Are you tired of feeling tight in your hamstrings after a long run or row? Does it feel like no matter how much you stretch, you never feel like you’re making any progress? While hamstring tightness can be caused by a number of factors, the great thing is you can improve their mobility. There are two key ways to improve your overall stretching effectiveness and both will make noticeable improvements in your flexibility and post-training discomfort. I am one of those athletes who must constantly work on my hamstring mobility. Building these two stretching techniques into my warm-up helps ensure I stay mobile and fluid.
When stretching the hamstrings, the natural tendency is to do the basic toe-touch movement where you are stretching out the entire spine (flexion), hamstrings, and glutes. The standard for general flexibility is whether or not you can touch your toes. While this does stretch your hamstrings, it also stretches your back muscles (paraspinal muscles) at the same time. This is a very common, yet less effective way, to improve your hamstring mobility.
The first key to improving your hamstring mobility is to isolate the hamstrings by eliminating back movement. The straight leg dead lift (SLDL) in standing is the ideal exercise in this regard. Done standing, I like to keep the feet about foot stretcher distance apart. The low back remains in an extended position (concave), while you bend the trunk forward as if you are taking a bow to an audience while keeping you head up as if you are looking at the crowd. Keeping the entire back stable during this exercise, forces the movement to come from the hamstrings and glutes. You may notice a burning or fatigue sensation in the low back muscles, but they’re just contracting in an isometric way to keep the back from moving during the exercise. The same exercise movement can be duplicated in a boat or on an erg as a stretching exercise, where the back is kept in a firm upright position while you go from the finish to the body-over position. The SLDL stretch is a great dynamic (short hold time 1 to 2 seconds) hamstring stretch, but can also be used as a static stretch (holding 15 or more seconds).
The straight leg raise (SLR), which allows for more control of the spine, is another effective way to stretch out your hamstrings. This stretch is done lying flat on the floor to stabilize the back. Support your low back using a rolled-up hand towel -- the towel should support your natural lumbar curve but not increase it. With the low back fixed by the rolled-up towel, slowly raise up one leg with the knee completely extended. If you’re a rower and you have tight hamstrings, beware: chances are that you’re rowing with your back slumped over into a rounded position, like a general toe-touch. This position puts additional stress (pressure) on your low back region, which can ultimately lead to injuries.
The second key to effective stretching is to ensuring that elements of your stretching routine are sufficient to making realistic improvements in your flexibility. These elements include: the length of your stretch-- how long you hold your stretch; the total stretch time (example: 10 reps of 30 second holds); and the frequency -- how often you stretch (example: five times a week, twice a day, etc.). Static stretching is an excellent way to improve your mobility if the stretch is held long enough. Effective stretch times run between 30 to 60 seconds, while total stretch time should be at least five minutes per leg. Last but not least, is consistency -- i.e. stretches must be done daily. If you stretch only after training sessions and you’re training four days per week, you’re probably only going to maintain your current flexibility without any improvements.
There’s no secret to improving hamstring flexibility. It’s straightforward once you follow and commit to a few guidelines: isolate the hamstrings in your stretch by eliminating back movement; hold your stretches for 30 to 60 seconds, do at least 10 reps of 30 second holds, and stretch regularly (everyday, five times a week, or twice a day, etc.). Following these simple guidelines will loosen-up your hamstrings, reduce your risk of injuries, and allow you to enjoy your activities without discomfort in your hamstrings.