My hamstrings and I have had a long and troubled relationship. While we’re pretty happily enamored with one another these days, it wasn’t always so sunny. In fact, because of a birth injury that I had, I grew up constantly cursing my short hamstrings (among other things). My brief flirtation with ballet classes at age six was a disaster. While all the other girls were flopping into full splits, I struggled to reach past my knees in a standing forward fold. Touching the floor was absurdly out the question.
Those of you out there who have spent your fair share of time cursing out your own hamstrings know what I mean. Often any attempts at lengthening the hamstrings are at best useless, and at worst – in some evil and spiteful repayment for your efforts – they get shorter.
Because I had this set-up from day one, and because I have made my career in the manual and movement therapies, I have spent a long time cracking the code of short hamstrings. So here’s what I’ve discovered on the road to functional hamstrings (and a video of my very favorite hamstrings lengthening stretch is below):
1. You can’t contract them all day long and expect them to get longer
I know. Duh, right? But it’s actually what most of us do. Our hamstrings muscles (there are three: biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus, but for the purposes of this post I’ll discuss them broadly as a group) attach on our ischial tuberosity proximally, and on the femur, tibia, and fibula distally. So they attach on your pelvis, your thigh, and your lower leg. We usually think of their action as a group as knee flexors. As in, if you need to bring your heel closer to the back of your thigh, they’re on the job. But we commonly neglect to pay attention to their other action, which is to posteriorly tilt the pelvis. As in, if you want to flatten out your low back and tuck your pelvis under, they do that, too.
Sadly, many of us sit on our sacrums instead of our ischial tuberosities (the fictional “sit bones”), which means we are sitting in a posteriorly tilted pelvis all day long. Your lumbar discs and sacroiliac ligaments greatly dislike this, and so do your hamstrings. Sitting like this means the hamstrings are constantly contracted. So it’s really just plain unfair to contract your hamstrings for eight to fifteen hours of your day (because even when our workday ends, we then go home and sit on our sacrums on the couch, right?), and then get mad at them when, for somewhere in the range of two to forty minutes of your day, you attempt to stretch them and they don’t comply. I mean, talk about mixed signals. (Pssst: If you want to clean up your sitting, I have a video on things that you do everyday to set yourself up for shoulder injuries.)
2. You can’t contract them while you try to stretch them and expect them to get longer.
Most people with short hamstrings, and even many without this affliction, forward fold without moving from the pelvis. If you are used to your pelvis living in a posterior tilt (being tucked under), you will usually keep it in this position and just forward fold by bringing your trunk closer to your legs. But the pelvis needs to move as you forward fold if you want to lengthen the hamstrings. By “moving the pelvis” what I mean is that your ischial tuberosities should go from pointing roughly at the floor, to pointing in the direction of the wall behind you. You can forward fold with a static pelvis forever and not only are your hamstrings never going to get longer (because you are contracting rather than lengthening them), but your lumbar discs and sacroiliac joints will continue to mount a rebellion against you. I go through forward folding with appropriate movement in the pelvis in detail in the video down below. So get ready to grab your ischial tuberosities and join me!
3. The floor is not the goal.
If the goal is to touch the floor, you will usually bypass lengthening the hamstrings. As I talked about in point number two, there are plenty of ways to get to the floor without actually having to do the work in your hamstrings, but they won’t do you any favors in the long run. While it can be embarrassing just how shallow your forward fold is when you get honest about it, if you want to make progress you usually have to back up. Getting into the chronically contracted nooks and crannies of your hamstrings may not land you a cover shoot for Yoga Journal, but it will actually rehabilitate the tissue. People, please, I’ve been there. I make a portion of my living teaching in yoga classrooms and fitness studios, so I have to expose the true length of my hamstrings all the time. And while they have come a long way from where they were, I still don’t have the typical yogini body. If I can keep it real, so can you. Because the floor is not the goal. Lengthening your hamstrings is the goal.
4. You have to slowly learn how to take off the brakes.
We’ve all had that moment in our driving histories when we wonder why the car feels like it’s dragging a concrete block and we realize it’s because we forgot to take the emergency brake off. Driving with the emergency brake on is an ineffective way to drive. Jamming ourselves into unreasonable forward folds with contracted hamstrings is also ineffective. For many of us our hamstrings function as “brakes,” and then we go slamming the gas to the floor in our forward folds hoping that will get them to let go. As you may have experienced, this is not a super useful strategy. In fact, it’s usually the strategy that causes the hamstrings to get maddeningly shorter even if you’ve been dedicated to stretching them every day.
Not everyone has the hamstrings-as-brakes pattern (for example, the yogis on the mats next to you who are happily nuzzling their noses between their shins in their forward folds have never experienced this sensation), so of course the question is why does it happen to some people? Tackling that in any kind of thoughtful way is too intricate a tangent for this post, as it is about the larger issue of aberrant support patterning in people’s structures. However, the short version is that people who have lost intrinsic support from the deeper layers of musculature and fascia tend to have this delightful configuration. This happens regardless of how strong the more extrinsic musculature is, which is why you usually see the big dudes at the gym hating on their hamstrings. It’s an issue of imbalance surface to deep.
To address it, you must first slow down and embrace the idea that while you can slowly transition into longer, more functional hamstrings, you cannot force them to rapidly bend to your will. In short, you’ll have to suck it up and get patient. Secondly, you will want to take on work that wakes up those deeper core layers to give you more balance in your structure, in particular your transversus abdominus, and your adductors. Pilates work and Yoga Tune Up can be good options for this.
So without further ado, here is the video of first, how to forward fold with lengthened rather than contracted hamstrings muscles, and second, my all time favorite (and magic wand-like) Yoga Tune Up pose for lengthening the hamstrings: asymmetrical uttanasana.