Can you bend over and touch your toes? If you can’t, you might have tight hamstrings, a common problem among people who sit too much. Hamstring tightness is more than a nuisance. If your hammies are too tight, they can impact your workouts too, especially if you run or sprint.
How do you know if you have tight hamstrings? If you can’t touch your toes, your hamstrings may the limiting factor. Another test you can do at home is called the tripod test. To do this test, sit on a chair with your knees bent at 90 degrees. Straighten one knee as someone observes you. If your pelvis tilts when you straighten your leg, your hamstrings are tight.
Another test that will help you identify hamstring tightness is the straight leg lift. To do this test, lie flat on an exercise mat. Try to raise each leg up without bending your knees. If you have sufficient hamstring flexibility, you should be able to reach 70 degrees without bending at the knee. Any less than this and hamstring tightness is limiting you.
Now, let’s look at some of the potential downsides of having tight hamstrings:
Increased Risk of Injury
Tight hamstrings increase the risk of sports-related injuries, particularly hamstring strains. In fact, hamstring strains are the second most common injury among football players after knee sprains. Also, once you’ve strained a hamstring muscle, the risk of restraining it is higher due to the scar tissue that forms. When scar tissue builds up in the muscle, it stiffens the muscle and alters the smooth movement of the muscle.
Higher Risk of Lower Back and Knee Pain
Your entire posterior chain is connected. Therefore, it’s not surprising that tight hamstrings can negatively affect other muscles and joints along the posterior chain and the low back and knees are most likely to be impacted. When your hamstrings are tight, your hips shift backward and that places stress on your lower back and knees. You might not think of your hamstrings affecting your knees and lower back, but any weakness or stiffness in the posterior chain will affect structures above and below it.
Tight hamstrings can disrupt your posture too. When your hamstrings are tight, it pulls your pelvis, hips and thighs back into an unnatural position that strains your lower back. One study found that tight hamstrings restricts the natural rhythm of the lower back and pelvis and leads to compensatory posture changes in your posture when you move or stand. Many people walk, stand, and sit with poor posture and don’t even know it, but bad alignment places a strain on your neck all the way down to your lower back.
How to Fix Tight Hamstrings
Once you know your hamstrings are tight, what can you do to fix them? The first impulse is to stretch your tight hamstrings. That’s a good idea, but it isn’t the only one. You also need to strengthen your glutes. If your gluteus maximus, the largest muscle in the lower body and in the entire body, is weak, your hamstrings will have to work harder to take up the slack. When there’s weakness in one muscle group, other muscle groups have to activate more to compensate. You need strong glutes to take some load off your hamstrings when you extend your hips.
Why are your hamstrings weak? One culprit is sitting too much. When you sit too long, your hip flexors shorten and tighten. According to the principle of reciprocal inhibition, shortening of one muscle turns off the opposing muscles, in this case, the glutes. The key is to break the cycle by sitting less and by stretching your tight hamstrings more. At the same time, strengthen your glutes.
The best exercises for glute strengthening are movements like lunges, donkey kicks, hip thrusts, glute bridges and step-ups. Squats are more of a quad-focused exercise, but you can activate your glutes more by doing single-leg squats and using a full range-of-motion when you squat. Also, using a wider squat stance will target your glutes more than using a standard or narrow stance.
If you have tight hamstrings, spend extra time warming up your lower body. Most people warm up for only 5 minutes or so, but double that amount if you have hamstring tightness. Keep your warm-up dynamic by doing exercises like jogging in place and exercises like leg kicks. These movements will lengthen your hamstrings and raise your core body temperature. At the end of a workout session, do a series of hamstring stretches, including toe touches. There are a variety of other ones you can do too. Here’s a simple one:
- Lie on you a mat on the floor.
- Rest your right leg comfortably on the mat with your R knee bent.
- Raise your left leg off the floor and hold it with both hands at knee level.
- Pull your left leg toward your body while keeping it as straight as possible.
- Lower it and switch legs.
- Try the straight leg test at home to see how tight your hamstrings are. If they’re tight, take steps to correct the problem.
- Warm-up thoroughly before each workout and do static hamstrings stretches at the end.
- Have someone assess your alignment and posture and work on correcting alignment issues.
- Spend less time sitting. Get up and walk around and stretch whenever you can.
- Strengthen your glutes to take some load off of your hamstrings.
- Stretch your hamstrings a few minutes every day, even when you’re not working out. Doing this regularly will improve hamstring mobility.
- Strength and Conditioning Research. “How Does Stance Width Affect Muscle Activity in Squats?”
- Saudi Journal of Sports Medicine. Extended sitting can cause hamstring tightness. Ghulam Fatima1, Muhammad Mustafa Qamar2, Jawad Ul Hassan3, Ayesha Basharat. Vol. 17, Issue 2.
- Asian Spine J. 2015 Aug; 9(4): 535–540.Published online 2015 Jul 28. doi: 10.4184/asj.2015.9.4.535.
- Journal of Sport and Health Science. Volume 1, Issue 2, September 2012, Pages 92-101.
- J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 1998;27:295–300.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. “Hamstring injury: Prevention. 3 Ways Tight Hamstrings Can Impact Your Workouts”