Inflexible hamstrings can be a real pain in the gym. Movements like squats, lunges and any deadlift variation become much more difficult to execute with proper form. So what can we do about it? First instinct says that they need to be stretched liberally throughout the day, but is that really the solution? Have you been stretching your hamstrings for years with little to no improvement? Let’s first take a look at what causes tight feeling or inflexible hamstrings and then what can be done to fix it.
Look at Your Posture
Most people – athletes, office workers, manual workers, anyone! – have some kind of hip imbalance. The most common ways these are manifested is from Anterior Pelvic Tilt or Posterior Pelvic Tilt. How can you decide if you have either of these imbalances? Take a look at your natural posture from a side view. Be honest with yourself – don’t pull your hips where you know they are supposed to be, stand in the way that feels natural to you.
Anterior Pelvic Tilt
Posterior Pelvic Tilt
Both of these can lead to feeling like the hamstrings are tight. In one case, the hamstrings will feel tight simply because they are constantly being lengthened and tugged, in the other case they are actually tight. Look at the diagram below. The hamstrings are (haphazardly) shown as a red line. The first image is correct hip alignment, the second is posterior pelvic tilt and the third is anterior. Note how the hamstrings are truly short and contracted in posterior tilt but taught and constantly lengthened in anterior.
So if you are in anterior pelvic tilt – the most common of hip imbalances due to most of us working desk jobs several hours of the day – your hamstrings may be feeling tight, but in reality they are constantly being pulled at and stretching will have a very limited effect on how they feel. Those who are in posterior tilt will actually have tight hamstrings that, even if they are consistently stretched, will remain inflexible due to the other factors that contribute towards this hip imbalance. Let’s look at these other factors:
Factors Leading to Anterior Pelvic Tilt
- Tight Hip Flexors
- Tight Spinal Erectors (Group of muscles that run along the spine and help in upright posture)
- Weak Glutes
- Weak Abdominals
One of the most damaging factors of anterior pelvic tilt are weak glutes. When your glutes are largely inactive, which is very common when we spend the majority of the day sitting, the hamstrings are required to pick up the slack. This means that they are working overtime and are more prone to injury such as strains and tears that all the stretching in the world won’t help – it will probably just exacerbate the problem! And even though the hamstrings are constantly in a lengthened state, that doesn’t mean that you can stretch them very far. The anterior tilt will make it seem as though their range of motion is very short and will make it difficult to get into correct positioning for squatting, lunges, deadlifts and the like.
Tight hip flexors pull the front of the hips down, and weak abdominals are unable to compensate to pull them back up. Tight spinal erectors pull the back of the hips up, and weak glutes are unable to tuck them back in. So, in order to fix the problem, we can focus on really getting the glutes and abdominals strong while stretching the spinal erectors and hip flexors. Some exercises that can accomplish this are:
- Romanian Deadlifts
- Good Mornings
- Glute-Hamstring Raises
- Hip Bridges (Weighted or Unweighted)
- Reverse Crunches
Factors Leading to Posterior Pelvic Tilt
- Weak Hip Flexors
- Weak Spinal Erectors
- Tight Hamstrings
- Tight Glutes
- Tight Abdominals
In posterior pelvic tilt, a reduction in the natural curve of our lumbar vertebrae (lower back) results in a lot more force being put on the spine, especially when loaded doing exercises such as split squats or back squats. This can be manifested in what is known as a “butt wink,” a very common problem for beginning lifters, not just those in posterior pelvic tilt:
Some exercises that we can do to correct this include:
- Conventional Deadlifts
- Hanging or Lying Leg / Knee Raises
- Foam Rolling Hamstrings and Glutes
- Static Stretch Abdominals
So what does it mean for you?
If you’ve been trying for weeks, months or years to increase the flexibility in your hamstrings, there’s a good chance the problem may not lie in the hamstrings themselves. Take a look at your hips, glutes and core to see what may be really causing the problem. A little less attention may be exactly what your hamstrings need!
B.S. , NASM-CPT