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.
- 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).
- 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.