Ask the Professor: Help My Hamstrings!

"Why do my hamstrings always feel tight, and what can I do to 'fix' them?"
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Although your first inclination might be to stretch a muscle that feels tight, you have to remember that “feelings” are just that — feelings. The sensation of tightness is your brain’s perception of having tension in that muscle, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that a muscle is actually short and needs lengthening. 

Get help for your hamstrings

Instead of forcing your hamstrings to new lengths, there are several things you can do to help correct your issue.

For example, in a recent study, researchers found that people who experienced a prior hamstring strain felt tighter on that side than they did on their uninjured side, even though there was no difference in actual extensibility between their hamstrings. 

This suggests that the perception of tightness may be disconnected from the actual shortening of the muscle, particularly if it has been injured in the past. This is a logical safety mechanism your brain uses to protect that muscle from getting reinjured.

Actual hamstring tightness can be due to either your body’s lack of trust in its ability to stabilize your hips and knees — as discussed earlier — or a lack of extensibility, which causes continual overactivation of your hamstrings. Because if your hip flexors are short — usually from long durations of sitting at work or in a car — they tip your pelvis forward, ostensibly lengthening the hamstrings and causing them to feel tight because they are constantly being stretched. 

Shortened hip flexors also can send an inhibitory signal to your glutes — the primary movers for hip extension — telling them to activate less than normal. Your body then recruits your hamstrings to take over, but since this is not the primary function of your hammies, they quickly become overtired and overstretched and start complaining to headquarters.

The goal, then, should be to increase the tolerance of your hamstrings to being stretched during activity, not just trying to make them longer or more relaxed. Instead of forcing your hamstrings to new lengths, there are several things you can do to help correct your issue:

  1. Address your hip musculature as a whole. Foam rolling both hamstrings and hip flexors can help reduce their overactivity, making them more amenable to mobilization.
  2. Use glute-targeted moves to activate your back end and retrain your brain to recruit the glutes first when extending the hips with each step, sprint or lift.
  3. Build hamstring endurance and educate the neuromuscular system how to control tension while lengthening by training the lengthening (eccentric) phase of a rep. This helps reduce the hold of that governor administered by your brain.

“Tight” Hamstring Protocol

Hip Complex: Rectus Femoris Foam Roll

  • Do preworkout or during cool-down.
  • Complete 1-2 minutes per side; hold 30 seconds in tight areas.

Hip Complex: Half-Kneeling Hip Stretch

  • Do after foam rolling preworkout or postworkout. 
  • Complete 1-4 sets, 30 seconds each side.

Glute Bridge/Hip Thrust/Hip Extension

  • Do three to five days per week especially before training legs.
  • Complete 1-2 sets, 10-15 reps.

Hamstring Conditioning: Eccentric Stability-Ball Curl

  • Use as a stand-alone exercise with a machine curl or superset Romanian deadlift.
  • Complete 2-3 sets, 10-20 reps; roll in for 1 count, hold for 4 counts, roll out for 2 counts.

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