Are Your Hamstrings Actually Tight?

Today we’ll demystify and breakdown “Tight Hamstrings.”  It’s a common diagnosis among a lot of people.  You’ve probably heard of it or suffered from it at one point as it often keeps you from folding forward and touching your toes.

Hamstrings are a bit more complicated than they seem.  They can actually be both “tight” and “not tight” at the same time because they are a two joint muscle.  It’s neighbor muscles may also be creating fascial tension resulting in the illusion of hamstring tightness.

So today we answer the question,

Are your Hamstrings actually tight?

batman

Let’s learn some anatomy and find out 🙂


The Perception of Tightness

Let’s start off by first getting on the same page with some terminology:

“Tightness is your body perceiving a feeling of overstretching”

jamesfrankowhat

Yes you read that right.  Tightness = overstretched

When you stretch out a rubber band, you would probably describe that elongated rubber band as being tight because it’s been stretched out right?

Fascia works the same way.  Your body is in a constant state of tension, almost as if you were a giant rubber band ball.   Stretching results in the feeling of tightness in the elongated muscle.  Taught would therefore be the feeling of condensed, or shortened, muscle tissue.

This is a pretty big and confusing concept to grasp as it’s quite a common misconception to think that tightened tissue = shortened.  Trust me, tightness is the perception of overstretched, or over-elongated tissue.

This will make even more sense once we delve into the anatomy.

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Here’s a confused Pulp Fiction Travolta in the best scene from GOT last season to help ease your brain


Biarticular Muscles- Tight & Taught

So how can your hamstring be both tight (lengthened) and taught (shortened)?  It’s a biarticular or simply put a two joint muscle.

hamstrings

As you can see, they cross the hip joint and the knee joint

Main Actions of the Hamstrings:

  1. Extension of the Hip (Bringing your leg behind you) – Proximal (closer) end
  2. Flexion of the Knee (Bending your knee) – Distal (further) End

How they become both tight and taught is from the position you are probably in right now:

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Sitting!

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Most people sit like this, resulting in:

  • Lengthened proximal hamstrings (at the hip)
  • Shortened distal hamstrings (at the knee)

Prolonged time spent in a chair in this position results in the fascia thickening.  Hence why when you stand up, your hamstrings feel tight, especially right around your hip and butt.


Upstream & Downstream Fascial Chains

So we now know that our hamstrings can be both tight (lengthened) and taught (shortened) because we sit in a chair for long periods of time.  There’s a tad bit more to address before we can finally answer our question.  Let’s extend our view out into the fascia beyond the hamstrings and see if they can be a contributing factor.

Downstream – The Calves:

The Gastroc and Soleus are connected to the hamstrings at it’s attachment at the knee.  I can almost guarantee there is some taughtness (shortening) here if you have “tight hamstrings.”

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Sitting shortens the hamstring at the knee because it remains bent while we sit, and it also shortens our calve muscles because our heel is planted and unable to extend.  If you sit in heels you are especially shortening your calves.

But I stretch my calves!” might be what you are thinking right now.  This can help and is a good thing to do, but there’s a strong chance you’re getting just the Gastroc and missing out on the Soleus muscle.

soleus.jpg

Your Soleus lies super deep to your actual beefy calf muscle.  It’s pretty hard to stretch too, because you have to isolate out the Gastroc by bending your knee.

Check out this quick video and try the stretch!

(More on Soleus stretching here and here)

Rolling out the bottom of your foot can also be super beneficial!  The Plantar fascia of the foot is connected to the gastroc/soleus and is often in bad shape because of how much time we spend in shoes and in a seat.  Take a golf ball or tennis ball to it and help fix that!

tennis-ball-foot-massage

(More on that here)

Upstream – Posterior X & Superficial Back Line

So now that we know that all the muscles from the back of our knee down to the bottom of our foot are pretty shortened (or taught).  Let’s turn our attention above the hamstring and into some of the most important fascia in our body.

backfascia.jpg

As you can see our hamstrings attach to our pelvis and are involved into two different fascial chains:

  • Left – Superficial Back Line:  Postural, what helps keep us standing upright
  • Right – Posterior X (or Spiral Line): Force production and transmission, how we walk, run, etc

Because of how we sit the hamstrings contribute to an over lengthened sacrotuberous ligament along the pelvis and sacrum

Also, because of a seated position our posterior back muscles are all in an over-lengthened state, since we are constantly rounded forward

uppercrossskeleton

As I hope you can see, there’s a LOT more to “Tight Hamstrings”

Here’s how to bring some taughtness to your tight posterior muscles:

  • Cobra Pose: (I recommend keeping your head neutral, instead of looking up like this person)

cobra

bridgepose.jpg


Achieving Hamstring Enlightenment:

So there you have it, generally speaking:

  • The muscles above the hamstring are generally lengthened (tight)
  • Muscles below the backside of your knee are shortened (taught)

Your poor hamstring is the middle man and often gets a bad reputation as a result.

Now, disclaimer alert, these are broad observations to normal modern day sitting human anatomy.  If you are a rare exception that doesn’t sit much, these rules may not apply to you.  There can also be more going on not detailed here.  This was just to get you thinking about the fascia beyond your hamstrings and the biomechanics of tension (or fascial tensegrity).

One of the most important things that I hope you take home from this article is that “tight hamstrings” don’t necessarily need to be stretched.  Does it make sense to stretch something that is already in a lengthened state? 

Back to our original question:

Are your Hamstrings actually tight?

maaaybe

Kinda…but not really since there is likely more going on

When you feel tightness in your hamstrings try stretching your calves (especially your Soleus) and bottom of your foot, and then do some strengthening exercises for your back (like Bridge or Cobra).  I’m almost positive these will clear your “tight hamstrings” right up!

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Your new understanding of your legs will have them feeling divine in no time 😉

-Dr. YG

 

For more articles like this:

  1. How to Sit
  2. Yoga For Low Back Pain
  3. Restorative Backbends to Alleviate Mechanical Stress & Back Pain
  4. What is Stretching?
  5. Fascia

2 thoughts on “Are Your Hamstrings Actually Tight?

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