If you’re someone who prides yourself on making time to sweat and stretch each day, you might feel frustrated when you bend down to touch your toes and can only reach halfway down your shins. You’re not alone.
According to Sharnee Lee Scott, senior master trainer at Lagree Fitness, many people struggle with this. Tight hamstrings are even common among those who are deeply committed to stretch-centric regimens like yoga and Lagree (a low-impact, high-intensity workout that focuses on strengthening and lengthening muscles). So what can you do about it?
Why your hamstrings might be tight
The struggle often tracks back to our daily habits: Sitting in sedentary positions excessively and living with poor posture—like slouching or arching our lower back. Additionally, overusing our hamstring muscles and forgetting to strengthen the opposing muscles (aka our quads) can also negate our best efforts to reach our feet because they leave our bodies out of balance.
It’s also anatomic, Scott admits: “Some people just can’t touch their toes due to bone structures and limb lengths.”
The best stretching techniques to loosen your hamstrings
Flexibility involves three things: “Mobility of the joints, delaying the central nervous system’s brain inhibitors, and strengthening opposing muscles,” says Scott. There are a few different techniques that can help to accomplish these goals:
Dynamic and static stretches
Scott says the best approach is to incorporate both dynamic (moving) and static (holding) stretches into your routine.
Focus on moving the legs through flexion and extension with control to the end ranges—the Lagree Elevator Lunge with holds at the bottom, is a great dynamic hamstring stretch to consider, says Scott. (If you don’t have your own Megaformer, you can replicate this exercise with sliders or in socks.) Another smart dynamic stretch is “The Waterfall Stretch,” which a Well+Good writer said made her hamstrings “feel like butter.” And don’t forget the yoga classic: downward dog.
Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation
Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) alternates stretching and contracting the muscle group being targeted. To use it on your hamstrings, lie down on your back and grab one leg in your hands (using a strap or towel if necessary): Start by stretching as you draw the leg toward your chest, then activate the hamstrings for a few seconds by pushing up against your hands or the strap, then release and gently stretch again for 20 to 30 seconds. Rest, and repeat. You should find that after each time you’ve contracted the hamstrings, you’re able to bring the leg slightly closer to you.
But remember: Each leg has three hamstring muscles. Make sure to play with different angles of the leg in relationship to your spine so you hit all of them, suggests Scott. “You’ll instantly feel the medial and lateral parts of the muscles, not just the central hamstrings,” she says. “Feel the tight spots out and hold them while breathing.”
Reciprocal inhibition involves tensing the opposing muscles in a hold and release, to shut off the ones you’re trying to stretch. In this case, that would mean engaging your quads to help your hamstrings let go. “When you tense the antagonist and hold and release, it shuts off the agonist—an easy example is do a wall sit, turn on the quads and it will relax the hamstrings,” Scott says.
When to stretch your hamstrings
Never go right into a hamstring stretch while cold. Think of your muscles like cheese: They’ll be able to stretch further—without tearing—when they’re warm. Jog in place for a minute or so, or perform some jumping jacks to warm up your body first. Or wait until after your workout to focus on increasing flexibility.
Scott also emphasizes the need to pay just as much mind to your active fitness routine as you do your stretching regimens. “True flexibility can likely not be obtained without the presence of strength,” she says. To combine both, look for a workout like yoga or Lagree that centers around stretching. “Lagree is a great example of creating strength while stretching and increasing the range of motion of the joints—especially the hip joint,” she says.
Try this short Pilates routine for double-duty hamstring strengthening and stretching:
The key is to make stretching a daily habit. “Flexibility should be approached gradually,” Scott says. “The central nervous system has brain inhibitors triggered by fear of the range of motion of a joint.” This is the way your body protects your muscles from dangerously overstretching. But you can (safely) outsmart it through repetition: “Committing allows the brain to gain trust and therefore support the stretch, allowing larger ranges of mobility over time.”