Tight hamstrings are incredibly common amongst athletes. This tension can aggravate pain at the lower back and knees and interfere with your athletic performance. In this article, we’ll look at some of the common causes and how yoga can help to improve your flexibility so that you can get back to doing your favourite sports, pain and injury-free.
WHAT ARE THE HAMSTRINGS?
- The hamstrings are a group of 3 muscles—the semimembranosus, semitendinosus and biceps femoris, that run down the back of the thigh, from the sitting bones (ischial tuberosity) to the top of your lower leg, crossing behind the knee.
- The hamstrings flex the knee and extend and rotate the hip.
- The antagonist to the hamstrings is the rectus femoris (one of the four quadriceps).
COMMON CAUSES OF TIGHT HAMSTRINGS
- Sitting for prolonged periods.
- Frequent exercise, especially involving running and cycling.
- Tight hips and/or calves.
- Excessive anterior or posterior pelvic tilt*.
* If you have an excessive anterior or posterior pelvic tilt, hamstrings can be long and tight or short and tight, respectively.
YOGA HAMSTRING STRETCHES
In yoga, we have a category of poses, called Forward Bends, that stretch the hamstrings. In fact, they lengthen the entire back of the body, as Backbends open up the front of the body. You can practice Forward Bends standing, seated and reclining (lying down on your back). Examples include Standing Forward Bend, Head-To-Knee pose and Reclining Hand-To-Big-Toe.
A WARNING ABOUT SEATED FORWARD BENDS
Although it may seem counter-intuitive, seated Forward Bends, like Head-To-Knee pose, are not necessarily advisable for those of us with tight hamstrings. This is, in large part, because the seated position limits the movement of the pelvis.
If you have an excessive anterior pelvic tilt, your hamstrings are perpetually lengthened and you risk tearing the muscle or aggravating the attachment. And if the tendency is for your pelvis to rotate posteriorly (perhaps your hip flexors are also tight), you risk putting tremendous pressure on your lower back.
MODIFYING FORWARD BENDS
Here are a few ways that you can modify Forward Bends to protect yourself from injury.
- Bend your knees. Flexing the knee allows your hips to rotate forward, taking pressure off your lower back. This works especially well in standing Forward Bends including Standing Forward Bend/Ragdoll.
- Use blocks. Bringing the ground closer to you can also reduce pressure on the hamstrings and lower back. This is particularly effective in Triangle, Balancing Half Moon and Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend.
- Sit on a bolster. In seated poses, including Head-To-Knee and Folded Butterfly, raising your hips up allows the hips to rotate forward, relieving the pressure at your lower back.
A YOGA SEQUENCE TO RELEASE TIGHT HAMSTRINGS
Here are some tips to get the most out of your practice. None of these poses should cause you pain. Please work within a safe limit for you and speak to your physical therapist if you have any concerns.
- Sequencing. In yoga, we recognise that all parts of the body are connected. So, when the hamstrings are tight, it’s likely that other muscles are also tight—including the calves, glutes, hips and lower back. I have designed this sequence to cover all these areas.
- Conscious breathing. When you are familiar with the poses, I encourage you to focus on slowing your breathing right down. Relaxing your nervous system is a crucial aspect of improving flexibility.
- Relax. In each of the poses, rather than trying to stretch your muscles into greater suppleness, close your eyes, focus on the internal sensations and visualise letting go of tension. Also, aim to keep the rest of your body relaxed—your jaw, neck, shoulders, chest, all the way down.
- Dynamic stretching. As well as static stretches, we practice a flow section in this sequence to take your hamstrings through their full range of motion, dynamically.
- Be patient. The hamstrings are comprised of particularly tough connective tissue so take your time in the poses and accept that it may take several weeks or even months to increase your flexibility so that you can do the sports and activities that you love without restriction.
