Ask 100 people that train where they are most tight and you will probably hear hamstrings singled out as one of the most common problem areas. I would include tight hips as well as the two are intimately related and if you have tight hamstrings more than likely have tight hips as well.
So first of all, if this really a case of tight hamstrings?
And, if so, what can you do about it?
To answer the questions to these we need to go back the basics. This means evaluating a person’s static posture. I like the way Dan John describes the relationship of the hips/pelvis and the rib cage. He says to imagine the hips/pelvis as a bowl of water with a box sitting on top. Does the bowl of water sit level? Or is there water leaking out of the front (anterior tilt) of the bowl? Or out of the back (posterior tilt)?
Before we can even start to think of lengthening or shortening any of our tissues or structures we need to know that the foundation is solid.
A quick and easy drill to learn the range of the hips and pelvis is the cat and camel. Starting on hands and knees imagine spilling water out of the front of the bowl. You should notice an increased arch through the low back. Next try and spill some water out of the back of the bowl. Dr. Jeff Cubos, who presented at the inaugural OSCC, used the analogy of trying to scoop ice cream with your butt. Use whichever analogy works for you.
Once we have established a neutral hip and pelvic position we need to recognize that tight hamstrings may also be due to weak lower abs and/or hip flexors.
Think about it this way. If you had trouble flexing your biceps you wouldn’t claim that you had tight triceps and proceed to stretch the back of your arm. Instead you would more than likely look to incorporate a variety of biceps exercises to strengthen the upper arm facilitating elbow flexion.
Why is it then when we have difficulty raising our leg with a straightened knee we focus on stretching the back of the leg rather than strengthening the front?
If we want to strengthen the front side and assist in hip flexion we need to strengthen the lower abs and hip flexors. One drill we like to use for this is the supine knee-hip flexion.
To do so place a band over the tops of the feet and alternate bringing a knee to the chest. Pay attention that both legs point at the ceiling and that the leg in motion tracks in a straight line from the foot-knee-hip. It’s not uncommon to see those with tight internal hip rotators, i.e. desk jockeys, follow a line where the knee caves in when it bends.
As we increase the mobility of a joint however we want to make sure we can control this new range. A great drill to accomplish this is assisted leg lowering. To perform this one place a band over the arch of one foot while lying on the back. Start with both legs straight up in the air. While using the band to stabilize the one leg lower the other leg towards the ground. Pay attention to the positioning of the low back, hips and pelvis. Restrict the depth that the leg is lowered to where there is no change in the position of the body. Placing a foam roll under the heel when the leg is in the lowered position can be a reasonable starting position for many.
Now that we have addressed the posture, mobility and stability involved with the hips an pelvis the last thing we can look to address is lengthening the hamstrings with some moderate stretching. Use the same set up as the leg lowering drill with the band over the arch of the foot. Stretch the hamstring with the leg straight down the middle, across the body and out to the side. Go the point of a gentle stretch while incorporating some diaphragmatic breathing to relax into the stretch.
Give these a try and see the benefits they have on your hamstrings.