1. If you are habitually stretching your hamstrings day after day with little flexibility to show for it, it’s safe to say that stretching isn’t working for you, so time to figure out something that actually produces results.
2. Not all “tight” hamstrings are the same, thus not all tight hamstrings should be treated with the same stretches and techniques. Systemic protective responses, protective tension, neurological tension and immobilization can all cause “tight” hamstrings.
3. Continuing to stretch through more serious neurological dysfunction is not only wasting your time, but can actually be a prime reason why your hamstring tightness never goes away even after stretching daily.
4. Time to kick your nasty stretching habit and start implementing these targeted hamstring mobility and motor control drills to move, feel and function better than ever.
Your Still Stretching So Obviously It’s Not Working
I stretch my hamstrings every single day and I still feel tight, why!?
I hear this question all the time. “I go on the foam roller for hours on end or I stretch and stretch and I always feel tight. Why won’t my muscles ‘loosen up?’
There are many schools of thought on why muscles feel “tight.” On one end of the spectrum, tightness is purely mechanical. What this means is that there is a shortening of a tissue and in order to lengthen this tissue, it needs to be stretched. On the other side of the spectrum, the brain is entirely in control of the sensation of tightness. By affecting the Central Nervous System (CNS), this will assist in decreasing the amount of tightness that is present in the body.
What The Stretching Research Says
There are various research studies that have looked at this exact topic. According to Weppler and Magnusson in an article from the Physical Therapy Journal, “a growing body of research refutes these mechanical theories, suggesting instead that in subjects who are asymptomatic, increase in muscle extensibility observed immediately after a single stretching session and after short-term (3- to 8-week) stretching regimens are predominantly due to modification in subjects’ sensation.”
In the journal of Manual Therapy, Aquino et al. found, “the results demonstrated that strengthening in a lengthened position produced a shift of the torque-angle curve, which suggests an increase in muscle length. Conversely, stretching did not produce modification of torque-angle curve and flexibility; its effects appear restricted to increases in stretch tolerance.”
Before we delve into the schools of thought, I am not saying it’s a “my way or the highway” type of mentality here. Every client and patient is different and client A may have actual mechanical tissue shortening from a tissue contracture while client B may have tightness for a completely different reason; reasons we will talk about in more detail below. Make sure to assess and then address each client or patients limitations individually.
A valuable point to take away from these two particular studies is that you need to have different tools in your toolbox for different jobs. One intervention may work for one person while it may not work for someone else. Now, lets get into the mechanisms of tonic musculature, and why you continue to be so damn tight even after stretching for years at a time. Here are the four most common mechanisms of tightness and how to directly target these presentations to alleviate muscular tone.
Systemic Protective Response
First, let’s start from the top and work down. Your brain controls everything in your body; Everything from breathing, circulation, muscle function, speaking, etc. If your brain perceives a “threat” to your body, for example, a lack of mobility, stability, motor control, the brain is going to kick on a protective response.
Think of the scenario that you are walking in a rough neighborhood. Something may or may not happen to you, but you are on edge. The hair on the back of your neck stands up and you are ready for something bad to happen. This is like when you are “tight.” Your brain is perceiving a potential threat, but nothing “bad” has happened yet.
When you feel pain, there has been a threat to your nervous system. Your brain is telling your body to feel pain in order to protect itself from increasing the threat and in turn causing more damage. Back to the previous analogy of walking through a bad neighborhood. Pain is equivalent to you being assaulted. The good thing is that you can leave the “bad neighborhood” or decrease the threat to your nervous system and things can get better. If you continue to stay in the “bad neighborhood,” the threat intensifies.
Threats to the Central Nervous System (CNS) can come from all types of inputs. These inputs can include:
Daily Routines (ie. how you get out of bed, sitting/standing for prolonged periods of time)
Poor Stability/Motor Control
This List Could Continue…
If someone is getting out of bed the same way day in and day out, this could be a potential threat to the system. It sounds like such a small task, but by doing something day in and day out, that is an input to your nervous system and the “threat” can continue to rise until your brain perceives it as threatening to the system and reacts with tightness or pain. By inquiring with your clients or patients about activities or movements and how they perform them, that can go a long way at at figuring out what is contributing to their aches and pains.
A good way to determine if someone has adequate mobility and stability/motor control in the various joints throughout your body is to be assessed by someone who is both licensed and practices advanced diagnostic systems such as the Selective Functional Movement Assessment for example.
Upon exam, you may have adequate mobility of a joint when it is moved passively, but you don’t have the ability to actively move through the full excursion of the range of motion. If you have full mobility, but can’t actively move through it, your body is essentially putting on the emergency or “E-brake” and not allowing you to access that motion because it perceives a threat to the system due to an instability. Your body is trying to protect you from causing more harm to yourself.
Protective Tension is when certain muscles place the body in a position that will create the sensation of other muscles feeling “tight.”
For example, if you have “tight” hamstrings, you may have an anterior or forward tilted pelvis as seen below in the picture on the left.
