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Why do I always have Tight Hamstrings?
“I stretch everyday but my hamstrings are still as tight as ever!”
This is something we hear all the time in clinic. Unfortunately, most of the time, stretching isn’t addressing the root cause of the problem, which is why the tightness returns. To successfully address muscle tightness, you must first undertand why is that muscle tight in the first place? Unless it’s been torn or it’s a very long standing issue its very unlikely that your hamstrings are actually ‘short’ and need to be stretched.
So, if they are not short why are they so tight?
There are many reasons why we see tight hamstrings – today we will talk about two of the most common:
1) Compensation causing tight hamstrings
From a simplistic standpoint, the muscles of the body can be divided into two groups. ‘Stabilisers’ and ‘Movers’. Movers are the large muscles of the body that move the skeleton (pictured in blue). These include the hamstrings, quadriceps, and biceps. The ‘stabilisers’ are the smaller muscles which control and stabilise movement. These include diaphragm, pelvic floor and deep muscles of the trunk (red) and together make up what is known as the ‘Deep Spinal Stabilising System’.
If the ‘stabilisers’ are not doing their job, movement is not well controlled and the body tries to compensate for this by recruiting and overusing the ‘mover’ muscles. Over time this over-working of the mover muscles, such as the hamstrings, leads to tightness.
An easy test to see if your hamstrings are compensating for deficiency in the stabilisers is shown below (you will need someone to watch you do this):
- Lay on your stomach, completely relaxed.
- Slowly lift one leg about 10 inches towards the ceiling keeping it straight at the knee. Repeat with the opposite leg.
- If your low back arches excessively or you find it difficult to keep the knee straight when you lift, this is a sign that you have a deficiency in your stabilisers and your hamstrings are compensating to pick up the slack.
If compenstation is driving your hamstring tightness, stretching will only ever provide short term gains. To get long term improvement you need to get the stabilisers firing again, which will automatically allow the hamstrings to relax leading to improved length.
How to do this effectively is a little more complex and will depend on many individual factors so something we won’t be touching on today. We will however be posting in upcoming weeks about common strategies to restore the proper function of some of these key stabilising muscles, so stay tuned for that.
2) Nerve Irritation causing tight hamstrings
Nerve irritation will often mimic muscle tightness. If the sciatic nerve (which runs down the back of the leg) is irritated, it can be mistaken for hamstring tightness. If this is the underlying problem, although stretching your hamstring may feel good in the short term, all you are likely to do is further irritate the nerve, perpetuating the tightness.
One quick test to see if this might be the case is to stretch your hamstring (in whichever position you like), but then slowly tuck your chin to your chest. If it feels like the hamstring stretch increases with the chin tuck, it is very likely that nerve irritation is the underlying issue. Tucking your chin tensions the nervous system and symptoms of nerve irritation become more apparent. This is readily treatable but should be investigated by a suitable professional to find out why the nerves are irritated.
*figures reproduced from
- Liebenson. C., Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies
- Kolar, P. (2014). Clinical Rehabilitation. Alena Kobesová
This post was written by Steffen Toates. Steffen is a chiropractor at Dynamic Health Chiropractic in Jersey, Channel Islands. For more infomation about Steffen click here.