Your hamstrings are the large muscles in the back of your legs that run from your glutes to your knees. And they are the source of two common fitness complaints: tightness, or lack of flexibility; and hypermobility, or the inability to hold tension. Both are symptoms of poor hamstring mobility, the balance between flexibility and stability.
Prolonged sitting is a major lifestyle factor that causes tightness, says Minnesota-based physical therapist Erin Babineau, DPT. Running, skiing, and other activities that call for repeatedly contracting the hamstrings can contribute to the problem as well.
Weak glutes, which put pressure on the hamstrings to power lower-body movement, can also lead to tightness, adds Los Angeles–based trainer and sports physical therapist Brian Schwabe, DPT, CSCS.
At the other end of the spectrum is hypermobility. People with naturally flexible joints and muscles don’t typically have trouble achieving full range of motion, but they often lack control in that full range, Babineau explains. If hypermobility isn’t supported by adequate strength to stabilize joints, it can potentially lead to pain and injury.
Schwabe notes that hypermobile people will sometimes complain of hamstring tightness, but their issue isn’t a lack of flexibility; it’s a lack of strength. “They’re tightening up because their body is searching for stability,” Schwabe says. Once you start strengthening your hamstrings, the tightness will likely disappear.
Both hypermobility and hamstring tightness can be addressed with exercises that strengthen your hamstrings and glutes in an extended-leg position. Babineau recommends performing the following routine two to four times per week, depending on your regular exercise routine.
Strengthens the hamstring in a lengthened position while also training balance.
- While standing, shift your weight onto one leg and let that knee bend slightly.
- Keeping your back straight and neck neutral, with hands on your hips or extended in front of you, hinge your hips back and begin to slowly “dive” forward. Allow your free leg to rise behind you, in line with your torso, and keep your hips square to the floor.
- Lower your body until you feel a slight pull in the back of your standing leg — or notice that you can’t hinge your hips back any farther — then squeeze your glutes to return to standing.
- Complete two or three sets of eight to 12 reps per leg.
Make it easier: “Kickstand” your back foot so you have some balancing support from your toes.
Make it harder: Instead of stretching your arms in front of you for balance, hold a weight in each hand by your sides.|
Standing Resisted Hip Extension
- Anchor a resistance band at ankle height and loop the other end around one ankle. While facing the anchor point, take a few steps back until you feel slight tension in the band. (Note: You can also use a cable machine.)
- Soften your knees and press your resisted heel behind you as far as possible without curving your lower back. Keep your core tight and squeeze your glutes at the top of the movement and return your foot to the floor.
- Perform two or three sets of eight to 12 reps per leg.
Bridge With Pelvic Tilt
- Lie on the floor on your back with your knees bent about 90 degrees and your body weight supported on your heels. Lift your toes off the floor, if needed, to shift weight into your heels.
- Flatten your back into the ground to engage your core and gently tuck your pelvis under; squeeze your glutes while you lift your hips off the floor.
- Hold the top position briefly before lowering your hips back down.
- Complete three sets of eight to 12 reps.
Make it harder: Lift one foot off the floor and perform single-leg bridges. Keep your hips level and squeeze your glutes throughout the movement.|
Two Stretches for Tight Hamstrings
Traditional stretching has its place for tight hamstrings, too. Babineau recommends adding these stretches pre- or postworkout (or both), in addition to your strengthening mobility exercises. (Note: If you suffer from hypermobility, avoid additional static stretching even if your hamstrings feel tight. Focus on building stability.)
Active Hamstring Stretch
- Lie on the floor on your back with legs extended.
- Lift one leg 90 degrees and bend at the knee if needed. Hold on to your thigh with both hands to stabilize and slowly try to straighten your leg. Stop once you feel a nice stretch; if you feel pain, you’ve gone too far. Your other leg can be bent with your foot on the ground to protect your lower back.
- Perform one or two sets of 10 reps per leg.
Standing Hamstring Stretch
- While standing, elevate one heel on a stable surface that’s close to the maximum height you can manage. Bend the knee of your elevated leg slightly.
- Keeping your standing leg straight, press down on your elevated heel for 10 seconds. Rest 10 seconds. Then slowly hinge forward at the hips to bring your chest toward your elevated leg for 20 seconds.
- Complete two or three sets of three reps per side. Adjust the height of your elevated heel to make the stretch easier or harder.
This originally appeared as “Happy Hamstrings” in the May 2019 print issue of Experience Life.