This can cause your hamstrings to be on “stretch.” Basically your starting off in a “stretched” position to begin with. So when you go to bend over and touch your toes, as Eric Cressey has said, “it is like starting a race 20 yards behind the starting line.” If you constantly try and stretch your hamstrings, this is going to feed into the problem and cause them to feel continually “tight.”
One way to improve “hamstring tightness,” is to improve the muscles that place your pelvis into an anterior pelvic tilt. Working on hip flexor mobility and improving gluteus maximus activation to help posteriorly tilt the pelvis into a more neutral position can help to remedy this particular situation. By working on soft tissue mobility of the opposite muscle groups (ie. Iliacus/Psoas, TFL, Rectus Femoris) and activating other muscle groups (ie. glutes and anterior core), this in itself can improve hamstring flexibility.
SMR Technique For Iliacus, Psoas and Tensor Fascia Lata
SMR Technique For Rectus Femoris and Adductor Group
Half Kneeling Hip Flexor Mobilization Stretching
Once those areas have been focused on from a soft tissue mobility standpoint, then we need to make sure we can maintain that “new found mobility” by activating the areas mentioned above.
Here are some stability or motor control exercises that can help with that:
Coaching Notes: Imagine like you have a glass of water on your low back. Don’t let it spill. Think of bringing your leg back like you are trying to push the wall backwards.
Glute Bridge with March
Coaching Notes: Place your hands on your hips. Make sure when you straighten the knee, to keep your hips and pelvis elevated and do not let the hip drop of the knee that you are straightening.
Bridge with March and Hold
Coaching Notes: Same cues as before but only bring the leg as far as you can while maintaining a neutral spine and pelvis. Don’t let the hip drop as you bring the leg out laterally.
If we look at the hamstring example, a lack of core stability can be to blame for the “tight” sensation.
By pressing superiorly into the client’s arms, this in turn will activate the anterior core musculature and places the pelvis into a more neutral position. The leg in turn can move farther due to an improved starting position of the pelvis.
This is a quick and easy test to see if anterior core function will improve “hamstring tightness.”
If this improves the person’s “hamstring flexibility,” add in the Core Activated Active SLR correction to their programming.
Supine Core Activated Active Straight Leg Raise
This type of tension is usually present when there has been some type of injury, ie. disc bulge, and the central nervous system (brain, etc.) can caused complete “lock down” by increasing pain to prevent further damage to the system. In this type of case, trying to mitigate the threat on the localized structure or on the entire system as a whole is usually the best bet. In my type of field, we typically see this when the person walks in, bent over and writhing in pain and can barely move.
Tightness can also be attributed to a nerve entrapment. This can be equated to when you bend over and attempt to touch your toes, you feel a stretching sensation in your gastrocnemius musculature versus in the hamstrings. For example, the sciatic nerve is a typical offender of this.
As you can see in the picture, the sciatic nerve passes through or anterior to the piriformis musculature. What can occasionally happen is that for one reason or another, the piriformis muscle can become tense and can “tighten” down on the sciatic nerve causing either pain in the gluteal region or complaints of tightness in the gluteal, hamstring, of gastrocnemius musculatures.
Sometimes a way to help alleviate those symptoms is to perform “Hands-On SMR” or use a lacrosse ball to perform some self-massage to the area where the sciatic nerve and piriformis are located on the posterior aspect of the hip.
Medicine Ball SMR for Piriformis
If symptoms improve and/or you have more mobility afterwards, this may have been the culprit. Check out my blog post on hip and core stability for the high-level athlete HERE on ways to maintain that hip and core stability.
Make sure to perform one of the correctives mentioned above after performing SMR work to help to maintain the changes that were just made.
Another reason for tightness is due to prolonged immobilization. This would be like if you fell and broke your arm or had surgery and you had to wear a cast or sling for a prolonged period of time. Physiological shortening of the muscles or joint capsules due to lack of movement can cause a particular joint or joints to feel tight.
Interventions that can help with this type of tightness would be manual therapy, ie. Active Release Technique (ART), Graston (GT), Dry Needling (DN), etc. Go seek the services of a pro, your body deserves the best. It should be said that anytime you present with neurological symptoms such as radiating pain, numbness, tingling, loss of sensation, etc, it’s time to consult a licensed practitioner!
Stop Stretching Tight Hamstrings!
So, stop stretching your hamstrings because they “feel tight.” You’re most likely wasting your time, and maybe even doing more hard than good.
First, try some of these techniques and implement them into your dynamic warm up or recovery sessions. If they don’t help you resolve any of these issues, then get assessed by a licensed medical practitioner and get to the root cause of why you feel tight. Time to get to work.
About The Author
Andrew Millett is a practicing physical therapist in the field of orthopedic and sports medicine physical therapy. He helps to bridge the gap between physical therapy and strength and conditioning. By evaluating and treating his clients using multiple lenses, such as the Selective Functional Movement Assessment (SFMA), Postural Restoration Institute (PRI), the main goal for all of his clients are for them to move and feel better and to keep their body functioning at high levels.