Hamstring muscles. We all have them, we all use them, and we all need to take care of them. Before we get into some Hamstring TLC, let’s review a bit of the muscle’s anatomy. The Hamstring muscles are located on the back of our upper leg and consists of 3 muscles in total; the semimembranosus; semitendonosus; and biceps femoris. All muscles, including the Hamstrings are made up of muscle fibres (muscle cells), which are actually single cells that run the full length of the muscle. These muscle fibres are mobile and depending on the activity, have the ability to change the muscle’s shape by working together to shorten or lengthen the muscle as a whole. When the Hamstring muscles shorten, our knee flexes or bends, like sitting in a chair. When the Hamstring muscles lengthen, our knee extends or straightens, like when we are standing. So how does this relate to us and our everyday lives?
The majority of us spend a large part of our day seated at work, belted in our car or plopped on the couch; consequently, our Hamstrings are consistently in a shortened state. Furthermore, many of us enjoy exercise and leisure activities that may also contribute to a change in your Hamstring’s muscle length; for example, a morning jog, an afternoon hike, or even an evening weight session. This recurring seated position and repetitive daily exercise can often cause the Hamstring muscles to adapt to a shortened or “tight” state. When the Hamstrings (or any muscle) becomes accustomed to a shortened position, it can further the likelihood of an injury; for example, a strain or a tear to the Hamstring muscle and its fibres because the muscles lose their optimal mobility. So what does this mean to you? Shortened Hamstrings can actually contribute to low back pain. I know what you may be thinking, how can my low back pain be because of my shortened Hamstring muscles?!?! Remember that song “your leg bone’s connected to your hip bone…”? Yup, it’s true. When your Hamstring muscles become shortened, they can cause a backward rotational pull on your pelvis and hips, which in turn triggers this low back pain. This change in the pelvis’ neutral position can irritate the nerves that originate from the lumbar-sacral part of the pelvis. The Sciatic nerve in particular can become irritated from the shift in the pelvis position, causing the hamstrings to further shorten. As the Hamstrings continue to shorten they can continue to pull on your pelvis and hips and cause low back pain. Hamstring tightness is not always attributed to exercise and day-to-day activities. A person can naturally have shortened Hamstrings; however, this adaptive or genetic shortening is not permanent and there is an easy at-home technique that you can do starting now to increase your Hamstring flexibility!
Stretching. Yes, it is that simple. Stretching is a great way to recover your Hamstring flexibility, decrease the possibility of straining your Hamstring fibres, and alleviate your low-back pain. Before you attempt the dynamic and static stretches explained and illustrated below, here are a few safety tips and general rules of thumb to follow. When a muscle is stretched, the fibres are gently lengthened and you may feel a slight pulling or tension sensation. It is important to emphasize that stretching is not supposed to hurt. The pulling and tension sensation should be felt in the belly (middle) of the muscle. Pain should not be felt in the joint. For example, when stretching the Hamstrings, you should feel the stretch approximately in the mid section on the back of your thigh. Pain and discomfort should not be felt at the back of the knee joint or the lower back/hip area.
First, let’s look at Dynamic stretches. Dynamic stretches should be performed before exercising, as they are warm-up like movements that prepare your muscles, tendons, and joints for the upcoming activity you are about to attempt. The Frankenstein March is a great dynamic stretch specifically for the Hamstrings. Swing your leg straight up from your hip while also keeping the knee straight and reach for your toes with your hands, alternating legs. Perform 20 leg swings on each side. As you repeatedly swing your legs up, the repetitive rhythmic flexion at your hip begins to elongate the Hamstring muscles.
Now let’s look at Static stretches. Firstly, static stretches should be performed after exercising, as they are cool-down technique wherein a position is held for approximately 30 – 45 seconds at a length that is tolerable for the muscle belly and does not cause pain. In addition, static stretches can also be performed throughout the day to counter-act daily seated positions that often occur.
Help with low-back pain, better an athletic performance and lessen my chance of an injury, wow, who knew that stretching the Hamstring muscles could go such a long way? No pun intended… That being said, the next time you hit the Sea Wall for a Sunday morning run, maybe give the Frankenstein March a try? And why not take a few minutes after an 8 hour shift of sitting at your desk to do a few static Hamstring stretches?