I have worked with numerous athletes, including professionals and Olympians, and often hear of issues with their hamstrings because this muscle group is such an integral part of movement. Similarly, if you do any running or participate in any sport, you rely more on your hamstrings than you probably think.
While your quadriceps and calves do plenty of work, your hamstrings also supply the power, speed and endurance you need to be successful in your activities. Therefore, one of the running tips for beginners or for anyone involved in a sport is to start incorporating hamstring stretches into your routine — more flexibility as well as strength in the back of your thighs will not only make you more durable, but your performance level will go up a notch.
Three other reasons to start paying to your hamstrings? First, inflexible hamstrings may contribute to back pain, as your lower back in particular can overcompensate during a sporting activity or even routine daily tasks and compromise your disc health, for instance. Second, connected to the back of your knee, a strong, flexibility hamstring can aid knee health and reduce/address knee pain. Third, in an appeal to your vanity, just as you probably seek a firm backside, you also don’t want the back of your legs to be all jiggly!
So let’s find out about how to get your hamstrings in tip-top shape …
Hamstring Function — and Why Flexibility Is Important
The muscles that make up the hamstring are important 1) hip extensors and 2) flexors of the knee in the gait cycle. They become active in the last 25 percent of the swing phase, just as hip extension begins, and continue for 50 percent of the swing phase to actively produce extension at the hip, resisting extension of the knee.
As the thigh is swung forward, flexion at the knee is largely passive. With the heel strike and the weight of the body is shifted forward, the hamstring functions to decelerate the forward translation of the tibia during knee extension. The hamstring is a dynamic stabilizer of surrounding muscles and knee functions — once the foot strike has occurred, the hamstring muscles are elongated over both hip and knee joints to their optimal length to provide extension of the hip and to, once again, stabilize the knee.
With takeoff, the hamstring muscles again contract with the quadriceps muscle to provide a push-off from the support leg. This helps us to understand that by strengthening supporting muscles, it may be beneficial in preventing injury by supporting the hamstring. (1)
Indeed, in one study it was found that increased quadriceps flexibility was associated with hamstring strain problems in a group of amateur soccer players. Tight hip flexors were reportedly a significant risk for hamstring strain in a subgroup of older athletes, likely because of age. (2)
The All-Too-Common Hamstring Injury
As a fan of most sports, I know that when I hear an announcer say that a player has “pulled a hamstring,” it’s a potentially significant injury that will remove that athlete not only from that game, but potentially a good part of the reason because hamstring strains require many weeks or even longer to recover.
Anyone can get a hamstring injury, but some are more likely to experience it than others. Increased age appears to be a major risk for hamstring strain injury. The age at which the risk becomes significant occurs between 23 and 25 years. Athletes older than 23 years were reportedly between 1.3 and 3.9 times more likely to suffer a hamstring strain, with athletes aged 25 years or older between 2.8 and 4.4 times more likely to suffer injury.
In contrast, race and ethnicity were also strongly associated with injury, with African-American athletes significantly more likely to suffer hamstring strains. Studies show that those with a high body mass index (BMI) may be more at risk for injury. While level of competition may be a risk for hamstring strain, evidence suggests that exposure time (time spent in training or games) is not. (3)
A study reported by the U.S. National Library of Medicine explains that previous strain or injury, older age, and ethnicity were consistently documented as significant risks for injury, as was competing in higher levels of competition. Though association with strength and flexibility were conflicting; functional rehabilitation interventions had preventive effects and resulted in significantly earlier return to activity. Regardless, hamstring injuries typically take anywhere from two to six weeks to recover and maybe longer if the injury is significant or recurring from a previous injury.
History of previous hamstring strain injury was one of the most commonly reported significant risk factors for recurrence. Examined by seven studies of footballers (soccer players), from Australia and Scandinavia, most studies showed that athletes with a history of hamstring strain were between two to six times more likely to suffer subsequent strains, with most recurrences happening soon after the original hamstring injury. This is one of the reasons it is important to make sure you have fully recovered before returning to activity.
