Tight hamstrings do more than restrict your forward bends in yoga. When these muscles at the back of your thighs are tight, they can limit motion in the pelvis. The muscles of the lower back, particularly the erector spinae, must then take on greater responsibility for pelvic motion and become stressed and tight. The result can be low-back pain and decreased range of motion.
An Anatomy Lesson
The hamstrings, consisting of the semitendinosus, semimembranosus and the biceps femoris, function to extend and bend the knee as well as attach the lower pelvis to the leg. The hamstrings tilt the pelvis backward, and if they are super tight, they’ll pull it back too much, which causes flattening and back pain. Tight hamstrings can also be the source of postural problems and other back problems, such as sacroiliac joint pain, characterized by a band of pain that radiates across the whole width of the low back.
Why Are My Hamstrings Tight?
A past injury, such as a strain or a pull, can lead to the buildup of scar tissue that causes tightness in the hamstring muscles. Genetics also play a role in tight hamstrings. The hamstring muscles may also tighten to make up for weaknesses in other parts of the body, namely the abdominals and low back. Spending a lot of time with the hips in a flexed position can also lead to tightening of the hamstrings. People who sit a lot at their job, long-distance runners and avid cyclists are often vexed by tight hamstrings because they often assume this flexed-hip position. Athletes who skip out on the stretching section of their workouts are particularly vulnerable.
How Do I Know?
Matt Fitzgerald, author, athlete and certified sports nutritionist, recommends you do a simple flexibility test to determine if your hamstrings are too tight. From a standing position, hinge forward from your hips and touch your fingers to your toes without bending your knees. If your fingers don’t reach your toes, your hamstrings are likely too tight.
If you suffer from chronic back pain, a trip to your doctor is in order. If you determine your hamstrings are tight and want to loosen them up to reduce the chance that you develop back pain later, take action before, during and after your workouts. Prior to exercise, loosen up with dynamic stretching that includes Frankenstein walks. To do these, stand up straight and step forward with your right foot as you kick up your left leg. Reach forward with your right hand to touch the toe of the raised leg. Repeat on the opposite side, alternating and moving forward for 20 to 30 seconds. If you determine weak abdominal and back muscles are contributing to your hamstring tightness, include moves such as planks and spine extensions during your workout. Lunges can also help by moving the hips through a full range of motion and improving hamstring function. Post workout, active stretching -- by doing seated or standing forward bends or proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, also called PNF stretching -- helps loosen up the muscles. In cases of severe hamstring inflexibility, your doctor may recommend you consult with a physical therapist.