7 Great Hamstring Stretches

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Hamstring Stretches

Man touching grasping his feet while sitting with legs outstretched.
Stretch your hamstrings by reaching for your feet or toes. czuber

Hamstrings and Pelvic Positioning

The hamstring muscle group located at the back of your thigh and pelvis (at the very bottom) is partly responsible for a well-aligned pelvic position. But what does this have to do with your low back?

The hamstrings are one of 4 muscle groups that attach both on the pelvis and on the upper portion of the bones of the lower leg. When any (or all) of these hip muscles contract, one possible result is that the pelvis is tilted toward the back of the thigh. The exact direction (i.e. forward toward the front of the thigh, backward toward the back of the thigh, down and toward one side, etc.,) depends on where that muscle lives.

In the case of the hamstrings, the pelvis is brought toward the back of the thigh, because that’s where the hamstrings are located (as mentioned above.)

You can likely see from this explanation that hip muscles, hamstrings included, have the capacity to alter – and in some cases correct – the position of the pelvis.

Related: Learn More About Hamstrings

Pelvic Positioning and Back Pain - The Case for Hamstring Stretching

But the question still remains – what does all this have to do with back pain?

Well, the spine is anchored in between the two hip bones in back. (The two hip bones together comprise the pelvis.) The pelvis is bigger than the spine so when it moves, the spine generally moves along with it.

When your hamstrings are chronically contracted they keep the pelvis pulled down in back. This in turn pulls the low back out of alignment by flattening its normal lordotic arch – which can overstretch and or weaken your back muscles. Without a balanced position of your pelvis and proper support from the muscles in the area, low back pain is possible. Chronically tight hamstring muscles can play a role in other back problems as well.

With that in mind, let's look at a few ways to "stretch the strings" as I like to say - whether you're a rank beginner or an accomplished athlete.

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Hamstring Stretch - Toe Touching

Woman attempts to touch her toes.
Toe touching exercises are one type of hamstring stretch. rjlerich

Touch Your Toes - Stretch Your Hamstring Muscles

One way to stretch your hamstrings is with good 'ole toe touching. I remember doing this exercise every day in my high school physical education class. Since then, though, the rules have changed a bit, informed by research, yoga, and common sense.

First, to release longstanding hamstring muscle tension, don't bounce. Bouncing activates a mechanism called the stretch reflex which, to make a long story short, can result in more muscle contraction, not less.

Instead, hold the stretch for about 30 seconds at a comfortable, pain-free level where it feels like something is "happening." (You can apply this to all the hamstring stretch variations in this article, as well.)

Secondly, yoga informs us to lift the sitting bones toward the ceiling while we're in this position. This elongates the hamstring muscles.

Third, make sure your hips are directly over your feet. The model in the picture above has her bum positioned behind her feet. This is a mistake many people make because they are not aware of their alignment. While it does make the stretch feel easy, when you do it this way, you are, in effect, "cheating."

And finally, if you've not been regularly strengthening your ab muscles, you might consider skipping the toe touching altogether, or at the very least, substituting a prop, such as a table. A rule of thumb for your safety is: Only go as far as you can without back pain or a feeling of insecurity.

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Supine Hamstring Stretch

Woman lying on her back with leg up touches her toes.
Stretch your hamstrings while lying on your back and touching the toes of one leg that is straight up. rognar

Another way to stretch your hamstrings is to lie on your back and bring one leg straight up.This common version can be found in yoga, at the gym, and in fitness studios. No matter what the move is called, where it can be had, or which system it's associated with, the truth is you’re taking the lower extremity into the opposite position in which muscle work happens. In other words, the leg up position puts that hamstring muscle on a stretch and takes it out of contraction.

The ultimate goal is to bring your leg up high enough so that you can touch your toes, or even bring your straight leg towards your head. But you don't have to get this far to get a good stretch.

Related:  Yoga for Back Pain

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Supine Hamstring Stretch for Beginners

Silhouette of woman stretching hamstrings by grasping ankle of straight leg while lying on her back.
Stretch your hamstring muscles while lying on your back. summerseason

As mentioned previously, a common way to increase hamstring flexibility is lying on your back and bringing one straight leg up towards your head, with the ultimate goal of touching your toes.

But not everyone can reach their toes.

That's okay. A number of variations exist for dealing with the initial stiffness that can get in the way of a fruitful hamstring flexibility plan. One comes from yoga, where you'd use a strap or belt around the bottom of your foot to extend the area available for grasping the extremity and bringing it towards you.

Another variation is shown above, where instead of going for your toes, you aim for the level of your leg you can comfortably reach. Notice that the model has her other leg bent. This helps stability which in turn can help you keep a nice alignment of your trunk as you perform the stretch.

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Standing Hamstring Stretch

A pregnant woman stretches her hamstring muscle while standing.
Standing one legged hamstring stretch. ElinaManninen

For whatever reason (maybe you're pregnant, injured, or in pain, for example) you might not feel comfortable getting down and up from the floor to do your hamstring stretches. What do do?

There's the toe touching exercise described earlier, but as we discussed, to do this one well, you need to address a few alignment points as well as know when and how to modify the experience for your safety.

But if you're just a "regular 'ole" type exerciser, you can perform a one legged hamstring stretch from a standing position. Simply extend 1 leg out, and keeping your back straight, bend from your hip joints to bring your chest toward your thigh. The leg that's not being stretched will also bend at the knee.

You don't have to get all the way there to feel a stretch. Go only as far as you can without pain, strain, or shakiness. If you need extra support, hold onto a piece of furniture or a wall.

Related: A Yoga Sun Salutation Your Back Will Love

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Easy Hamstring Stretch for Athletes

Athlete stretching her hamstring muscles.
Athletes can stretch hamstrings by extending one leg and bending over it. undrey

If you are active, one great way to really "get" the hamstrings is to put the heel or ankle of one leg on something that is about waist height or a little lower and bend at your hips to bring the front of your trunk towards your thigh. Keeping your back straight will get you the best results while at the same time provide some safety for your spine.

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Advanced Hamstring Stretch for Athletes

A female athlete does an advanced hamstring stretch while squatting.
You can add extra challenges like squatting to your one legged hamstring stretches. Ammentorp

If the previous hamstring stretch for athletes isn't challenging enough, you might try doing it while in a one legged squat.

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Partner Hamstring Stretching

One woman helps another to further her hamstring stretch.
Increase your hamstring stretch by asking a partner to help. fizkes

And finally, a great way to enhance your hamstring stretch is by getting a friend (or bodyworker) to help you. Be sure to give her or him feedback as to how much pressure you can take. The ideal intensity is between comfortable and challenging.

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