Anyone who’s ever run or played sports is probably familiar with the feeling of tight hamstrings — an unpleasant, sometimes painful tension in the back of the legs.
However, the phrase ‘tight hamstrings’ is a bit misleading, because it makes it seem like stretching or lengthening the hamstrings solves the problem. While stretching may help in some cases (more on this later), it’s sometimes the last thing runners or recreational athletes need.
Here, we clarify what it means to have “tight” hamstrings — and if you should be worried about it.
WHY HAMSTRINGS ARE TIGHT
There are a few reasons why your hamstrings may feel tight.
- YOUR HAMSTRINGS ARE CONSTANTLY SHORTENED
The first possible explanation is what people often think of when they hear the phrase ‘tight hamstrings’: Your muscles are constantly in a shortened position. This can happen if you sit for long periods of time, as many of us do.
The hamstrings are made up of three muscles, which start at the bottom of the pelvis at your sit bones, run down the back of each thigh, and cross the knee joint to attach at the lower leg. Together, these muscles function to bend the knee, and extend the hip to kick the leg back. If you sit for long periods with your knees bent, your hamstrings are put in a shortened position and tend to feel tight behind the knee. “But, at the same time, you’re putting the hamstring in a stretched position at the sit bone level,” says Jen Davis, DPT, a board-certified physical therapy clinical specialist and certified running coach in Portland, Oregon. After a while, this overstretch can lead to pain or injury at the point where the hamstring connects to the pelvis (also known as proximal hamstring tendinopathy).
The fix: Davis recommends switching the way you sit, like periodically straightening your legs while you sit at your desk, or moving one leg out to the side so you don’t sit with your knees flexed all day. You could also try foam rolling. Stretching the hamstrings could help ease some of that tightness. The following exercises from Davis stretch and activate the hamstring muscles. Aim to do these five times per week.
- Supine Hamstring Stretch
Lie on your back in an open doorway with your left hip next to the doorframe and both legs extended. Keeping your left leg straight, lift your left heel and place it against the doorframe. You should feel a gentle stretch in the back of your leg. Hold briefly before returning your leg to the floor. Repeat. Continue to breathe evenly, and make sure you don’t lock your knee. Do two sets of 10 reps per leg.
- Hip Adductors and Hamstring Stretch With Strap
Lie on your back with one leg extended. Bend your other leg and wrap a strap, belt or towel securely around your foot. Hold the ends with both hands. Then, use the strap, belt or towel to gently pull your leg up, straightening your leg as you go. Once you’ve lifted your leg as high as you comfortably can (without bending your knee), slowly lower it out to the side until you feel a gentle stretch on the inside of your thigh. Make sure your low back stays flat against the floor. Hold briefly, then return your leg to the starting position. Repeat. Do two sets of 10 reps per leg.
- Walking Hamstring Stretch
Find a flat, open space where you can walk a short distance. While standing, extend one leg in front of you and prop your heel on the ground, toes lifted. Then, hinge forward at the hips until you feel a gentle stretch in the back of your front leg. Hold briefly, then press your lead foot flat against the ground and push your hips back to squat down on your back leg. Step forward and repeat on the other side. Keep your movements controlled throughout the exercise. Do two sets of 10 reps per leg.
- YOUR HAMSTRINGS ARE OVERSTRETCHED
However, your hamstrings can also feel tight if they’re constantly overstretched. “Typically, athletes and runners, particularly, are really strong and tight in their quads and overstretched in their hamstrings,” Davis says. She compares this to having more tension on one side of a guide wire: Having too much tension on one side pulls that side down and stretches the other side. “If your quads are tighter, it’s going to pull the hamstrings into a stretched position.”
The fix: Stretching won’t solve your problem. Trying to stretch muscles that are already overstretched can make those muscles feel even tighter. In this case, you’ll want to strengthen your hamstrings by working with a trainer or physical therapist.
- YOUR HAMSTRINGS ARE WEAK
Running, in particular, calls for a ton of hamstring strength. However, if your hamstrings are too weak to handle the demands of running and exercise, they may tighten up as a protective reflex to guard them from straining or tearing, Davis says.
The fix: If your hamstrings are tight because they’re weak, the best way to relieve tension is to strengthen them. Performing deadlifts of any variation (conventional, sumo, Romanian, suitcase, single-leg, etc.) is a great way to do this, Davis notes.
- YOU MAY HAVE A NERVE PROBLEM
Sometimes, the cause of hamstring tightness involves your nerves. For example, if any of the nerves that tell your hamstrings to contract and relax aren’t firing normally, this may cause your hamstrings to tighten — especially if your nerves are firing more than they should.
The fix: Stretching won’t help in these cases, either. If you feel any pain when stretching your hamstrings, stretching hasn’t helped ease any of your tightness, or you feel any signs of numbness, tingling, burning or hot or cold sensations in your body, you should see a physical therapist, “as these [symptoms] are definitely of neural origin and should be evaluated,” Davis says.
IS IT BAD TO HAVE ‘TIGHT’ HAMSTRINGS?
No matter the reason, having tight hamstrings probably isn’t a good thing. Tightness can impact the way you stand, walk and run, which can lead to tightness, pain and overuse injuries in other areas of your body, and pain and injury in the hamstrings themselves.
Davis says, your best bet is to visit a physical therapist or other qualified professional — especially if stretching and strengthening the hamstrings hasn’t helped.