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3 Reasons Your Hamstrings Feel Tight

Many people feel hamstring tightness and automatically assume they need to stretch. This makes sense because, for years, we’ve been told that stretching is the remedy for tight muscles. Over the past decade (or more!), however, science and the movement industry have realized this advice's simplicity and changed the narrative.

We now hear words like capacity training, muscle imbalance, proximal instability, and more. Our nervous system is incredibly complex yet simplistic concerning its primary role of protection. Our brain and network of nerves are constantly seeking balance to keep us safe. Our bodies need sensory balance to maintain control as we move, and our individual parts must be balanced for optimal performance.

The ability to move is a beautiful gift. It is inherent in our DNA and can be needed for survival. It is taken for granted, and its complexity is often misunderstood. One example of its inherent intelligence is our body's ability to make adjustments for an injury or weakness. Our nervous system’s “GPS” can reset itself and find a new way.

These changes in movement, or compensations, are incredibly helpful, but they can also lead to stress or strain on overworked and underutilized muscles, joints, and tissues. Our bodies can perceive this stress as “tightness.” Our hamstrings are perfect examples of this.

It is easy to recommend hamstring stretching. It is relatively simple, and most of us know how to do it. However, if your hamstrings are chronically “tight,” there may be another reason. Here are three other reasons people don’t talk enough about. These three reasons are certainly a topic of conversation amongst professionals, and it's about time we all discuss them.

Your Hamstrings Need Strength

“Strength” is a relative term. An incredibly strong person can have more strength than most people but still lack strength in one of their muscles over another. They can also have the adequate muscle strength to run or lift at certain speeds or weights. However, there may be times when they don’t have enough strength or capacity to push that extra mile or complete that final rep.

This lack of capacity can show up as “tightness.” When you push your body beyond its ability to complete a task, your nervous system may perceive this as “unsafe” and create muscular tension to protect it.

Instead of stretching, analyze your training. Did you do too much, too soon, and/or too fast? Do you need to build your strength or capacity to achieve that next milestone?

You Are Not Using Your Glutes

Your hamstrings and gluteus maximus are responsible for bringing your leg back behind your hip. During this hip extension movement, both work together. Sometimes, however, your hamstrings may be working double duty, as described in this article by Harvard Health Publishing.

If your hamstrings are working overtime (an example of resetting your GPS), they may feel tight because they have become strained. A strained muscle can be alleviated by gentle movements such as soft tissue massage, myofascial release, isometric strength, and gradual stretching. For long-term hamstring relief, strengthening your gluteus maximus and training it to work during hip extension is ideal.

Your Core Needs Some Attention

Your core needs to be stable for your legs to produce enough force to move in all the ways you want to. My favorite analogy of this is a “canon in a canoe.”

If you put the base of a cannon in a canoe, the cannonball will not project very straight or far. When that same cannonball is launched from a base that is securely fastened to a stable platform, it will fly in a more precise and further direction.

Think of your body the same way. If you want your legs to run fast, jump high or lift a heavy load, they will move better if attached to a stable core. Your core provides proximal stability (like a well-fastened cannon base) to allow distal mobility (like the precise path of a cannonball from a sturdy base).

If you have core instability, your nervous system may protect you by creating tension in your hamstrings when you move. Instead of assuming that the tension you feel is actually hamstring “tightness,” work on building core stability instead.

Final Thoughts

There are times when your hamstring muscles are truly "tight." Stretching can be an effective intervention for relief. However, this go-to remedy is not sufficient for the complexity of our beautiful bodies. I've always discovered that the more you know, the more you realize you don't know. Science is a fluid art, and so are we.


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