Tight Hamstrings: The Bane of All Athletes

Hamstrings are speed generators. They are part of what we refer to as the “Big 5” power muscles.

The Hamstring group helps the Gluteus Maximus extend the hip and increase stride length. Most hamstring injuries are not at the distal end where they cross the knee joint. This particular attachment (the insertion) is where the knee bends or flexes. Hamstring injuries tend to occur at the origin surrounding the Sitz bone, right at the heel of your pelvis. Normally, we don’t associate origins of muscles with much movement. However, in the case of the hamstrings, if you lack the stability and flexibility at that attachment then it can, when at full gallop, slow you down and also potentially micro-tear at the muscle tendon junctions.

Most people are thigh or quadriceps dominant and tight hamstrings create a force and counterforce that the weaker hamstring cannot compete with.

The hamstrings need to be strong and flexible in order to counter the anterior forces produced by the front loaded thighs and hip flexor muscles.

A hamstrings strain is a stubborn injury. When it is torn, it can bother you when you’re simply walking or even sitting. When a hamstring strain finally starts to heal, you slowly build up your training to levels near your top speed with light running and then sprinting. If those muscle tears are not properly healed they will start to fight back and the inflammation will reappear due to those muscle fibers not being stable enough. It means not enough time has been spent on the rehabilitation to bring the tissues back to the full function and range.

Not all hamstrings cases are strains. Some are simply muscle pains from having tight and restricted hamstrings.

What are some of the causes of tight hamstrings:

  1. Muscle imbalance
  2. Disc compression
  3. Prolonged sitting
  4. Previous hamstring strain
  5. Acute and chronic hamstring strain

Muscle Imbalance

You see this often in women who tend to lock out their knees and hold their pelvis with a 15-20 degree forward tilt. This puts a big stretch on the hamstrings, which weakens them and reduces the neuromuscular tone. When someone has an extreme anterior pelvic tilt, the hamstrings are constantly “switched on” as they are trying to pull the pelvis back.

This push/pull loads up the lumbar musculature and ends up with extension-based back pain and lumbar erector strains.

Doing long hold static stretches on hamstrings of people with strong anterior tilts is not recommended as the tissue is already over lengthened. You run the risk of making the pelvis and lower back more unstable. This is particularly the case in women, who have less rigid ligamentous structures (more congenital laxity) to protect them. It’s not mobilization they need but stabilization. It is also sensible to work on the hamstring synergists such as the Gluteus Maximus and Minimus, which keep the pelvis and knees straight and create a more even pull on all the hamstrings. Anterior Core stabilization is also important to help remove and re educate the pelvic alignment.

When you have completed the hamstring training always finish with some light, active and dynamic flexibility work for the inner and outer hamstrings. This will help to train the tissues in eccentric and concentric movements with less likelihood of injury.

Unlock your knees, bear your body weight on your heels and keep the hamstrings working during everyday activities. Conscious change is always a good starting point for postural correction. Not all flexibility training is about lengthening muscles and soft tissue. It is about optimizing function and balance on both sides of the joint.

Hamstring Tension from Disc Compression

Just because you feel hamstring tightness doesn’t mean that the hamstrings are actually the source of the problem. What does the nerve do? It commands the muscle to contract. If the contraction is too strong due to nerve entrapment then the muscle will become hypertonic. In fact, it’s not uncommon at all for those with lumbar disc issues to present with radicular pain, tightness, or numbness/tingling into the legs – especially the hamstrings. This is where short duration and very light assisted neural stretches are essential. The intention is not to release the soft tissue but let go of the nerve compression.

Tight Hamstrings from prolonged sitting

In order for hamstrings to really be over-contracted, one would have to spend a lot of time with the knee flexed and hip extended, as in the position you’re in at the top of a standing leg curl. That’s a hard pose to hold for an extended period of time. The sitting position is most likely to cause tight hamstrings, especially if the pelvis is tilted posteriorly. In this case, a series of active flexibility training would be needed.

Laying on your back, perform at least 3 sets of 10 repetitions starting with a bent knee and then extending the knee to full range with the assistance of a rope or strap. Hold the position for 2 seconds and return back to the start position. Then perform 3 sets of 10 repetitions with a straight leg and locked your knee. Add variation by rotating the hip inwards and outwards to isolate the different parts of the hamstring.

Previous Hamstring Strain

The single best predictor of hamstrings strains is a previous hamstrings injury. Once you have an injury, that area may never be the same from a tissue pliability and flexibility standpoint. A previous injury can leave athletes feeling “tight” in the region, so regular manual therapy can certainly help to break up the soft tissue adhesions.

Athletes with the long-term hamstring weaknesses seem to be those with the pulls higher up on the gluteal fold. This is where the hamstrings tendons attach to the ischial tuberosity or sitz bones. Perhaps more problematic, though, is the fact that we sit on our proximal hamstrings attachments – and that isn’t exactly good for blood flow and tissue regeneration. Very simply, an athlete with a previous hamstrings strain needs regular
manual therapy and flexibility training on the area and to be cognizant of maintaining mobility and stability throughout the pelvis.

Acute and Chronic Hamstring strain

Of course, the other reason your hamstrings might be tight is because you might actually have a hamstring injury! It could be a hamstring strain or an overuse issue where tissue loading lets say from running, exceeds tissue tolerance for loading. When doing your rehabilitation exercises, shorten up your stride on lunges. This makes the movement slightly more quad dominant, but allows you to still get the benefits of controlling the frontal and transverse planes with the appropriate gluteal and adductor recruitment at the hip. These muscles are used to keep the hip and knee straight. Reducing the eccentric contraction movements of the hamstrings by reducing the stride length can take a considerable amount of stress off the hamstrings. If you’re going to squat, start with front squats at the beginning, and progress to back squats, as they will be more hamstring intensive.

Knowledge of the body is critical to helping you to repair your injury. If you are in hip flexion and knee extension, you’re going to really be stretching the hamstrings and likely irritating them in the process. Select exercises that don’t hit these painful end-ranges and then gradually introduce more dramatic ranges of motion as the healing improves. Do hill sprints before you do regular sprints. Your stride is going to be a bit shorter with hill sprints, and that will take a considerable amount of stress off the hamstrings at heel strike.

This should also make you realize why you can’t treat all hamstrings strains the same way.

If you suffer from any of the ailments mentioned in this article and need help, contact us
to book a consultation with one of our therapists. They will assess your posture, measure your range of motion, explain to you what’s going on and how they can help.  They will also develop a program of flexibility and strength aiming at addressing and resolving your particular issue.  You will decide then, how you want to proceed.

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November 20, 2015