My hamstrings! My valuable hamstrings!
July 12, 2007 8:47 PM   Subscribe

How do I un-tighten my super-tight hamstrings? Yes, I know you want to say "Stretch, fool!" but:

I had a massage earlier today. When the therapist worked on my hamstring, it was like being stabbed with rusty daggers made of fire. It was astoundingly painful, even with a very light touch: someone could easily use this as a torture method for the tense.

I do yoga a few times a week. I'm not incredibly limber, but for pretty much everything but forward bends, I feel like I'm as flexible as I need to be. Forward bends, however, are my nemesis. I never seem to make any progress, which, since it hurts, is discouraging and off-putting.

If I'm warmed up, I can touch the floor, but I've never been able to get my palms flat on the floor. And no matter how warmed up I am, my hamstrings stay really tight, and it's still really pretty painful. Not quite the stabbed-by-fire levels I experience when someone touches the hot spots, but still: ouch. Naturally - and I know this is a less-than-ideal mindset - the pain makes me tenser, and makes it less likely that I'll breathe through the tension to release.

This has been going on, embarrassingly enough, for years, and I never seem to make much headway on the problem. So: is there some technique I should explore? (I've done Pilates and am not a fan, so much. Just in case you were about to suggest this.) Is there a kind of "Two Months To Supple Hamstrings" book I can buy?

posted by thehmsbeagle to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Bikram Yoga (and its 105 degree heat) helped me un-tighten my hamstrings after years of running and not stretching. What forward bending yoga poses do you do?
posted by salvia at 9:00 PM on July 12, 2007

Rowing loosened mine significantly. I guess it was the repetitive motion?
posted by melissam at 9:02 PM on July 12, 2007

Have you ever taken/considered taking ballet? I'm quite flexible because of it.
posted by spec80 at 9:09 PM on July 12, 2007

Best answer: I came on this thread all ready to suggest yoga, as it has worked wonders for my ubertense hammies. I do find that I'm more limber in a warm-to-hot room while doing yoga, although I've never done Bikram per se.

Since you're already doing yoga and not seeing too much improvement, I highly recommend facilitated stretching. (This link shows one method with a few illustrations to help you understand). I was amazed the first time I tried this--I found a greater range of motion doing this than I have with anything else. The usual disclaimers: be careful because it is easy to overstretch, make sure your partner knows what he/she is doing, and knows when to stop when you say so, and this is more effective as part of an ongoing stretching program.

For more info, google "facilitated stretching" or "active-assisted stretching.
posted by Bella Sebastian at 9:19 PM on July 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

A few times a week for years, and still massively painful, sounds like you need a doctor...or really a better physical therapist, who you can talk to about this. It may be that you have some other physical thing which prevents you from bending forward, which would also lead to/aggravate your tight hamstrings.

Anyway, if you're determined to press on, here's what helps for me:

Different yoga classes do different things... I find one that does a lot of Sun Salutations helps, since you end up doing a bunch of folds, especially while you're warm, and you have something distracting you at the same time--the fold is both something to work for, and also a transition from one thing to another.

Keep your back flat as far down as possible, then relax. After a few seconds, come back to a flat back and stretch your spine out as long as you can, then relax into the fold again. This helps with:

All of your bits need to be stretching to fold effectively. I'm struggling to come up with a good analogy, but if you think of something fastened at multiple points with slack in between, you're not going to get much tugging between two of the fastened points... If you can transfer some of the slack, you'll get a lot more give where you need it. To that end:

Think about every part of your legs and back. Are your feet grounded? Can you feel the stretch in your calves? In your thighs? And up through your butt and back? A lot of the time I feel like I get "stuck" at the top of my thighs... Like there's plenty of slack, but it's not making it into my hips where I need it to actually bend. The whole flat back stretching thing helps with that, but you might also need to bend and straighten your knees, or walk your feet, depending on what you have the most trouble with.

