A surprising number of problems arise from tight hamstrings and, given the frequency of knee injuries among athletes and dancers, it’s obvious that the methods used to keep them free could be better. This article presents a more effective way to free your hamstrings, improve your performance, and avoid injury.
A Look at Your Hamstrings
The hamstrings are the muscles that run from behind and below your knees up the backs of your thighs to your “sitbones”. Soft tissue injuries, knee pain, torn menisci (the cartilage pads in your knees that cushion the bones), chondromalacia patelli (painful wearing of the cartilage behind the kneecaps), and poor posture often come from tight hamstrings. Tight hamstrings can prevent you from reaching full leg extension or from bending over completely. If you can’t touch your toes or if you feel more comfortable slouching than sitting up straight, your hamstrings are probably tight.
There are actually three hamstring muscles on the back of each thigh, two on the inside and one on the outside. They do several things. In addition to bending the knees, they help control the alternate forward-and-backward movements of walking and stability against twisting forces at the knee when you turn a corner or roller skate. They also position the menisci in the knees by means of fibers (of the biceps femoris) that pass into the knee joint.
Tight hamstrings contribute to swayback by pulling the knees behind the body’s vertical centerline (i.e., locking the knees). The whole body sways forward, accentuating the spinal curves. If the outer hamstrings are tighter than the inner ones, the lower leg rotates toe-outward. This twist in the knee joint contributes to knee pain, to knee injuries, and to ungainly movement. Finally, when standing, bent knees trigger tension in the muscles on the front of the thigh, the quadriceps muscles, to prevent your knees from buckling. If you keep your knees bent all the time, the patella, or kneecap, which is embedded in the tendon of the quadriceps muscles, continuously grinds against the front surface of the knee joint and may become irritated.
As you can see, hamstring tension has far-reaching effects on movement, balance, and the health of joints.
Why Stretching Doesn’t Protect 100% Against Hamstring Pulls and Soft-Tissue Injuries
Knowing all this, athletes and dancers attempt to stretch their hamstrings. “Attempt” is the correct word because stretching produces only limited and temporary effects, which is one reason why so many athletes (and dancers) suffer pulled hamstrings and knee injuries.
As anyone who has had someone stretch their hamstrings for them knows, forcible stretching is also usually a painful ordeal. In addition, stretching the hamstrings disrupts their natural coordination with the quadriceps muscles, which is why ones legs feel shaky after stretching the hamstrings.
Fortunately, there is a more effective way to manage hamstring tension than by stretching. To understand how it works, one must first recognize that hamstrings that need stretching are usually holding tension — that is, they are actively contracting. In that case, the person is holding them tense by habit, unconsciously. Oddly enough, if one tries to relax them, one is likely to find that one cannot; one may then assume that the muscles are completely relaxed and need stretching. You may not realize that those muscles are contracting “on automatic” due to postural habits stored in your central nervous system. Any attempt to stretch them simply re-triggers the impulse to re-contract them to restore the sense of what is “familiar”. That is why hamstrings (and other muscles) tighten up again so soon after stretching or massage. Better results come by changing the person’s “set-point” — their sense of what “relaxed” is.
What Works Better
To change the set-point requires more than stretching or massaging; it requires a learning process that affects the brain, which controls the muscular system. Such a learning process is referred to in some circles as “somatic education”. Somatic education systematically uses special coordination patterns to improve awareness and control the tension of the muscular system. Significant results come relatively quickly, and when they do, the benefits are second nature and require no special attention in daily life.
The following coordination pattern, developed by Thomas Hanna, Ph.D., a pioneer in the field of somatic education, will show you. You may want to save this page so that you can try it on your own. Have someone read the instructions to you and follow along.
To learn the coordination pattern:
Get the illustrated version: click here
- Sit on the floor with one leg bent and dropped to the side. Its sole rests against the inside of your other leg, which is straight.
- Draw your straight leg up enough to permit you to grasp your foot with both hands; your finger tips meet at your sole. Get a firm grip, and you are ready to begin.
- Holding your foot firmly, gently push with your leg, so that your arm and shoulder stretch long. Hang your head forward. Work gently to the edge of your flexibility.
- Now, gradually relax your push, let your knee bend, and take up the slack by drawing your leg up with your hands. It’s a kind of “moving isometric” exercise.
- Now, with your leg, push again, maintaining some pull with your hands. Go back and forth within your comfort zone.
You’ll notice that with each repetition, you get a little further. You’re gaining feeling and control of the muscular tension in your hamstrings. The thing to remember is to move slowly enough and just strongly enough to clearly feel the muscle action.
After about ten slow motion repetitions, stand up and feel the difference between your two legs. Walk. You will notice that you feel looser, and yet secure.
Now, do the other leg.
You can do this coordination pattern in numerous positions:
- On your back
- On your side
- On your other side
Each position contributes to greater awareness and control.
Regardless of how long you may have had tight hamstrings or how tight they are, you will feel some improvement each time you do it — until you are naturally loose.
Freeing your hamstrings this way can prevent soft-tissue injuries and preserve joint integrity. Your hamstrings will be stronger because, being relaxed, they will not be partially fatigued all the time. You will be able to run or walk faster and your knees will be more stable. Runners may find this benefit of particular interest.
How to Get More
What you are doing is a special kind of movement maneuver taught in a training method called Hanna Somatic Education® (Google the term). This kind of do-it-yourself functional exercise is one part of the method. Other, more powerful techniques reduce the chronic pains and loss of flexibility caused by aging, injury (including overuse injuries and surgery), and stress.
You will find illustrated instructions for some of the somatic exercises Dr. Hanna devised in his do-it-yourself book, Somatics: Reawakening the Mind’s Control of Movement, Flexibility, and Health (published by Perseus Books, sold at Amazon.com).