Are Your Hamstrings Really Tight?

runnerWhen I put someone through a range of motion sequence, one of the most common things that I hear is “my hamstrings are tight.” Sometimes the person that says this is correct. If you sit in a car to get to work, sit at your desk while you are at work, sit in the car on the way home and then sit on the couch when you get home, there is a very good chance that your hamstrings will become shortened and “tight” over time. You may be surprised to hear, however, that many times people who think that their hamstrings are tight (e.g. people who can barely touch their knees without bending them) actually have surprisingly flexible hamstrings.

What? How can this be? Well, I’ll tell you. One of our body’s basic functions is providing stability to prevent us from falling over. Normally, we generate this stability through a combination of muscle activity that includes the muscles in our feet, our legs and torso (yes our head, neck and arms can be involved as well, but that is for another post). But what if this doesn’t happen – what if one or more of those muscles do not contract and stabilize the way they are supposed to? Will you automatically just fall over? Luckily, no. Our bodies are great at adapting and if one muscle or group of muscles is not performing properly then we will engage another muscle to pick up the slack. Enter the hamstring muscles to save the day. If you lack the proper “core stability” to prevent you from falling over when you bend forward then often times your body will activate (tighten) your hamstrings to keep you upright. It is pretty ingenious really, but it can leave you with the misconception that your hamstrings are tight.

So why is this a problem? One problem comes when you try to correct it. If you try to fix your inability to touch your toes by stretching your hamstrings you will never see any results. Your hamstrings are not the reason you cannot touch your toes. So how can you tell if you’re hamstrings are actually tight or if the problem is stemming from somewhere else? A quick test is to lie down on your back and keeping your legs straight, raise them one at a time as high as you can. If you can raise your legs 70⁰ or more then you have normal hamstring flexibility and your problem is likely somewhere else. If you cannot raise your legs that high then you may still have core stability problems, but you also have tight hamstrings. And in that case, stretching and foam rolling (maybe even a little exercise) are potential treatment options for you.