If you were asked to do a hamstring stretch, what’s the first thing to come to mind? Bending forward from the hips and touching your toes? Most people believe that touching their toes is one of the best exercises for hamstrings but this is not always the case.
Your hamstrings are critical to all your movement, from walking to sprinting and jumping. But most people underestimate the importance of these muscles in their daily lives. If you do not look after them properly, you may end up doing more harm than good, especially to your pelvis, lower back and knees.
Finding the best exercises for hamstrings means understanding their underlying mechanism so you stretch them in the correct manner. Doing this will help you remain free of injury and perform daily movements to the best of your abilities.
Why do I need to do hamstring stretches?
The three muscles that form the hamstrings run through the back of the thigh from the hip to the knee and are responsible for most primary movement such as walking, running and jumping. They’re amongst the most vulnerable muscle groups in your body and are subject to recurrent tightness and injuries which is why the best exercises for hamstrings are easy to do and effective in nature.
Those who are professional athletes or even casual athletes are at risk of experiencing tight hamstrings. If you do any form of running or sprinting, you should be particularly concerned about finding the best hamstring stretches to reduce and mitigate the risk of injury.
However is it not only athletes who are at risk. Do you do a fierce at-home Pilates workout? Do you start your morning with easy stretches to boost your flexibility? Everyone uses their hamstrings multiple times in a day, even if you’re just lowering yourself onto the couch or bed. You should ensure that they remain strong and flexible so that you can avoid strains or ruptures. How can you do this? By learning the best exercises for hamstrings you will have a range of options to choose from.
How do I choose the best hamstring stretches?
Before you can figure out which are the best hamstring stretches for you, you should understand the way your hamstrings work. The hamstrings are made of three muscles that run down the length of the back thigh to just below the knee. These muscles help you bend your knees and flex your thighs.
When your hamstrings are flexible and limber, you can enjoy a complete range of motion but more importantly you can prevent injuries to the knee, sacroiliac joint and the lower back.
Stretching the muscle is important, but you also have to consider the nerves that pass through the muscles. The sciatic nerve passes through the hamstrings and must be able to move or slide during movement. If there is any impairment in mobility for the sciatic nerve, you’ll feel pain or stiffness in your lower back. The best exercises for hamstrings should work on these nerves as well as the surrounding muscle.
There are two types of stretches that you can choose from when looking for the best hamstring stretches.
Static hamstring stretches: These are the traditional hamstring stretches in which the focus is on the hamstrings. The stretches are progressive and controlled and will make space for the nerve to attain a full range of motion.
Neuro-dynamic hamstring stretches: This is a relatively newer form of stretching and has gained prominence lately in the search for best exercises for hamstrings for everyone. In this, a medical practitioner like a physiotherapist assesses any structural issues that may be causing the trouble in the nerve. After this, you will be guided through a series of stretches and postures that work on all muscles and joints that may be impacting the mobility of the nerve.
What should I look for when choosing a hamstring stretch?
If you’re trying to find the best hamstring stretches for you, you should look for an exercise that does three things:
- Does it help my muscles to stretch? If the pose or stretch puts pressure on the muscle to stretch, it will increase the tensile strength. This means the muscle will “learn” how to stretch deeper without tearing.
- Does it improve my range of motion? The best hamstring stretches are meant to increase your flexibility and ease of movement.
- Does it work on the sciatic nerve? The sciatic nerve passes right through the hamstrings. If your hamstrings are tight, they may exert pressure on the sciatic nerve and cause backpain and reduced mobility. By focusing on the sciatic nerve, you can regain your range of motion in a short time and reduce pain.
All the best exercises for hamstrings focus on these three components and leverage them to boost hamstring strength and flexibility.
If you’re not sure about how to stretch your hamstrings, a personal trainer will be able to help.
The best hamstring stretches for everyone
The best exercises for hamstrings are those that bring the greatest gain in terms of strength and flexibility without causing extreme tension. Some exercises that you can safely do are:
Lying hamstring stretches
Lie flat on the ground or a mat and stretch out your legs. Keeping your left leg flat, raise your right leg straight up to 90 degrees. Now grasp your right knee and bend it, pulling it down towards your chest. Hold for about 10 to 30 seconds and repeat with the other leg.
Lying hamstring stretches with a strap
This is similar to the stretch above but makes use of a strap to better extend and stretch the muscles. The strap should be placed around the ball of your foot.
Lie flat on the ground or a mat and stretch out your legs. Keeping your left leg flat, raise your right leg straight up to 90 degrees. Put the strap around your foot and hold it with both hands. Extend your leg and pull the strap to feel a stretch in the hamstrings. Hold for 10 to 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
Lying hamstring stretch against a wall
This requires you to be near an open doorway. Begin by lying flat on the ground or the mat. Place one leg flat against the wall and extend the other leg through the doorway. Maintain the pose for 10 to 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
Seated hamstring stretch
Begin in a seated position. Stretch the left leg out in front of you. Bend the right knee and place your right foot on the left knee. Face your torso to look over your left leg, raise your arms overhead, and bend forward from the waist. Hold the position for 10 to 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.
Seated hamstring stretch on a chair
If the seated hamstring stretch is too hard, try doing it on a chair.
Sit on the edge of a chair and keep your back erect. Slide your right leg out so that the knee is straightened. Point the toes to the ceiling and keep your heel on the floor. Bend forward at the hip, using your hands on your thighs for support if needed. Do not tighten the spine; keep it neutral and soft. Hold the position for 10 to 30 seconds before repeating a few times with both the legs.
