3 Not-So-Obvious Signs That Your Hamstrings Need Stretching

3 Not-So-Obvious Signs That Your Hamstrings Need Stretching

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Many athletes assume that having flexible hamstrings is a badge of honor. Yet not everyone needs to have Cirque du Soleil-level status. So although you know some stretching can be beneficial to your workouts as well as your everyday life, how exactly do you know when you’re struggling with tight hamstrings and when you’re simply human?

The answer may be less obvious than you’d expect. Experts say it’s typically when you start to experience telltale pain elsewhere in your body that it may be time to give the back of your legs a little extra attention.

Anatomical illustrations of the hamstrings muscles, notably the biceps femoris, the semitendinosus, and the semimembranosus.
The hamstring muscles, from left, include the semitendiosus, the semimembranosus, and the biceps femoris. When they contract, the knee bends. (Photo: Sebastian Kaulitzki Science Photo Library | Getty)

The Anatomy of Your Hamstrings

Your hamstrings comprise three muscles—the biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus—that stretch along the back of your leg, originating at your hip and attaching beneath your knee. When the hamstrings contract, they initiate movement.

“The hamstrings’ main function is to bend the knee and extend the hip, which is key for various everyday activities such as walking, running, and jumping,” says Alo Moves trainer Louis Chandler. These mega muscles essentially support all of those runs, hikes, and yoga postures. Aa result, they tend to become overused, in part because they remain in a state of contraction as we sit.

Sometimes it’s obvious when tight hamstrings are resulting in stiffness and difficulty working out or accomplishing your everyday tasks, whether that’s walking or bending over. But sometimes it’s a lot less clear.

If you’re not sure about the state of your hamstrings, Chandler offers a few telltale signs that it’s time to pay more attention to these muscles.

3 Signs That You Have Tight Hamstrings

1. You’re Experiencing Lower Back Tightness and/or Pain

In some ways, the human body is like a house of cards: Pull out the jack of hearts or the two of spades, and suddenly, the whole structure topples. Although the anatomical equivalent isn’t quite that dramatic, muscle tightness in one area of the body can lead to overcompensation in other parts.

For example, Chandler says that inflexible hamstrings can cause your lumbar spine, or lower back, to compensate as you walk, sit, and go about your practice and your day. “The tighter the hamstrings, the more they pull on your sitting bones, tilting your pelvis backward,” he says. “This has a negative effect on the alignment of your spine.” Over time, this results in lower back pain.

2. Your Hips Feel Tight and Cranky

That tilt in your pelvis doesn’t just affect your lower back. The imbalance can also contribute to stiffness in the hips, as they overcompensate for your rigid hamstrings by supporting your lumbar spine.

3. Your Knees Hurt

Since your hamstring’s three muscles extend all the way to your lower knee, you may experience some pain in that joint due to a lack of flexibility. When those bands of tissue are tight, it can hinder your knee’s ability to straighten and bend. Your knee may respond by pulling on that hamstring, which can lead to a slew of injuries, including osteoarthritis. If everyday movement makes your knee(s) ache, your hamstrings might be begging to be stretched.

Woman runner leaning forward stretching
(Photo: PeopleImages | Getty)

Stretches for Tight Hamstrings to Improve Your Flexibility

Stretching your hamstrings is an easy practice to incorporate into your day. Waiting for your microwave burrito to be ready? Drop into a quick standing forward fold. Killing time until your running partner shows up at the park? Place one foot on a bench and reach for your toes.

A more intentional approach to your tight hamstrings stretching routine takes only three stretches and a few minutes a day, says Chandler. Even if you consider yourself completely inflexible, these movements will offer benefits. You want to feel a stretch and perhaps some slight discomfort, but never pain. Less is more, especially at the beginning. The results have less to do with how you force yourself to be in the shape and more to do with how consistently you practice the poses.

Janu Sirsasana Pose
You can use almost anything to help extend your hands to reach your foot, whether a strap, towel, even a sweatshirt or belt. (Photo: Andrew Clark)

1. Assisted Tight Hamstrings Stretch

“This is great for clients who may not have the best mobility and struggle to reach toward their toes,” Chandler says. Sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. Bend one knee and bring that foot to your other inner thigh. Loop a towel, yoga strap, or even a sweatshirt around the arch of your straight leg as you try to gently pull your foot toward you, creating a stretch in your hamstring. Remain here for 30 seconds and switch to the other leg. If you can reach your foot with your hands, that works, too.

Man sitting and stretching tight hamstrings and low back
How much you bend your knees, if at all, is entirely dependent on your body. (Photo: Andrew Clark)

2. Seated Forward Fold

Sit on the floor with your legs extended straight in front of you. Lengthen your spine, straighten your arms, and learn forward from your hips as far as you can without bending your knees. Don’t force your body. You want to feel some discomfort but not pain. After leaning forward, you may find that you need to bend your knees to avoid intense discomfort. Stay here for 15 to 30 seconds, keeping your back straight and your core engaged. Notice if you’re tensing your shoulders, clenching your teeth, gripping your hands, or holding your breath. If you are, try to knock it off and instead allow tension to exist only along the backs of your legs.

A man with dark hair bends forward in Uttanasana, Standing forward fold. He wears gray-blue shorts and top. His knees are slightly bent. He has his hands on the hardwood floor near his feet.
The more you bend your knees, the less of a stretch in your hamstrings, so accommodate your body while also challenging it. (Photo: Andrew Clark)

3. Standing Forward Fold

Come to a standing position. Bring your feet shoulder-width apart or wider, depending on what feels appropriate for your body. Hinge at your hips and reach for your toes, taking a slight bend in your knees if necessary. Aim to have your chest rest on your thighs. Release your neck. Stay here for 15 to 30 seconds.

RELATED: How to Modify Your Yoga Practice for Tight Hamstrings

This article has been updated. Originally published July 11, 2023.

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