Other lower limb injuries were also associated with an increased risk of hamstring strain. (4) It makes sense that athletes who are sprinting or kicking with increased frequency or intensity are more likely to suffer injury. Findings show that rugby union backs, whose role involves mostly sprinting and kicking, had significantly more strains than forwards, for instance. (5) The risk of hamstring strain increased with higher levels of competition because those athletes are likely to be faster and have more physically demanding roles.
Tight hamstrings can also be a common running injury, but hamstring stretches aren’t necessarily the answer here. Why? Runners, rather than having short and tight hamstrings, often have actually over-lengthened their hamstring — and hence, need a solid strengthening program (see below).
Reducing the Risk of Hamstring Injuries
As you can imagine, athletes and sporting teams invest much time in preventive strategies. Hamstring strengthening programs are commonly used, such as eccentric strengthening, the phase of contraction that occurs as the muscle lengthens, and isokinetic strengthening, movement at a constant speed. Both have been known to lead to significantly fewer strains, especially when combined with existing stretching, running and weight training protocols.
Another study was conducted consisting of interval sprints, functional running drills (e.g. running while tapping ball along ground) and isometric stretching, and showed significantly reduced strains. In addition, wearing thermal shorts, comprising of neoprene material with nylon lining, was beneficial reducing the risk of hamstring injury by helping keep the muscles warm.
Also, trunk stabilization and core exercises were found to be effective because of the origin of the hamstrings at the pelvis. (6)
The Benefits of Stretching
In addition to decreasing the risk of injuries, UC Davis reported that stretching provides other numerous benefits:
- Increases blood flow to the muscle
- Increases oxygen levels
- Helps improve flexibility, improving range of motion in your joints
- Releases tension in both the body and mind
- Increases nutrient flow throughout the body, providing more energy and reduced soreness
- Helps release toxins in the body
- May improve athletic performance in some activities (7)
Stretching can be done most anywhere, but it’s important to make sure you do the right kind of stretching. Research suggests that static stretching can negatively influence muscle strength and power and may result in decreased functional performance. Conversely, dynamic stretching significantly improves quadriceps strength and hamstring flexibility; therefore, I consider it a much better warm-up choice than static stretching. (8)
Static stretches can cause injury to muscles that are not warmed up. Dynamic stretches are best prior to your planned activity while performing static stretches are best at the end of your activity. Also, just because you perform regular stretches, that doesn’t mean you are not subject to injury; however, it may help prevent injury and aid in recovery if done properly.
Here are some things to keep in mind to help you benefit from stretching:
- Start with walking, marching in place, light jumping jacks or cycling, for example, for about 10–15 minutes before performing any static stretching and before your planned activity.
- Don’t overstretch! It is okay if you need to keep your knees bent during a stretch. Pay attention to your body. Over time, you will become more flexible.
- Work on major muscle groups, such as your calves, thighs, hips, lower back, neck and shoulders.
- Consider the areas that get used the most. If you play soccer, you’re more vulnerable to hamstring strains. Consider stretches that help your hamstrings. Additionally, stretching an already strained muscle can cause injury. If you have a chronic condition, you may need to adjust the type of stretching needed. Talk to your physical therapist.
- Make sure that you stretch opposing muscle groups. If stretching your hamstrings, make sure you’re also going to stretch your quadriceps. Same goes for your chest and back.
- Stretch in a smooth movement, without bouncing. Again, over time and with consistency, you will become more flexible. The bouncing can cause you to overstretch an area resulting in an injury.
- Take your time. Hold each stretch for about 20–30 seconds; in problem areas, you may need to hold for around 60 seconds.
- Breathe! Way too often, I find patients trying to hold their breath during stretching. Make sure you do not hold your breath! Just breathe normally or slowly and deeply as you stretch. In fact, slow, deep breathing can help you gain flexibility, something often done during yoga or Pilates-type exercises.
- Expect to feel slight tension while stretching, but you do not want to feel pain. If you do, you may be pushing too far. Simply release to the point where you do not feel any pain, then hold the stretch.
