Tight hamstrings are an epidemic. It is hard to imagine a time when every human could comfortably bend over and touch their toes pain-free. In 2023 tight hamstrings are looked at as a norm, just a symptom of modern living or "getting old". Break free from the chains and loosen those tight hamstrings today with these steps! *From me, a guy who went from barely being able to reach past his knees without pain to this:
Why Are My Hamstrings So Tight?
The short answer is if you don't use it, you lose it. Tight hamstrings are a result of the sedentary culture we have bred over the last hundred years.
The more you use the hamstrings - both in engaging them during exercise and stretching them through movement - the more pliable they will be. If you are serious about fixing your tight hamstrings the cure is going to be in doing more activity, not less.
Think back to when you were a kid, with (likely) less tight hamstrings. What were you doing day to day? Were you sitting slumped in a chair for 12 hours, or were you outside running, jumping, bending, picking up rocks, or tying your shoes (summary: using your hamstrings)?
When we were young our hamstrings were more liable because we used them all the time. They were constantly activated through running and constantly stretched through picking stuff up, playing sports, and just naturally being a child. Your hamstrings are so tight today because you have fallen out of touch with this way of life and your body has no reason to need your hamstrings anymore.
What Causes Tight Hamstrings?
Tight hamstrings are often a symptom of not stretching. Muscles naturally stiffen and shorten with time, and that timeline is sped up when they are not used or stretched. If you have not paid your hamstrings attention in months or years, you likely just need to give your hamstrings love and affection to loosen them right back to where you want them.
Another contrary cause of tight hamstrings can be from running. Running is a very hamstring-dominant activity, but it does not use the hamstrings through their full range of motion. Running without attention paid to stretching can result in short and tight hamstrings just as often as sitting.
Tight Hamstrings & Back Pain
The official jury is still out on how much tight hamstrings actually contribute to back pain directly. However, I can speak from my own experience with lower back pain relief and tight hamstrings, and I can tell you loosening the hamstrings helped my back pain drastically. Once I achieved palms-to-floor flexibility (see image here), I felt way fewer pain triggers, easier forward bending, and more "capacity" with my lower back in activity. It may or may not help you, all I can tell you is that loosening the hamstrings helped me.
How To Loosen Tight Hamstrings
Tight Hamstrings Stretch Routine:
Stretch 1: Split Stretch
The split stretch is the best stretch to do if your lower back is screaming. The other hamstrings stretches here and nearly all others require bending from the lower back - but not this one. Stick one leg out front and one behind (the spine will be neutral and safe), and slowly lean into the hamstring of the front leg to feel a deep stretch.
Stretch 2: Elephant Walk
The elephant walk is the most potent hamstring stretch of all time (credit to knees over toes program). If you can tolerate forward bending, the elephant walk is your quickest ticket out of tight hamstrings and into some serious flexibility.
Stretch 3: Pancake Stretch
The pancake is a straight-back stretch that is great for stretching the hamstrings under load. The pancake can be treated as a strengthening exercise as much as a stretching exercise with progressions into adding weight.
All 3 stretches for tight hamstrings are unique and target the hamstring muscles in very different ways. When starting out, play to your strengths and do the stretch most comfortable to you to gain momentum. After that, however, make sure to work in all three exercises to build up the hamstrings into well-rounded, well-oiled machines!
Bonus Tips For Tight Hamstrings
Tip 1: Deep Tissue Massage
If you can't gain hamstring flexibility no matter what stretch you do - this is the tip for you. The hamstrings and glutes can get so stiff from years of knotting, trigger points, and constant tension that the muscles just don't stretch until the are physically massaged to release. If this is the case I recommend grabbing a myofascial release tool or taking a visit to a massage therapist to loosen up tight areas. Trust me here... this could unlock way more mobility than you think.
Tip 2: Stretch The Hip Flexors
But Ben, the hip flexors are in the FRONT of the body! Why would I do this?
Glad you asked. The hip flexor muscles and the hamstrings fight each other for pelvic position by pulling the pelvis anteriorly (via hip flexors) or posteriorly (via hamstrings). The pelvis likes to stay mostly neutral to stay in alignment, so the hamstrings and hip flexors tend to either be tight or loose as a package. Try stretching the hip flexors and see if that helps unlock your tight hamstrings as well!