The Doctor Said: Stop Stretching Your Hamstrings
Mindless stretching won’t help these muscles. Here, a physical therapist revises the approach.
Tom Van Ornum is a Doctor of Physical Therapy in Washington, D.C., who specializes in sports medicine and performance enhancement.
Educated exercisers prioritize efficiency. When you’re pressed for time, progress means that no movements can be wasted. So if you religiously hit the mats to stretch out tight hamstrings, you need to refocus your efforts. The truth is, most people don’t need to stretch their hamstrings. Even when these muscles feel tight, they are almost always victim to other forces in the body creating increased tension. Here’s why.
The Problem: The majority of patients I see present with a pelvis that drops in the front and elevates in the back, which is called an anterior pelvic tilt. Because the pelvis is elevated in the back, hamstrings are already lengthened without even doing any activity. The result is a false sensation of hamstring “shortness.” So when you stretch your already-lengthened hamstrings, you are adding additional tension to a muscle that actually needs to be put on slack.
The Solution: The fix for this kind of tension is restoring a neutral pelvic alignment, improving your ability to posteriorly tilt your pelvis, and maximizing your pelvic stability. Three ways to do so:
Release and lengthen your hip flexors
Given our increasingly sedentary lifestyle, hip flexors are shortened in most of the population, which contributes to anterior pelvic tilt. If you can release and lengthen your hip flexors you can reduce your anterior pelvic tilt and decrease tension through your hamstrings. Incorporate lunging hip flexor stretches into your regimen.
Practice diaphragmatic breathing
“Sitting, more than anything else, inhibits our abs and shortens our hip flexors and causes us to use compensatory strategies to breathe,” says Connor Ryan, a physical therapist at Drive 495 in New York City. Learning to breathe correctly by engaging your diaphragm can release your hip flexors and inhibit the other compensatory breathing muscles that impair normal hamstring function. Here’s how to practice: Lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor, and inhale through your nose while focusing on expanding your ribcage. Actively press your low back flat against the ground throughout the inhale and exhale. Exhale through your mouth through pursed lips. Once you have learned to engage your diaphragm, you can begin to incorporate this type of breathing throughout the day and during your workouts.
Work on core and hip stability
When the body senses instability in one area (like the core and hips) it frequently stiffens in another area (like the hamstrings) to compensate. Building up your glute strength and core strength is one way to reduce the workload through your hamstrings; it will decrease overextension of your lower back and the pull of each muscle group assists in bringing you out of an anterior pelvic tilt. Since the hamstrings also assist with rotational movements, activating and strengthening the rotational muscles in your core (the internal/external obliques) will decrease the workload through your hamstrings and let your nervous system know that it’s okay for your hamstrings to “let go” of your pelvis. Add core strengtheners like plank variations; work your obliques with wood choppers and unilateral farmer's walks.