I was reading some McGill this weekend (world’s leading spinal researcher) and it made me think about something I hear about a lot that bothers me. Tight hamstrings.
I’ll try to keep this short and refrain from getting really technical. My problem isn’t really with the tight hamstrings themselves. Actually according to research athletes considered to be ‘better performers’ appear to have tighter hamstrings. And despite “common sense,” tight hamstrings are NOT linked to back pain or future back pain.
What makes me cringe is when people constantly insist on stretching their hamstrings to alleviate that tightness. It comes down to the truthiness, “I feel like this should be good for me,” argument, much like aerobic exercise “feels” like it should make you lose fat. The answer is that our body doesn’t work the way we want it to, it’s not that cut and dry. We can’t jog our way to 6-pack abs, and we can’t stretch our way to loose hamstrings. And for the later, why would we want to?
We need to make sure we are stretching with a purpose. If we have one hamstring that’s very restricted and the other has a normal range of motion, then we probably should stretch the tighter one! Asymmetries certainly can pose an injury risk. This particular issue also needs to be addressed with proper soft tissue work and therapeutic exercises. This however is usually not the case and both hamstrings will simply “feel” tight.
In either case it’s more important to look at WHY the hamstrings are tight. We can stretch them for hours, but unless we clear up the REASON for the perceived tightness, you’re going to wake up tight again tomorrow. Stretching tight, painful hamstrings can actually make them worse! Dr. Stuart McGill (World’s leading spinal researcher/ way smarter than me or anyone else you may know!) suggests the only way to desensitize the nerves and return to a greater pain-free range of motion is to cease stretching. In other words, stop stretching your tight hamstrings!
But back to the important part of the equation. WHY are your hamstrings tight? If that doesn’t get fixed, they will never ease the tension of being chronically tight. The answer usually lies in stability. If your pelvis (where the hamstrings attach) is not stable, your brain will keep your hamstrings “tight.” The brain will always win, if it wants stability, it’s not going to let you move around your legs until it gets it! The brain’s ultimate goal is to keep you alive. That’s it. If it senses danger in excessive movement because you lack core stability or have some sort of core dysfunction, it’s not going to let you put yourself into a “threatening” situation! It’s response: tighten up the reigns on those hammies!
Don’t believe me? Try this. Lay down on your back and wrap a towel around one foot. Keep both legs completely straight and pull that leg up as far as you can without bending either knee. Now repeat the same process with your butt and abs squeezed as hard as you can (hint:pelvic stability). I’ll wait till you try this…
…Yes, it did go much further the second time. That’s because we added some stability to the situation. How our brain gives us permission to move that leg a little more! Now will you believe me and stop stretching your “tight” hamstrings?
Sorry if I got a little long winded and technical in my response, but it’s important to understand that the body is way more complicated than how we “feel” it should work. In summary, stop stretching your hamstrings, they aren’t the problem!