Hamstring Tightness? Not Always The Case

How often do we hear people saying they have tight hamstrings?  It is probably the one muscle that everyone has stretched too much in their life. Literally.  I feel that having been an athlete myself, everyone that I have every played with stretched their hamstrings (ok, 95% maybe) before a game or they complained of their hamstrings always feeling “tight.”  The typical answer by many is if a muscle feels tight, stretch it.  It is the simple answer, but how can this tightness seem to stick even when they continue to stretch it, all the time.  The problem most likely may lie within the brain and the pelvic position. Or is it the brain creating the position? I am not sure, but maybe I am confusing myself again.

  1. The  nervous system: the control center for everything.  It is supposedly what controls or dictates the limits in our movements.  An assumption is that if something feels tight, it is the brain creating a protective mechanism for the body.  We cannot always go off the feeling we have in muscle because that feeling is probably telling us that is working double time or under tension for longer than it would like to be.  I think this is what many call muscles being toned.  Tone is the brains way of saying to the muscle that it is turned on constantly.  You cannot change this by simply yanking on a muscle (just holding a stretch).
  2. Pelvic position: the pelvic position is a huge reason why this tone may be occurring.  Take a look at the picture below, the hamstrings attach on the back of the pelvis.  Most people live with an anterior tilted pelvis causing the pelvis to tip forward (picture 2).  This constant position then puts the hamstring on stretch.  If this is the case, then obviously a feeling of tightness will present itself constantly.  The muscle, in its optimal position is when the pelvis is in neutral, so this whole time it has been trying to pull down on the pelvis.  Does it need more stretching?

Patrick Ward wrote this on one of his posts, and I really liked it.  “If you go into a movement pattern and the muscles that are being lengthened contract and push you out of the pattern, THIS IS NOT TIGHTNESS.  This is actually a contraction, even though the client describes it as tightness.  A good example of this is clients who can’t touch their toes and claim that their hamstrings are tight, when in reality, the hamstrings are turning on (when they should be lengthening) during the movement to provide stability to the pelvis since the core is not doing what it needs to do.  This is muscular contraction and not hamstring tightness.”

This blog post does not mean I do not believe in stretching but it depends.  We have a stretch circuit for all of our athletes right after they foam roll.

The above picture (active straight leg raise) is primarily what I am talking about.  If you can get to 90 degrees, you do not have tight hamstrings.  Even if you are just below that, you are still in pretty darn good terms with  your mobility.  The tight feeling is probably the overuse of your hamstrings as a primary hip extensor instead of your glutes.  Start learning how to hip hinge and use your glutes for your warm-up and during your workouts.  Glute bridges and 1-leg glute bridges are great ways to start.  I had a general member come up and ask me what he could do to fix his hamstrings tightness (where he also injured himself during football season)?  I truly had no idea what he did when he trained or anything else in his life, but I knew he played football.  Seems like so many football players have a hamstring problem at some point in their career.  I showed him some soft tissue work for his hip flexors and up high in his adductor/hamstring area, included some activation and strength exercises for his glutes and told him to do on a consistent basis (could be everyday).  Two weeks go by and I randomly see him in the facility working out, he came up to tell me that his hamstring pain/annoying feeling (maybe his groin since that high adductor area near the butt is a place that seems to be problematic) felt 100% better.  He went on to say that he wish he knew about what I told him earlier because it may have kept him healthy during his senior football season in college.  Was I a genius? I wish! Hell no, not even close but it is amazing to see that a very simple understanding on this can help people tremendously.  It is situations like that, that drive us as an athletic development coach.

If during the active straight leg raise, you leg mobility is horrendous, then mobilizing the hamstrings may be your way to go, but I think it is imperative that people start realizing that a feeling of tightness is not always needing passive stretching.  It may be neurological or the position.  Mobilizing is a better option not just sitting there holding a stretch.  Movement is where it is at.



Categories: Injury Prevention, Stretching/Soft Tissue Work

Tags: , , ,

8 replies

  1. Hi Matt, Nice post

    Your logic behind hamstring tightness is exactly what I think of. I have been lengthening my hip flexors, while strengthening my glutes. Like what you and Gray Cook say. But my improvements are marginal and never permanent even when I “try to own it” (Gray Cook). So I have tried a different approach, have you read Pavel’s Relax into Stretch, essentially using PNF stretches. This he argues will strengthen the hamstrings in a stretched position, which will let the brain think you have enough strength and stability to lengthen the hams. Great to see what you think. Also what do you mean by mobilse the hamstrings.I always thought joints are mobilsed and muscles are stretched.

    Thanks Matt,


  2. Thank you for the analysis, because your really hit the nail on a problem which is buggering me for months…
    My right hamstring always tight and eventually I realized that when I am running, I am not actually “lifting up” the right knee (so the hip flexor does not actually work), but I am swinging forward the whole stiff leg (I hope to have given the idea…).
    So the hamstring takes all the load and get hammered…
    My hip flexors are tight from my seated job….
    Now I have not clear how I can work on teaching my right hip flexors to activate correctly…
    should I work first on muscles release with deep-tissue massage?
    or work together, stretching, MR and hip flexors muscles activation ??

    • Roberto,
      I looked at your website and it seems that you are an avid runner. Some dysfunctions that may be occurring with your hips and hamstrings are due to either poor psoas activation and poor glute activation. Long distance runner are notorious for not being strong which is really why they need a good amount of strength training specifically posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings) work. If you do strength train, it would be wise to keep up with the foam rolling, but to add in seated psoas holds or any psoas activations. This is a major hip flexor that if dysfunctional, your other hip flexors will have to work MORE. Try this as your warm-up or work-out
      1. Foam rolling -quads, hip flexors, groins, IT band, glutes , hamstrings
      Stretch-Rectoris femoris ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Kp7Zdax8SE) make sure your sqeezing your butt on your back leg the entire time.
      2. Activations – seated or standing psoas holds (making sure your hip flexion is above 90 degrees) 3 sets of 3x10s holds per leg. Glute bridges 3-4 sets of 3-4 10 s holds. If you perform your glute bridges and you really feel them in your hamstrings that is telling you that those hamstrings are working instead of your glutes.

      Let me know if you need links to anything


  3. Thanks Matt, will try and let you know.


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