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Are Your Hamstrings Actually “Tight?”

by Meaghan posted November 14, 2014

Not sure exactly why but lately I seem to be fielding inquiries regarding this question even more so than usual. This is usually how the conversation goes:

New trainer: “My client says her hamstrings are tight but when I go to stretch them, they aren’t tight AT ALL.”

whats up with that

Me: “OK, let’s think back to what we talked about in class regarding lower cross syndrome. Does she have a bit of an anterior tilt in the pelvis?”

New trainer: “Yeah…”

Me: “OK, so what does that mean for the hamstrings?”

New trainer: “Ohhhh… Got it!”

For FPTI Master Course students, that’s usually all it takes to get the “Ah-hah” moment. But this is actually a very common scenario that leaves many other trainers befuddled.

It isn’t rare that clients will express feeling “tightness” in their hamstrings yet present with even greater than normal range of motion in hip flexion during a straight leg raise test.

SO, what IS up with that?

Well, it’s usually quite simple. People can’t tell the difference in feeling between tightness and tension. But this is a very important difference when determining how to address the problem. In fact, when it comes to muscle fiber length, “tight” and “tense” are actually polar opposites.

By “tight,” we typically mean that a muscle’s fibers are shorter than their normal resting length. By “tense,” we mean that they are under “tension” due to a pulling force that causes them to lengthen beyond normal.

SO, what might make one’s hamstrings feel tight but actually be tense? Typically, it’s an anteriorly tilted pelvis.

hamstringWMv1JPG-copy

 

Because the hamstrings attach to the posterior aspect of the pelvis, when the pelvis is tipped forward – as is the case with many women and people who tend to spend long periods of time standing – the hamstrings are put under constant tension (see picture on the right). This causes strain and discomfort, but it isn’t “tightness.”

To illustrate the point a bit more, think about what happens when you do an RDL: Your hips flex and your hamstrings are stretched, causing a feeling of tautness or tension.

barbell-straight-leg

But your hamstrings aren’t shortening during the eccentric (lowering) phase, they’re lengthening.

As a trainer, this is why assessments are key. The way to address a “tight” (i.e., short) muscle is to stretch it. But with a “tense” (i.e., lengthened) muscle, stretching would actually make the problem worse. So simply listening to the client’s complaint of “tight” hamstrings without actually assessing range of motion would lead you down the exact wrong path.

So what DO we do?

Let’s go back to the picture above. As the pelvis tilts anteriorly and the hamstrings (and glutes) lengthen, their antagonists (quads and hip flexors) shorten. That said, the quads and hip flexors are the muscles that should be stretched to alleviate the feeling of tension in the hamstrings.

Bottom line: Rather than stretching the hamstrings, have your client do this stretch for the quads and hip flexors instead:

 

lunge-quad-stretch-ex

Filed under: exercise Q&A, stretching, tips for trainers, workout tips

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One response to “Are Your Hamstrings Actually “Tight?””

  1. David Degenhardt says:

    great post!

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