Honor your body. Touching the floor is actually not that bad, many men -- or boys, in high school, even! -- cannot make it past their knees. Talk to your doctor/therapist about how problematic your hamstrings actually are, and what your goals should be. It may be better for you to back off a little (pain! not good!) and find ways to work around it instead of rushing at it head on.
posted by anaelith at 9:20 PM on July 12, 2007

There could actually be something wrong, beyond tightness. I have a friend who has some sort of problem with her calf muscles where they pull on/interfere with the nerves around them so that she physically can't 'stretch them longer'. That's all I know about it, but maybe it's worth getting checked out by a physio?
posted by jacalata at 9:21 PM on July 12, 2007

Your description sounds a lot like my experience with varicose veins -- the vein-related pain keeps me from really stretching my hamstrings, so they stay tight.

So, another vote for checking in with a doctor....
posted by backupjesus at 9:26 PM on July 12, 2007

It may be tight fascia rather than tight muscle - you could try exercises like these with a foam roller (or on a ball) to help loosen things up. Also try more frequent massage.
posted by judith at 9:29 PM on July 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

I threw my back out lifting something very, very light. Went to a physical therapist. Tight hamstrings pull your back flat and that's bad and that was my problem. Stretch your hamstrings up against a wall for 30-60 seconds each daily. My back wasn't getting better until I regularly did the stretches. Ouch. MAkes a world of difference.
posted by 4Lnqvv at 9:50 PM on July 12, 2007

Jeez. Hamstrings are notorious for getting tight. You stretch them after every work out and it takes all of like three minutes. Just do it. Put you foot on the ground, flat, lean forward with straight leg until you feel the stretch. For each leg, hold for thirty seconds or so, relax for about the same amount of time and then repeat. Relax, you are normal.
posted by caddis at 10:22 PM on July 12, 2007

stretching when warm is more effective than cold stretching. for this reason, i'm a bit cynical about the effectiveness of the more static forms of yoga. i've had people recommend dynamic stretching as being particularly effective - when warmed up, swing your legs or perform kicks. i do this kinda stuff from time to time as a cure for tight buns. be careful, though, because there's a greater risk of tearing the muscle. obviously, look up the proper techniques first.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:07 PM on July 12, 2007

Another vote for Bikram. I have fascia problems, muscle tears etc etc and it's the only thing that has worked. And quickly to boot.

Drink lots of water before you go the first time. And be prepared to be dying while lots of 60 year olds continue to merrily work out!
posted by fshgrl at 11:10 PM on July 12, 2007

to follow up: I always found that "regular" strecthing (either in a yoga class or as part of a team-type sports workout) just hurt my muscles more. Bikram does not have that effect. It's neat.
posted by fshgrl at 11:12 PM on July 12, 2007

Best answer: In yoga, have you tried all these poses? --

Uttanasana: I like doing it this way, which is probably not the official version. Another modified version is here.

Padahastasana: At Bikram, they tell you to put your hands under your heels from behind and then bend your legs as much as you need to so you can get your face, yes face, on your shins, or at least your knees. Pull up with your arm muscles to stretch, until finally at last (AKA "never") you can straighten your legs all the way and look like that picture. But I do find that bending the legs helps me relax enough that I can remember to breathe. In some versions, instead of grabbing behind your feet, you step on your hands with your palms facing up and your toes touching your wrist. (Here's an animation of that.)

Another pose I learned in Bikram* that helped me was this one (I'm not even going to try to type in the official name). But I've hurt myself on that one, too -- remember to keep your thigh muscles contracted while doing it.

Oh, and there's Paschimottanasana. Similar to one above, but sitting down. To me, that's the most painful, but you might find that being seated helps you relax?

Oh, but to really relax before and after trying painful yoga poses, read this. ;)

* I'm not a big Bikram advocate under normal circumstance!
posted by salvia at 11:20 PM on July 12, 2007 [2 favorites]

I have tight hamstrings. I have never, ever been able to touch my toes without bending my knees. However, my hamstrings don't hurt. Pain is a sign something is wrong, not a sign you need to do more yoga.

