A lot of people are chasing the ability to touch their toes and their solution is to keep stretching the hamstrings. There are multiple reasons why this doesn’t work and if it does work, then it usually only lasts about 24 hours before tightening up again. There are much better ways to improve hamstring flexibility. Before we get into them, you have to ask yourselves: “how flexible do I need my hamstrings to be?”
The answer is going to be different for a gymnast or yogi versus a powerlifter or runner. A way to test your hamstring length is to lay on your back and lift one leg (with the knee straight) towards your head as far as you can. keep the low back flat on the ground and don’t let your hips come up. You have normal range of motion if you can get to about 80-90 degrees, which is perpendicular to the ground. This is adequate for activities of daily living, like walking or bending over to pick something up. For powerlifting and other weightlifting sports you don’t want to have extremely tight hamstrings, but you also don’t want them to be as flexible as a gymnast. These sports require a lot of tension through the hamstrings to stabilize and if they are too flexible, then you lose some tension.
If you are a gymnast, yogi, or participate in another sport that requires you to basically put your foot behind your head, then you most likely need more than 90 degrees. So this is the standard that you can use to determine if you really need more hamstring flexibility. These exercises will work for anyone and aren’t exclusive to a certain sport. Here are some of the best exercises for long term hamstring flexibility gains.
Roll Out the Hamstring
Foam rolling or lacrosse ball release techniques can be useful to reduce some tension in muscles. Lightly roll up and down the length of the hamstrings for about 2 minutes. This is just a warm up for what’s to come and should always be followed up by more active techniques like the following exercises, otherwise you will not retain the changes for more than a few hours.
Active Hamstring Stretch
I like the active hamstring stretch because it can work on two things. The first is in the name, it actively stretches the hamstring muscle by moving in and out of the range of motion. The second has to do with the sciatic nerve that runs down the back of the leg. The sciatic nerve can get caught up in the tissues and this stretch helps to “floss” it and loosen it to reduce tension.
Contract Relax Hamstring Stretch
This technique is something that we use for a lot of different areas of the body. Contracting the muscle and subsequently relaxing the muscle allows you to sink further in the stretch. To do this you contract the hamstrings for 5 seconds by driving your heel down, then relax for 5 seconds, sink further into the stretch, and repeat.
Eccentric Isometric Deadlift
This is probably the most important exercise in this series. The deadlift is a fundamental pattern that you use daily, whether you know it or not, so this is where function and carryover into everyday life comes into play. Slowly lowering (aka eccentric or negative contractions) provides a strengthening and stretching effect. The isometric hold at the end helps to further solidify the new range of motion.
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