Stretching Your Hamstrings: What You Need to Know
The hamstrings are a pretty well known muscle. There are so many yoga articles about stretching your hamstrings. If I was wittier I’d be able to come up with some joke about them having a good publicist, but I’m not. So I’ll just say that people tend to know where the hamstring muscles are.
Probably because of their really good publicist.
You can thank A for that joke. He’s the funny one in the house.
Seriously though … most people seem to have some awareness of where the hamstring is located. But what people don’t know is what the muscle actually does.
My own knowledge dates back to trying to touch my toes in elementary school gym class or stretching it at soccer practice. No one ever told me what the muscle is for. Or what I should feel when stretching it. A friend of mine once told me she always thought the hamstring was behind the knee. That’s where she felt the stretch as a kid and no one ever told her differently.
For the record – you don’t actually want to feel the stretch behind the knee. I’ll get to that in just a second.
But first – so that we’re all on the same page: the hamstring muscle goes from your sitz bones (which is right below your butt) down the back of your leg and attaches below the knee. Fun fact: it’s actually a muscle group. Three muscles with very similar attachment points that do essentially the same thing. Just like the quadriceps muscle on your thigh is actually four muscles (get it quad = four).
Like any muscle, the hamstring muscles attach to a bone via a tendon. Muscles are like rubber bands they’re built to stretch up to 150% of their resting length. Then when they engage, or contract, they get shorter. Tendons on the other hand are built to connect and to stabilize, not to stretch or shorten.
This picture is from Orthoinfo.aaof.org see how the middle part of the muscle is a red-ish pink color and at the ends it becomes lighter until it’s white. That color change represents where the muscle turns into, or attaches, to the tendon. Muscles are usually depicted in red because they have blood flow whereas tendons do not. You can also see the three distinct muscles in this picture Semitendinosus, Semimembranosus, and Biceps femoris.
Tendons can only stretch 2-3% before tearing. That’s not a lot. Once a tendon is torn it takes a long time to repair itself, even if it’s a tiny little tear. It’s best to avoid tearing it in the first place if you can.
Now we get to why it’s so important to pay attention to where you’re feeling the stretch.
If you’re stretching your hamstrings (in a forward fold, for example) you want to feel the stretch in the middle, thick, belly part of the muscle.
When you feel a stretch near the ends of the muscle (either the sitz bones or around the knee) you’re probably stretching the tendons. And remember tendons don’t take very well to being stretched.
If you’re reading this and you realize that you’ve always been stretching your tendons and been feeling a pinching pain up near your butt, you’ve probably caused some tears in the tendon. No need to freak out. This is actually a common injury for yoga folks since we do so much forward folding. But you should avoid stretching the tendon anymore.
That means anytime you fold forward, you need to keep your knees bent enough that you don’t feel a pulling or pinching close to your butt. Hopefully it’ll get better by itself in a little while and you can start easing back into stretching the muscle.
Keep in mind – a pull, or a tear, in a muscle, or tendon, is basically a rip and if you stretch the muscle and feel pain that’s causing the muscle or tendon to rip more. This is not the kind of pain to simply push through. This is the kind of pain that needs rest to heal.
Now that we’ve talked about what you want to feel when you’re stretching your hamstrings let’s talk about HOW to go about stretching your hamstrings.
The basics of how muscles work are this: when a muscle contracts it brings the two ends towards one another and to stretch it you bring the two ends away from one another.
Again imagine the hamstring muscles like a big stretchy band that’s connected to your sitz bone (your butt) and below your knee. When it contracts (or engages) the two ends come closer together. That causes the knee to bend and it also extends the hip. In non-anatomy terms that’s bringing the thigh bone behind the hip. This is also the answer to what the muscle does if you’ve noticed that I still haven’t mentioned that.
