So you Wanna Stretch your Hamstrings
By: Laura Gold, PT, DPT
One of the most popular areas that people like to stretch is their hamstrings. Even with my patients who don’t stretch regularly, it’s the one of the first places people go. It makes sense too — hamstrings are often tight or feel tight. AND there are lots of ways to stretch them. Sitting in a chair, sitting on the ground, bending over and touching the toes, lying on your back with a stretch strap, etc, etc. The problem is that many of these stretches DON’T actually target the hamstring muscles… GASP! (Okay, so maybe it’s not that dramatic.) Often when people attempt to stretch their hamstrings they actually put tension on the sciatic nerve instead. (That’s the very large nerve which runs deep in the posterior thigh and has branches that go all the way down the limb. It’s very famous as a troublemaker, but that’s another story for another blog.) So what’s wrong with a little nerve stretch? Unfortunately, nerves don’t like to be stretched, and it makes them a bit angry. They’d rather glide and slide easily along the tissues they neighbor — something more like flossing. But let’s get back to the hamstring…
So how do you know if you are stretching the hamstring or nerve?
- -Start by determining where you feel the tension when you are stretching. Is it through the mid portion of the hamstrings? (That’s right!) Or do you feel it behind your knee, lower leg, calf, foot, or even in your back? If you feel it anywhere besides the hamstring muscles, it’s a sign that you may be stretching the nerve and need to modify your stretch.
- -Does your stretch involve pulling the toes closer to you? (as in the classic stretch lying on the back using strap to hoist the leg and pull down on toes) Does your stretch intensify the more you pull the toes to you (bending the ankle)? If so, then once again, you may be tensioning the sciatic nerve rather than getting a good stretch in the hamstring.
So how do you fix it?
- -You can start by modifying your current stretch intensity so that you feel it ONLY in your hamstrings. If you are using a stretch that involves pulling the toes in or bending the ankle, modify it so that the ankle is relaxed. For example, if you are lying on your back and using a strap, move the strap closer to your heel so that you don’t pull the toes down.
- -OR you can try this version of the stretch from UK running rehab specialist, James Dunne (@KineticRevolution). It’s my personal go-to when I want to stretch my hamstrings. http://youtu.be/ABNUjWgsDts
- -Also remember that less is more with stretching. You want the stretch to be gentle and something that can be held for a while without pain or shakiness. If you’re experiencing either of these with your stretch, it’s a sign that you’re pushing too hard and need to back off. If you push too hard, the muscle will actually fight back!
Still having difficulty? If you are having trouble with these stretches, pain, or recurrent hamstring injuries, make sure to consult your physical therapist for help.