Are Your Hamstrings Really the Problem?
by Jesse Lewis, PT, DPT
Can you touch your toes?
One of the most common complaints we hear from our clients is that their “hamstrings are always tight”. The hamstring is the big, long muscle at the back of your thigh. Even after stretching constantly, foam rolling, or getting a massage, they still feel tightness in their hamstrings. Does this sound familiar to you at all? If so, there’s probably a reason you keep stretching your hamstrings but not getting any closer to touching your toes. You might be working on the wrong problem. There are a couple of reasons that you could be feeling “hamstring tightness” without actually have tight muscles.
One structure that might be causing the tightness, but isn’t your hamstrings, is the big nerve that runs down the back of your leg, the sciatic nerve. It sits right next to the hamstring muscle, so if the sciatic nerve is the problem, you will feel it in the exact same place as a tight hamstring muscle. Nerves don’t get tight like muscles, but they do get “stuck” in the tissues around them. So a nerve that isn’t moving well will feel exactly like a tight muscle. Here’s a quick and easy test to see if you have more of a nerve tightness problem than a muscle tightness problem. Bend forward and try to touch your toes and see how far you can go. Now, place a small book or other wedge underneath your heels but keep the balls of your feet on the ground. Bend forward again. Did you go farther? If so, you likely have more of a nerve tightness problem than a muscle tightness problem. If you went the same distance, you just found out it’s not your nerve!
The other reason you could have tight hamstrings, without actually having tight hamstrings, is a lack of strength instead of a lack of flexibility. When you bend forward, you need to have enough strength in your core, hips, and hamstrings to be able to pull you back up. If you don’t, your body might get nervous and stop you from going any further. When it does this, it uses your hamstrings like the brakes on your car. It tells the hamstrings to press down and stop you from bending more. You will “feel” hamstring tightness, but really it’s just the body using the hamstrings to slow you down. Try this: bend forward and touch your toes and see how far you go. Before you bend forward again, squeeze both fists as hard as you can and keep them squeezed as you bend forward. If you went further this time, it’s not a magic trick, it’s a sign that it might be more of a strength problem than a flexibility problem.
So if you have been stretching and stretching and not seeing any improvement, you now have a couple tests to see if you’re working on the right problem. Instead of continuing to stretch the muscles, you might get more out of it if you work on nerve mobility or the strength of your hips and core!