For many guys who come to my yoga classes, when I ask them if there are particular areas they want to work on or have trouble with, almost without fail they will say hamstrings. For a long time we’ve been told the answer to tight hamstrings is to stretch, stretch, stretch! But we’re starting to understand that in a wider sense, this isn’t the best approach, and quite often is the exact opposite of what we should be doing.
Often what exhibits as tight hamstrings can actually be more to do with muscle weakness, or hamstrings that are ‘locked long’, that is, over lengthened and then immobilised. This often happens as a result of a strength imbalance between quads and hamstrings.
A lot of disciplines like running, weight lifting, or cycling can over preference the quads. These muscles get stronger and bulkier. Coupled with hip flexors that are also getting stronger at the same time, this can pull the pelvis into an anterior tilt, elevating the sitting bones (where the hamstrings attach to the pelvis). What this means, is the hamstrings are forced to stretch long by the muscles at the front of the leg and the hip. It’s thought that the hamstrings then freeze or ‘lock’ in order to protect themselves from being damaged further by this power imbalance.
The ideal scenario in the body is that we want an even power balance ratio around our joints, so structures aren’t pulled out of balance or optimal natural alignment. Our lives, the way we sit, the way we work out though, are massively weighted against this. Therefore if we try tirelessly to keep lengthening and stretching our hamstrings without balancing the other structures around the hip and knee, then chances are they aren’t going to budge much (for more on this google the principle of ‘tensegrity’ in fascia).
So what can we do to focus on bringing balance to this area more intelligently?
1. Focus on strengthening hamstrings (and glutes!)
Conventional yoga postures offer a limited chance to strengthen the hamstrings. We can adapt the practice to do this, but it’s perhaps more efficient to look outside of yoga. Romanian (or stiff legged) deadlifts, glue-ham raises or leg curls at the gym are a good place to start.
Note most leg exercises e.g. regular squats, will of course work the hamstrings, but they’re very quad dominant. If your hamstrings are tight because your quads are overly powerful in comparison, then you need to prioritise leg workouts that preference hamstrings more than quads.
If you’re dead set on using just yoga for this, do bridge pose with one leg lifted in the air and slowly lift and lower the pelvis. As you do this really drive the heel that’s on the floor down into the mat and towards the pelvis.
2. Foam roller hamstrings by going side to side NOT front to back
I see people doing this all the time. Some physios suggested that you get better release and manipulation by rocking side to side on the roller, rather than rolling back and forward.
They site the orientation of the muscle fibres as already running up and down the leg, so results are maximised by moving side to side rather than along the length of the muscle group.
3. Focus on stretching and foam rolling the quads
If there’s one stretch I find people resistant to, it’s a quad stretch. Why is that? Because it’s uncomfortable and we almost never do it. We need to be stretching out the quads way more than we are doing, and stop focusing so much on the hamstrings.
A great way to do this is to come into a lunge with the back knee down, and then catch the back foot and draw the heel to the glute. Keep the front of the pelvis lifting up as you do this and drop the tailbone. If you cannot reach your foot, use a strap or towel around your ankle instead.
And the foam rolling? For the quads you can roll up and down the length of the leg, make sure you get to the inner and outer part of the thigh and spend more time working on where it hurts rather than less!
4. PNF or active stretching
Passive stretching for flexibility is, arguably, a bit passé. We want strength throughout our range of motion. Many bodyworkers and movement experts now argue that it’s often muscle weakness that prevents flexibility, and that we can actually get deeper and further in our range if we work with it in an active way. This means that whenever we stretch a muscle group for a long period, we should always slightly engage it.
In the case of our hamstrings for instance, in a classic seated forward fold, consider pressing the heels down into the ground while you stretch. You should pulse this by pressing them firmly down for 10 seconds, and then relaxing completely for 10 seconds and deepen the stretch (PNF stretching). Repeat this process 3 times.
There you have it. if you’ve been diligently stretching your hamstrings like crazy but you’re getting nowhere, chances are you need a change of tactic.
Deprioritise stretching for strengthening, and seek to create a balanced power ratio between the quads, hip flexors, hamstrings and glutes. Have fun, and remember - don’t shy away from that foam roller, it can make a huge difference!
This article was written for Warrior Addict by the amazing James Rafael. For more about James, click here