I get asked this question a lot, about every day and everyone seems to have their own very strong opinion on whether they should stretch or not stretch their hamstrings. Bottom line is anything you do to help your muscles is a good thing but you do have to be careful.
Do I usually tell people to stretch their hamstrings? No. Can you actually hurt yourself? Yes, you can. You have to be careful. Are there probably ten different things you should do before you stretch your hamstrings, absolutely.
So why am I not a huge fan of stretching your hamstrings? Most people do not do it correctly. They just herniate their disc while they’re stretching their hamstrings as opposed to stretching their hamstrings. Or they wind up overstretching and tearing the muscle as opposed to stretching it and then wind up in more pain. Have you ever stretched your hamstrings and wound up in more pain then when you initially started? This means that you overstretched them and caused some microtearing in the muscle.
Before we go any further understanding where exactly the hamstring muscle group is located is important. When referring to the hamstrings it is important to know that the hamstrings are a muscle group, comprised of 3 different muscles. The muscles are located on the back of the leg. People can get this confused with the quadriceps which is the group of muscles located in the front of the leg. The hamstrings are used to bend the knee.
Why I bring this up is the fact that when most people feel the need to stretch their hamstrings, they actually need to strengthen their hamstrings. The quadriceps and hamstring muscle groups should be equal in strength but many times they are not. The quadriceps on the front of the leg tend to be much stronger than the hamstrings on the back of the leg. There is a quick way to test this. Have someone resist you trying to kick your leg out (straighten your leg), chances are a lot of you are still going to be able to straighten your leg even with someone resisting you. Now if you do the same test where you have you try and pull your leg back (try to bend your knee), this will test the hamstrings. You should be able to bend your knee with the same amount of force that you straighten your knee out with. Most of you are going to be unable to do so. This is because of weakness in the hamstrings. This weakness causes the hamstrings to feel like they need to be stretched, when in fact, they need to be strengthened.
When your hamstring is weaker, you begin to develop tiny knots in the muscle as it struggles and works overtime to keep up with the stronger quadricep. Eventually these knots cause the hamstring to not function correctly anymore. Imagine putting a bunch of knots in a piece of string and asking it to still work in the same capacity it did without the knots in it. These knots continue to get bigger and bigger until they start to cause pain and the pain gets worse and worse.
Most of the time when you have pain in your hamstring you have knots. When you go to stretch the hamstring and it has knots in it, all you are doing is pulling at a piece of string with a big knot in it. The knots will not go anywhere but the string will start to tear the harder you pull. You wind up with microtears in the muscle as you stretch, creating more knots. And the vicious cycle begins.
One of the worst things you can do is have someone stretch your hamstrings for you. What is the point of this? If you need help, find an open doorway, grab a towel, anything but let someone just excessively stretch your hamstrings. I cringe when I see trainers doing this at the gym and their clients are wincing in pain and telling them to go harder. I shake my head knowing that that trainer is just putting him/herself out of a job because they are doing nothing but tearing that poor clients hamstring and somewhere down the road that person is not going to be able to work out. Just an FYI a stretch should NEVER hurt. It should feel like a stretch, nothing more.
How do I recommend stretching the hamstring? I said it was okay sometimes so how should you do it? First you need to get out your foam roller, the one with spikes on it because a flat one is not going to get into the hamstrings to get out the knots, a spiked one will. And if you need reference on how to foam roll, you can find it on Total Performance Physical Therapy’s You Tube Channel.
Spend a few minutes rolling out the hamstrings on the spiked foam roller. Spend more time if you find that there are areas of pain. Stay on those areas for about 20 to 30 seconds each. Do not try to get the tender points out completely as you are rolling, you can make yourself incredibly sore, just spend a few seconds on each spot, they will come out over time. You should roll for about 10 minutes every day, whether you have pain or not, whether you are active or not. 10 minutes minimum a day foam rolling is essential for muscle health.
Then you can stretch the hamstrings, after they have been rolled out. When stretching your hamstrings, you cannot bend from your back. You must sit up straight and hinge forward at your hips. You can also lay on your back and use a strap to stretch your hamstrings so you don’t have to worry about bending your back and risking herniating a disc. When you bend at your back, you put significant pressure on your discs and risk them being herniated. Also, if you bend at your back, you are stretching your back and not your hamstrings.
You can also stretch your hamstrings in standing. You can do this by propping your foot up on a stool, standing up nice and straight to keep your back straight. Hinge forward at your hips until you feel a stretch in the hamstrings. You want to hold the stretch for 30 seconds and repeat it six times on each side. You can see a demonstration of this by watching the video.
No matter if or how you decide to stretch your hamstrings, it is important to remember not to overstretch your hamstrings and that you do not bend your back to herniate your discs and you do not overstretch. Taking the proper precautions is important to keep yourself free from injury.
Dr. Heather Moore, PT, DPT, CKTP
Total Performance Physical Therapy