To stretch the muscle we’ve got to bring those two spots away from one another, so you’ll straighten the knee and flex the hip (or bend forward at the hip joint). Your basic forward fold is a perfect example. Although it’s not the most ideal way to stretch your hamstring. The best way …
Supta Padangusthasana – or lying flat on your back with one leg up in the air. Since you’re lying down it keeps your back safe, and because you’re not weight bearing you don’t have to worry about hyper-extending the knee joint which you would have to pay attention to when you’re standing on the leg.
One of the key things to pay attention to, regardless of what pose you’re stretching your hamstrings in, is your low back. Because the hamstrings attach to the bottom of your pelvis if they’re tight they’ll constantly be pulling your pelvis down and causing your low back to round. That’s pulling the attachment point closer to the other end. Which is basically your body’s way of cheating the stretch. It’s why you’ll hear teachers talk about lengthening your spine in a forward fold. Not only does that keep your back safe (which is just as important as it sounds) it’s what is actually going to stretch your hamstrings. So as you fold forward with your spine you also need to roll your pelvis forward to accentuate the curve of your low back. Or work on lifting your sitz bones up.
In the first picture my whole spine is rounded starting from my pelvis. It’s kind of visible if you look at the line of my black shirt against my purple pants. See how in the first picture that line appears to be lower. I didn’t actually move my shirt I just rolled the back of pelvis down. In the second picture I’m rolling the front of my pelvis down and the back of it up.
Other poses to stretch the hamstrings …
Pyramid – keep working your sitz bones behind you. Usually the front hips rolls down towards the mat so try to lift it up and press the other hip down.
Half splits – with the back knee down it’s a little more accessible than Pyramid pose. Flex the foot to stretch the calf and back of foot / ankle too. (I could probably tilt my pelvis a little more than I am in this picture. If you look at my shirt line / low back it’s a little more rounded than is best.)
We’re almost done but before I go I want to talk about the whys (because I love whys). Why you should stretch your hamstrings and why you should strengthen your hamstrings.
Like almost everything else in yoga or life, when it comes to stretching it’s all about balance. If you stretch a muscle too much and don’t also focus on strengthening it you’re left with an overstretched and weak muscle.
I’ll be the first to say that stretching your hamstrings is way more fun than strengthening them. You can actually feel the progress. Whether you’re working towards a more comfortable Downward Dog or getting your head to the mat in a wide legged forward fold.
And that’s what I was doing when I tore my hamstring.
Not that actual pose but the over stretching and the trying to see progress. I had been teaching for about a year and practicing for about 5. I went into a full side plank where you grab the top foot and straighten the leg up towards the ceiling (or sky actually we were outside) and I felt it right away.
See this is all pretty personal for me. I pulled my hamstring 4 years ago and I can still feel it sometimes. Usually when I overdo it in a yoga class. The worst part is that I know I’m doing it, I’ll feel that twinge and instead of taking it easy like I tell all my students to do I push through it. I’m getting better at holding myself back though. The biggest thing for me is focusing more on strengthening than stretching. I changed my whole practice and now I try to make every pose about building strength. It’s not exactly what I love. I’ll take a yummy stretch over holding a plank any day. But that’s what I need.
If you think about a pull in a muscle being a rip in fabric when you strengthen the muscle you’re strengthening the fibers so they can’t rib as easily. That’s what I’m trying to do.
And you can learn from my mistake – if you’ve been focusing purely on stretching your hamstrings add some intention towards strengthening.
Remember, when the muscle contracts, it shortens. So, whenever the knee is bent or the leg is extended (as in behind the hip) it’s working. All you need to do is send some extra energy down to the back of that leg to really turn on the muscle.
Here are my favorite poses to strengthen the hamstrings:
Locust – work the legs super straight and lift from the hamstrings or bend the knees as much as you can pulling the feet in towards your butt.
Table top with one leg lifted – the quad straightens the leg and the hamstring lifts it. Work lifting the leg without letting the hip lift too much or add in bending the knee just like in Locust.
Warrior Three – are you starting to see a pattern? Lift that top leg like you mean it and maybe bend it sometimes but bend it like you mean it.
That’s all I’ve got for now. Any lingering questions about the hamstrings? Let me know!