This is why you keep getting tight hamstrings + 3 simple stretches to soothe sore ones

·5-min read
Photo credit: Harry Hall for Harper's Bazaar
Photo credit: Harry Hall for Harper's Bazaar

They're the curse for everyone no matter your go-to workout or sport – tight hamstrings. Whether you've winced through to the end of a run, felt it during a gym workout or had to walk your bike back to the starting point, tight hamstrings are not a trifling condition. In fact, they can seriously impede your fitness routine.

To keep you kicking, curling and pedaling on, we asked the experts to explain the causes of tight hamstrings, how to loosen tight hamstrings, and what not to do if you keep winding up with screaming hammies.

What muscles make up the hamstring?

Sounds like just one muscle, right? Wrong. The hamstrings are made up of three separate muscles, grouped together as 'the hamstring'. 'Hamstrings are made up of three muscles, they not only have a movement function but also a postural role,' explains physiotherapist Katie Knapton, founder of PhysioFast Online.

Don't worry though, we won't ask you to commit these to memory. Just be aware that when we talk about the hamstring, we're actually referring to three muscles.

What causes tight hamstrings?

There are a few causes of tight hamstrings and they're fairly diverse in nature. PT Luke Worthington explains they can be a result of poor posture when sat down:

"If the pelvis is tilted too far forwards, as is often the case when seated, this puts the hamstring into a lengthened and weakened position," says Worthington. "It will feel "tight", but it’s actually long. So, it’s important to strengthen rather than lengthen the hamstrings."

The second issue comes down to genetics, some people are naturally more limited in their hamstring flexibility and, as such, may be pre-disposed to tighter ones.

Finally, sports that require repetitive sprints or sudden changes of direction – e.g. football, netball, HIIT and some forms of circuit training, to name a few – can overstress the hamstrings and cause chronic tightness.

What are the symptoms of tight hamstrings?

"People may notice a feeling of tightness in their posterior (back) thigh and difficulty getting into some positions due to this tightness – usually bilaterally," says Knapton. (Bilaterally means it happens on both sides.)

"It may also be the case of finding that you're unable to sit with your legs out straight due to a muscle restriction. This is usually felt centrally in the back of your thigh."

Sciatic pain can occasionally present as a hamstring problem so important to seek appropriate care if unsure.

How do you loosen tight hamstrings?

The way you work on loosening up your hamstrings will be relative to what's causing them to be tight. In fact, some causes of tight hamstrings won't benefit from time with the foam roller or prolonged stretching on your yoga mat, Knapton explains.

"Sometimes the sensation of tightness in the hamstrings may not actually be due to reduced muscle length but could be due to a back issue, sciatica or a local hamstring issue. If this is the case, your tight hamstrings won't benefit from stretching alone," says Knapton.

"It's not always as simple as 'I have tight hamstrings I need to stretch them'. If, after regular stretching, there is no improvement in symptoms an assessment from a physio would be recommended."

Photo credit: Garetsworkshop
Photo credit: Garetsworkshop

However, if you do find that your hamstrings are down to poor posture, specific sports and fitness regimes or genetics, regular stretching can be majorly beneficial. Be warned, though – you'll need to commit to this for the long term if you want to feel a noticeable change. We're talking months, not weeks.

3 best stretches for tight hamstrings

PT Ste McGrath, owner and founder of Get Results Training, suggests holding these stretches for 15-30 seconds – working in and out of the slowly and trying to find a little more range of motion each time.

Toe touching

"A classic way to stretch your hamstrings is by toe touching. While standing, bend forward at the hips to try to touch your toes with your fingers. You can also do this sitting down with legs straight, reaching over to touch your toes."

Supine hamstring stretch

"A common way to increase hamstring flexibility is lying on your back and bringing one straight leg up towards your head, with the ultimate goal of touching your toes. If you struggle with flexibility you can use a resistance band around your foot, holding the other end and bringing it closer to you."

Hurdle stretch

"This basic stretch is perfect for targeting one leg at a time and is great for those with really tight hamstrings," says McGrath.

"Sit on the floor and straighten your left leg in front of you. Bend the right knee, placing the sole of your right foot against your left inner thigh. Fold over your left leg, keeping your back straight."

How do you treat chronic tight hamstrings?

Chronic hamstring tightness is different to regular tightness. It may manifest as repeated tightness that isn't alleviated through stretching. It's important to know the difference so no further damage to the hamstring muscle is caused.

"Treating chronic hamstring tightness should be done via manual physical therapy or massage therapy which is very effective," advises McGrath.

Yoga, suggests Knapton, can be useful to increase hamstring flexibility. Often, it's not just the hamstrings that are tight, so it's important to stretch the quadriceps and hip flexors too.

An important feature of addressing tight hamstrings is actually by strengthening the muscles around the hamstring, as well as the hamstrings themselves.

"Often more benefit will be gained by combining a general strengthening regime addressing the glutes and hamstrings," says Knapton. She suggests adding the following exercises to your routine.

What happens if you continue to exercise on tight hamstrings

So you know your hamstrings are feeling tight but you want to get out there and exercise anyway? Straining an already sore hamstring is going to hurt and increase the chance of needing a lengthy recovery time.

"The consequences of tight hamstrings will usually be injury at either the knee or the hip," explains McGrath. "This is because these are the joints the hamstring crosses over. It's best to avoid this by being careful when training or working out."

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