Are You Sure You Have Hamstring Tightness?
Jesse Lewis, PT, DPT, OCS
Do you have trouble touching your toes? Do your hamstrings always feel tight? If so, you’ve probably been told that you need to stretch your hamstrings. But just because you have tightness in the back of your legs or you can’t touch your toes doesn’t mean your hamstrings are tight. They could be weak, your sciatic nerve could be the problem, or they might be overactive and trying to protect you from bending forward.
Quick test: Reach down and try to touch your toes. How far can you get? Now, squeeze your fists really tight, keep them squeezed, and bend down again. If you can get further, your hamstrings aren’t tight. It’s not magic – it means that your hamstrings are overactive and your body and brain don’t trust your ability to bend forward. Squeezing your fists is a distraction, and tricks your body into letting you go further. If this is the case, stretching your hamstrings is a waste of time. You need to work on strengthening to bend forward without your body protecting you. Here’s a way to get started with that.
If you feel tightness below your knee when you bend forward, you probably have more nerve tightness than hamstring tightness. Here is another test: bend forward to see how close you can get to the floor. Now place your heels on something (a book, a small weight, anything to raise your heels). Reach forward again and see if you can get lower. If you can, your hamstrings aren’t tight, your sciatic nerve isn’t mobile enough. Instead of stretching your hamstrings, you need to work on your nerve mobility. Here’s a nerve stretch that will help.
If you can touch the floor with your fingers, or get your whole hand on the floor, your hamstrings aren’t tight. They “feel tight” because they aren’t strong enough. Instead of spending time on stretching, work on strengthening them with deadlifts, or even better, single leg deadlifts.
If none of these tests are true for you, then you might actually have hamstring tightness. In that case, keep stretching! It might be that you need to be more consistent, or clean up your form when stretching. Here’s a post that will help improve your form when stretching.
If you’re still frustrated with your lack of mobility, you need specialized assistance. Schedule a free consultation so we can develop a strategy to deal with your distinct issue.