Standing hamstring stretch
Stand straight with an erect back and neutral spine. Slide your right leg forward and flex your foot to keep the heel on the floor and the toes pointing upwards. Keeping your knees and spine soft, bend forward gently. Hold the position for 10 to 30 seconds before repeating a few times with both the legs.
Hamstring stretches through yoga
Yoga offers some effective poses that can help you stretch and maintain your hamstring health. The best hamstring stretches in yoga are:
Forward Bend: Stand with your feet together and your back erect. Raise your arms overhead and swing them down, bending at the hips until your fingers touch the ground.
Downward Dog: From plank position, raise your hips into the air. Walk your hands towards your feet if necessary, but keep your hips raised as high as possible to feel the stretch in your hamstrings.
Pyramid Pose: Keep your feet shoulder-width apart and turn your feet towards the right side of the mat. Slowly bend forward over your right leg, moving from the hips and keeping your back loose. Hold for a few counts.
Triangle Pose: Keep your feet shoulder-width apart and turn your feet towards the right side of the mat. Lean your torso forward, lowering your right hand to the ground on the outside of your right foot, and reach your left hand to the sky. Turn your head and look upwards, keeping your neck and back loose and straight. Hold for a few counts.
Pigeon Pose: Step into a lunge with your right foot forward. Lean forward and place both hands on the mat. Bend your right knee and place the outside of your right ankle on the mat so that you feel the stretch on the outside of your right hip. Square your hips and breathe into your tight hamstrings and hips. Repeat on the other side.
The benefits of the best hamstring stretches
If you maintain a regular schedule of hamstring stretches, you’ll notice some incredible benefits.
- Reduction in injuries: When your muscles are soft and limber, it reduces the probability of straining or rupturing the muscle fibers during demanding physical activities like running.
- Improved posture: When your hamstring muscles are tight, they pull the pelvis in a backward direction, flattening the natural curvature of the spine and the back. This in turn leads to bad posture while sitting and standing. The best exercises for hamstrings keep your muscles limber so you can stand tall and sit straight with ease.
- Helping with lower back pain: Taut hamstrings have a terrible impact on pelvic mobility and this puts undue pressure on your back, especially the lower back. When you improve the strength and flexibility of the hamstrings, they do a better job of supporting your pelvis and back.
- Better flexibility: The range of motion as well as the flexibility of your hip joints is boosted by hamstring stretches. This makes it easier for you to carry out your daily tasks such as bending down to pick up objects or conquering a flight of stairs
The best time to do hamstring stretches
Hamstring stretches are easy and can be done at any time of the day. There is no best time, but it is important that you do them regularly. It is also critical to do them before and after a workout.
The best exercises for hamstrings can be done three times a week, with rest days in between to allow the muscles enough time to recover. You do not have to create a strenuous or long exercise routine – just a few minutes of effective stretches is all it takes.
If you have been doing stretches for some time but have not experienced reduction of pain, you may need to consult a medical practitioner or physiotherapist for the best exercises for hamstrings for you. Persistent tightness could be indicative of over-lengthened muscles. In this case, stretching becomes secondary and the focus should be on strengthening the muscles of the hamstring.
Hamstring health and working out
How you treat your hamstrings when you work out can make a big difference to your hamstring health.
You already know you should warm up well before any exercise. Do a brisk walk, jumping jacks, or a light jog to get the blood coursing through the body. This supplies your muscles with all the oxygen they need, improving your performance and reducing your chances of injury.
The jury is still out on the effects of stretching prior to exercising and certain studies have highlighted that there are no physical benefits to be gained from warm up stretching. However some people like to do some light stretches before working out. It is important that you have warmed up well before you stretch.
After you have finished exercising, it is important to stretch. The best exercises for hamstrings will loosen sore muscles, reduce next-day pain after a heavy workout, and help your muscles heal and grow strong.
Hamstring stretches are important for both professional and casual exercisers and will help boost blood flow and improve muscular strength and flexibility for all.
Taking it slow
Remember that your hamstrings will take time to benefit from stretches. The best hamstring stretches will offer immediate relief from a feeling of tightness but for more chronic problems like lower back pain, it may take some time to see results.
When it comes to your hamstrings, do not get impatient. Even the best exercises for hamstrings take time to show long-term change. Practice regularly and consistently, and use aids like straps, blocks, or foam rollers to help you achieve the correct form of the poses or stretches. As your flexibility improves, you’ll notice better hamstring health.
Do you have short or tight hamstrings?
It can be confusing to decide if you have short or tight hamstrings, but the way you treat them differs depending on the cause. A number of Aussies suffer from taut hamstrings and almost everyone believes that tightened muscles should be stretched. However if you have short hamstrings, stretching will do little to alleviate them.
Shortened hamstrings are those that are lacking in length. This happens when they are kept in a shortened position for most of the time so the muscle fibers have responded by reducing in length. Short hamstrings must be stretched and made more flexible.
A tight hamstring is just taut. If a muscle lacks strength and stability, the nerves send signals to the brain to become tight to temporarily increase muscular tone and strength. Tight hamstrings need to be strengthened to help them loosen.
To understand the best exercises for hamstrings you should know why they are sore or painful. Even with the best hamstrings stretches, you could damage tight hamstrings if they need strengthening instead of flexibility.
While the medical community may have varying opinions about the right time to do the best hamstring stretches, there is a unanimous agreement about the overall benefits of keeping your muscles limber and flexible. Stretching is highly beneficial for your hamstrings and all other muscle groups and will help you remain mobile and healthy as you get older. With better muscular strength and flexibility, you’ll also be able to maintain an exercise regimen, do all the things you love, and perform daily tasks easily.