Tight Hamstrings? Have you been told to keep stretching?

Are you constantly battling with tight hamstrings? Been told to stretch them but it doesn’t seem to help? It’s something I see all the time where they come into the clinic complaining of tight hamstrings and I get the same story, that they are stretching regularly but it doesn’t make any difference.

The usual way that people people determine if they have tight hamstrings or not is whether they can bend over and touch their toes. In fact I use this assessment myself as it gives me a good picture of how well you flex across your body.

Having said this I have the benefit of being able to watch from the side so can see where the lack of movement is actually occurring.

Whilst it might not feel like it what I tend to see is that the movement at the hip is ok, that is that the hamstrings are lengthening reasonably well, but that the spine is quite stiff and doesn’t flex well, and yes your spine should be able to freely flex.

At this point I will expand the assessment out to look at how well the intercostals, diaphragm and pelvic floor are working as they have a massive impact on whether or not you can touch your toes or not. If I’m seeing good movement at the hip but not much flexion coming through the spine I will start to expand the assessment of the diaphragm and intercostals. It is quite normal to very quickly create changes that result in what is perceived as an increase in hamstring flexibility. This is usually accompanied with a feeling of increased tension in the hamstrings during the forward bend as we are now truly taking them to near end range, where as previously there wasn’t a great deal of tension there.

If the spinal movement is good we assume this movement is ok and that it is the tight hamstrings that are limiting the movement as I can see that there isn’t good movement at the hip and we but we are seeing a feeling of tightness in the hamstrings then what next?

At this point we begin to assess what we call the posterior knee stability.


When we walk or run our hamstrings are used along with the gastrocnemius, the most superficial of the calf muscles, to stabilise the knee through an isometric contraction to prevent it from flexing as our foot hits the ground and through the propulsion phase. This stiffness is needed to help you absorb the forces when the foot hits the ground and in ensuring that the power you are generating in your hips isn’t wasted and generates forward movement.

If this stiffness isn’t being created then the hamstrings and gastroc start to have to work harder such that even during low level work the recruitment is higher than is desirable creating this feeling of constant tension that “needs” to be stretched out.

It is because of this increased workload and resulting increased tone that the tight hamstring feels tight and that stretching doesn’t actually work as it can’t as it isn’t addressing the issue that is causing the problem, namely the inability of the hamstring or gastroc to contract well. Too often one or both of them are essentially “switched on” all the time. This results in them fatiguing quickly and working harder than is required to perform low level tasks never mind the work that is required when running.

Our rehab process addresses this and retrains the area to be able to perform this task. Beginning with low level tasks we gradually increase the demands whilst still requiring the knee to be held statically as you move from the ground to standing and back to running.

So if your hamstrings feel tight all the time I would suggest that you forget about stretching as a means of resolving the issue.


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