At least consider going to a doctor on this one. He might suggest some PT.
posted by chairface at 11:29 PM on July 12, 2007

I had this problem and it turned out it was due to my upper body posture when sitting at my desk. I felt flexible everywhere else, too. I corrected my desk posture and the yoga finally worked on my hamstrings

These symptoms come back on occasion whenever my running shoes are starting to wear out. Replace the shoes and they're flexible again.
posted by yorick at 5:33 AM on July 13, 2007

If you can touch the floor while bending forward (assuming you have your knees essentially straight), your hamstrings I not nearly as tight as you think, and I will second the suggestions to go see a doctor about the pain.

I have tight hamstrings, and if I don't bend my knees, I can barely reach my knees! But I never felt pain during massages.

I am definetely starting yoga next week, though.
posted by TheyCallItPeace at 5:47 AM on July 13, 2007

Best answer: I had the same problem. I was never able to touch my toes, no matter how much stretching I did. After I developed some serious back problems this year, I started doing physical therapy and Pilates. A few months later, I can touch my toes and my hands go down about 6 inches lower than they ever could.

The one thing that made the difference wasn't more stretching, it was paying constant attention to my posture throughout the entire day. Here's what I learned that worked for me:

Your hamstrings are built for strength, but they're not designed to stay clenched all day. If you spend too much time with your hamstrings contracted, then you'll never be able to stretch them past a certain length. There are two telltale signs of postures that force you to clench your hamstrings: slouching with your hips forward, and sticking your head out forward of your shoulders. Also check that your seat isn't too high when sitting. Your chair should let you put your feet flat on the floor.

The solution lies in strengthening your pelvic floor and deep abdominal muscles, and using them to maintain your posture. Those muscles are designed to be able to stay slightly contracted all day. When standing, slightly contract your urethra and anus muscles, and you should feel your pelvic floor rise and your lower abdominals move inwards. Make sure your gluteus and your outer abdominals (the "six-pack" muscles) are relaxed. At that point you should be able to relax your hamstrings. It's hard to stay focused on that all day, but after a couple of weeks of practice it will become more automatic, and you'll start to notice the difference when you do stretching.
posted by fuzz at 7:14 AM on July 13, 2007 [5 favorites]

I too have tight hamstrings, and I have felt pain during massages (not quite as severely as what you've experienced!) For a while, the only relief came when I could rope a friend into stretching them for me-- lie on your back, stick your leg straight into the air, have friend push it toward your head gently until the stretch is good. oohh.

I mentioned this solution to a massage therapist, and she recommended another stretch I could do on my own. I lurve it after a run: sit on the ground with one leg stretched out in front of you and the other leg bent at the knee, but instead of putting your foot on your inner thigh, move your ankle on top of your thigh so your bent leg is a little bit off the ground. Lean over until you feel the stretch.
posted by paddingtonb at 7:18 AM on July 13, 2007

Have you tried just not stretching for a little while? Even if they're tight, tendons shouldn't hurt. You probably pulled them and they are in a constant state or irritation because you won't let them heal.
posted by tjvis at 9:07 AM on July 13, 2007

Best answer: You could try strengthening your quadriceps muscles. The logic behind this approach is that the quads are the antagonist to the hamstring: they extend the knee, while the hamstrings flex the knee. If your hamstrings are tight, they may be overly strong and the quads can't pull the knee back into it's neutral position, allowing the hamstrings to relax.
Another thing you could try is the CRAC method. This site discusses the technique, but I wouldn't recommend trying it on your own. You should try to find a massage therapist trained in sports massage techniques and ask them about the benefits of CRAC on your muscles.
posted by blueskiesinside at 10:08 AM on July 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Some great ideas to explore here. Thanks, everyone!
posted by thehmsbeagle at 1:13 PM on July 13, 2007

Maybe pilates would cover this, yoga too, but I'll say it because it really helped me.

Lunges and squats three times a week. It has strengthened my quads, stretched out my hamstrings and loosened my glutes and hips.

No classes or equipment (or not much - I use a couple of barbells for balance on the lunges and a medicine ball for the same on the squats) necessary.
posted by nnk at 6:43 PM on July 13, 2007

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