Blue theraband being stretched between hands

A New Approach To Stretching Tight Hamstrings

Feel like your hamstrings are always tight?

Tension along the back of the thighs is one of the most common complaints I hear as both an exercise physiologist and a remedial massage therapist. And when I ask people what they focus on when they stretch, the answer almost inevitably includes hamstrings. Why are these buggers always so tight?

There are many reasons your hamstrings could be tight, having to do with your normal activities, posture, or how you generally use your body. Let’s focus on one of the most common reasons your hamstrings feel tight, and more importantly, what you can do about it!

Tight Hamstrings Often Come From Your Hips

As cliche as it sounds, everything in the body is connected. Your hamstrings run along the back of your thigh, and attach to the bottom back of your pelvis, on bony areas often referred to as your “sit bones”. Your hip flexors are shorter muscles that run from various spots on the front of the pelvis to the top of the thigh bone (your femur). They may be small, but they pack a punch!

Side view of pelvis with hip flexor and hamstring attachment points highlighted

Hip Flexor attachment and direction of pull in blue
Hamstring attachment and direction of pull in green

When you sit a lot, and most of us do, your hip flexors rest in a shortened position. Stay in a shortened position long enough, and the body will adapt to that, essentially resetting to a “new normal” – a short one. This tilts your pelvis forward slightly during sitting, standing, and movement, a lower back, pelvic, and hip posture we call anterior pelvic tilt.

This has a flow-on effect on your hamstrings. When the pelvis tips forward, it pulls the top of the hamstring muscles up towards your head. Because the bottom of the hamstrings don’t move upwards, the muscles become stretched out. Much like stretching a rubber band, this stretching leads to increased hamstring tension, and you’ll feel like you need to stretch your hamstrings.

Since you now know that they’re already stretched, what can you do to get rid of the tension feeling?

Stretch Your Hip Flexors

Lengthening the hip flexor muscles at the front of your pelvis and hips can decrease the pull on the hamstrings muscles, which in turn can decrease the feeling of tension along the back of the thigh. Try these three stretches:

Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch

How To: 

  • Kneel on one knee and take a big step out front with the opposite foot.
  • Keep the hip, knee, ankle, and foot on your back leg aligned (most of us tend to twist the hip so the foot twists inward.) Front leg can be aligned, or can move slightly out to the side.
  • Tighten the glute muscles (the muscles of your bum) – this is key to the hip flexor stretch. Drop your hips forward and down. Keep your torso more or less vertical. Your front shin should stay vertical or knee slightly extended, and your weight should stay through your front heel to protect your knee.
  • Extra credit: Lengthen along the entire front of the body by reaching up and slightly backward with the arm on the same side as the stretching leg.

Hold your stretch for: At least 30 seconds, at an intensity of around 4 or 5 out of 10. Don’t bounce, and breathe easily. If you can’t breathe easily, decrease the intensity of the stretch.

You should feel: A stretch through the front of the hip and/or thigh. You may only feel it stretching one area or the other – that’s ok. All the muscles are being stretched. Your brain just pays attention to the one that is stretching the most.

Not ok with kneeling? Try this version:

Standing Hip Flexor Stretch

How To: 

  • Take a big step backward with one foot, and a big step forward with the other foot.
  • Keep the hip, knee, ankle, and foot on your back leg aligned (most of us tend to twist the hip so the foot twists inward.) Front leg can be aligned, or can move slightly out to the side.
  • Tighten the glute muscles (the muscles of your bum) – this is key to the hip flexor stretch. Drop your back knee halfway to the ground, pushing your hips forward. Keep your torso more or less vertical. Your front shin should stay vertical or knee slightly extended, and your weight should stay through your front heel to protect your knee.
  • If needed, take a slightly larger step forward, or drop the back knee down towards the floor more, which will help keep the back thigh and torso vertical.
  • Extra credit: Lengthen along the entire front of the body by reaching up and slightly backward with the arm on the same side as the stretching leg.

Hold your stretch for: At least 30 seconds, at an intensity of around 4 or 5 out of 10. Don’t bounce, and breathe easily. If you can’t breathe easily, decrease the intensity of the stretch.

You should feel: A stretch through the front of the hip and/or thigh. This standing version tends to feel like more of a quad stretch (front of thigh), but the hip flexors are lengthening too, especially with the glute squeeze.

If you want even better results, add this next stretch in. It targets the quads, which are the muscles at the front of your thigh. One of these muscles also acts as a hip flexor due to it’s attachment point on the pelvis. Most of us don’t spend nearly enough time on stretching the muscles at the front of the body anyway.

Standing Quad Stretch

How To:

  • Stand upright with feet together. Without bending or rotating your pelvis or hips, or shifting your weight too much (some shift will occur), bring one foot up behind your hips and hold it there.
  • Keep your knees together and torso upright, and squeeze your glutes.

Hold your stretch for: At least 30 seconds, at an intensity of around 4 or 5 out of 10. Don’t bounce, and breathe easily. If you can’t breathe easily, decrease the intensity of the stretch.

You should feel: A stretch through the front of the hip and/or thigh. This standing version tends to feel like more of a quad stretch (front of thigh), but the hip flexors are lengthening too, especially with the glute squeeze.

Do these stretches daily for two weeks, then drop back to doing them 3 to 4 times per week to help keep your hips and hamstrings feeling good. As an added bonus, you’ll also be helping your lower back stay healthy and pain-free, and will make your workouts more effective. You can also substitute your own preferred hip flexor stretches. If you’d like, tell us about your favorite in the comments 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s