stretched, instead it's to find the reason why those hamstrings are tight in the first place. What does that mean? Usually more core work, more deadlifts (although not from the floor), and some repositioning drills.
On the other side of the spectrum, I often hear from clients of mine that can touch their toes or palm the floor, and say that they feel "tight." What this collection of people feel as "tightness" is really just their body reining themselves back in. It may feel good to stretch your hamstrings, but it also feels good to pick those first few mosquito bites in the summer....yet we all know we shouldn't.
So, once again, what does one do instead?
Well, those that can palm the floor actually make me more concerned because there's usually some pathological dysfunction allowing them to do so. The first solution is usually trying to convince them to stop stretching, and after that it's usually even more deadlifts, and even more core work.
While the exact approach will be different based on the person, the name of the game is actually strengthening the hamstrings, not making them long. Neural tension can sometimes be the only thing that's holding us together, and by trying to stretch them to the max, we may really be doing more harm than good.