- Make sure to stretch regularly to get the most benefit. Two to three times per week, or more, is great! However, it is best to do dynamic stretching prior to any exercise you plan to perform.
- Gentle movement in your stretching may be helpful. Tai chi, pilates or yoga may be a good way to stretch — and you can find community classes that may make it more fun. Again, remember to be cautious. Do not overstretch, especially if you are a beginner to these disciplines. (9)
Best Stretches and Strengthening Exercises for Hamstrings
Remember to do some dynamic stretching first, such as marching in place, an easy jog, shallow squats and lunges, easy jumping jacks, etc. Throughout all exercises, try to maintain tight abdominals, using your core. And don’t forget to breath!
Best Hamstring Stretches
- Stand with your feet hip distance apart.
- Keeping your legs straight or with a slight bend in the knees, bend at the hips, tucking your chin, and reaching down towards your toes.
- Relax the back of your neck.
- If the stretch is too intense, try bending your knees a bit more.
- Hold for 20–30 seconds and slowly roll up to standing.
- Repeat 5 times.
Staggered Hamstring Stretch
- Start standing with your feet together and hip distance apart.
- Step your right foot back about 12 inches, bending your left knee.
- Place both hands on left thigh.
- Then bend forward from your hip joint and sit into the stretch pushing your butt back.
- If it feels okay, raise your toe for an added stretch.
- Hold for 20–30 seconds, switch sides.
- Sit on the floor and straighten your right leg in front of you.
- Bend the left knee, placing the sole of your left foot against your left inner thigh.
- Bend over your right leg, keeping your back as straight as possible.
- If needed, bend the right knee.
- Hold for 30 seconds, then switch legs.
Extended Leg Hamstring Stretch
- Lie on back.
- Extend the right leg into the air, straightening the leg upward as best as possible.
- Using your hands, reach to the back of the thigh and pull the leg forward to your comfort level.
- Hold for 20 seconds and release.
- Switch sides.
Dynamic Hamstring Stretch
You may want to hold onto a chair while doing this exercise:
- Stand with feet hip distance apart.
- Swing your right leg forward and back to starting position.
- Careful to not overextend.
- Start slowly and increase the stretch as you feel more comfortable.
- Repeat 10 times per leg.
Best Hamstring Strengtheners
Pilates Heel Taps
- Lie face down on the mat, hands under shoulders and elbows by your sides.
- Raise upper body and lower body at the same time to your comfort level.
- Take feet wide apart and hold for 5 seconds, while flexing the foot, without letting them touch the ground, then back together tapping feet twice.
- Repeat for 10 repetitions.
Squats on the Wall
- Lean your back against a wall and slide down into a squat position with knees at a 90 degree angle, thighs parallel to the floor.
- Keep your back flat against the wall and your hands and arms off of your legs.
- Hold this position using the pressure of your back against the flat surface to support your weight.
- Make sure your knees do not extend beyond your foot.
- Hold for 15 seconds, increasing the time as you get stronger.
Pilates Strengthener For Hamstrings and Core
- Lie facedown on a mat with hands by shoulders.
- Engage your core muscles to stabilize your lower back and shoulders.
- While exhaling, push up into a full pushup position. Try to do this on your toes. If you cannot do this on your toes, you may do this on your knees.
- Hold the full pushup position and exhale as you lift one foot from the ground as high as you can while keeping a flat back.
- Inhale, and lower your lifted leg back to the ground, then immediately exhale as you repeat on the other side.
- Keep abs tight during the exercise.
- Repeat 10 times per leg, alternating legs.
Hip Lift Hamstring Strengthener
- Lie on your back with knees bent.
- Engage your core muscles to stabilize your lower back and shoulders.
- Lift hips up towards the ceiling as high as you can while squeezing the butt and engaging the core and abs.
- Hold for 10 seconds and release.
- Repeat 10 times.
- Advanced move: Extend right leg while lifting. Repeat on the other side.