The hamstrings are a group of three posterior thigh muscles that connect the hip joint to the knee joint. They are responsible for extending the hips, flexing the knee and moving the lower leg. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, tight hamstrings can result in pain in the lower back, buttocks, legs and knees. But there are productive stretches that can loosen and lengthen these muscles over time.
According to Sabrena Merrill, a veteran of the fitness industry and a spokesperson for the American Council on Exercise, the increase in the population with tight hamstrings is related to the decrease in our population's activity levels. Sitting at a desk or on the couch for several hours a day puts the hamstring muscles in a shortened state. Over time, this compression can cause the muscles to actually become shorter, thus leading to tightness. Merrill says that hamstring tightness can begin as early as age 6 when children spend a majority of their day sitting at their desks in school. Other causes include genetics and not stretching after physical activity.
You can stretch the hamstrings while seated or lying down. While there are other known hamstring stetches that require you to stand, this is not as productive because your hamstrings are still active and engaged while standing, which will not allow them to fully relax and loosen. Merrill recommends two hamstring stretches, but as with any stretch, warm up the body first with 10 to 15 minutes of easy physical activity such as walking or jogging.
For the first stretch, called the lying hamstring stretch, lie on your back on the floor next to a wall. With your arms outstretched at your sides, extend one leg up the wall so it forms as close to a 90-degree angle with your body as possible. Leave the other leg and the rest of your body on the floor. You should feel a gentle stretch in the hamstring of the extended leg. Hold this position for 15 to 30 seconds and then repeat on the other leg. Perform this stretch three to four times total every day.
The second stretch is called the sitting hurdler stretch. While seated on the floor, extend one leg straight out in front of you while the other leg is bent with the sole of the foot placed on the inside thigh of the extended leg. Slowly lower your torso toward the shin of your extended leg with your arms stretched out toward your foot. Keep your back straight and your head aligned with your spine. Do not round the back. Hold this position for 15 to 30 seconds and then repeat on the other side. As with the lying hamstring stretch, perform this three to four times every day.
Lengthening and loosening your hamstring muscles could take several weeks or several months, says Merrill. The exact amount of time depends on your degree of tightness, diligence in stretching and your anatomy -- if you were born with short hamstrings, you may never have the same level of flexibility that someone with longer hamstrings has. However, continued improvements should be noticeable each week.
As with any physical ailment, if a sharp or sudden pain occurs, of if you think your hamstrings suffer from more than just tightness, consult your physician. He or she can diagnose or rule out other causes and help put you on a path of greater flexibility and movement.