1. CONSTRUCTIVE REST
Lie down on your back with your feet flat on the mat, hip-width apart. Rest one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest. Start to breathe in and out through your nose—following the natural rise and fall of your breath. Relax your jaw, neck and shoulders.
2. DEAD PIGEON
Let’s come into Dead Pigeon pose to release tension in your external hip rotators, which are also likely to be tight. (You’ll find full instructions in the Pose Library). Try to keep your hips level and press the back of your pelvis into the mat. Hold for about a minute on each side. Relax your entire body and breathe slow, deep breaths, in and out through your nose.
3. RECLINING HAND-TO-BIG-TOE POSE
If you have tight hamstrings, grab a strap and loop it around the ball of your left foot. Straighten your left leg up to the sky and push through your left heel. Walk your hands up the strap and draw your left thigh in towards your chest. If this is too intense, you can bend your right leg and bring your right foot flat to the mat. Hold the pose for about a minute on each side. Keep breathing in and out through your nose and keep your neck and shoulders soft.
4. STANDING FORWARD BEND
Hug your knees into your chest and rock and roll backwards and forwards a couple of times—all the way up to standing, at the top of your mat.
Bring your feet together or hip-width apart and parallel. Place your hands on your hips. On an exhalation, unlock your hips and knees and hinge forward with a flat back until your fingertips reach the mat. If you have tight hamstrings and can’t touch the floor, keeping your legs straight—bring your hands to rest on two blocks. Inhale, press down into your heels and exhale, lift your sitting bones up to the sky. To come out of the pose, bring your hands to your hips and come up to standing with a flat back.
5. SCREAMING TOE POSE
Step back to all fours and drop down into Screaming Toe pose to stretch the soles of your feet. Close your eyes and tune back into your breath. Try to line up your ears, shoulders and hips.
Come forward onto all fours for a couple of rounds of Cat-Cow. Inhale into Cow pose. And exhale into Cat pose. Try to alternate between full anterior and posterior tilt. This unlocking of the hips is going to set you up for the correct alignment of Downward Dog.
7. DOWNWARD DOG
Bring yourself into Plank to measure the correct distance between your hands and feet. And lift your hips up into Downward Facing Dog. Keep your knees bent if you have tight hamstrings, unlock your hips and lift your sitting bones up to the sky. Drop your chest back towards your thighs—aiming to make a straight line all the way from your wrists up to your hips. Slowly walk out your feet to stretch the backs of your legs.
8. SIDE LUNGE FLOW
Inhale, sweep your right leg up to the sky—right toes point straight down. Exhale, spring forward on your left foot and bring your right foot in between your hands in Runners Lunge. Inhale, sweep your right hand up to the sky. Exhale, walk your hands to the back of your mat for Side Lunge. Flex your right foot and tune into the sensations of lengthening in your right hamstrings. Hold for 3 breaths. Walk your hands to the front of your mat and step back to Downward Dog for the other side.
9. TRIANGLE POSE
Stand sideways on your mat, facing left, with your feet about a metre apart for Triangle pose. Turn your back foot in 30 degrees and your front foot to face the top of your mat. Engage your quads and lift both arms up to shoulder height. Inhale, unlock your hips and reach forward with your right fingertips. Exhale, windmill your right hand down to the mat, reach your left arm up and look up. If you have tight hamstrings and you can’t touch the mat, rest your bottom hand on a block. Hold the pose for 3-5 deep breaths on each side.
10. BRIDGE POSE
We’ll finish in Bridge pose. Lift your hips up, taking care not to over-extend your spine and compress your lower back. Hold for 3 breaths. Release the pose and Windscreen Wiper your knees from side to side to release your lower back. Spend a few minutes in Final Resting Pose, letting go of any remaining tension.
VIDEOS FOR YOGA 15 MEMBERS
If you are a member of the site, here are 5 videos that I recommend you include in your program:
I’d love to hear how you find this sequence and about your own experience with tight hamstrings. Let me know if you have any questions in the COMMENTS below and I’ll do my best to answer them.