Should I stretch my hamstrings?


I get asked this question a lot, about every day and everyone seems to have their own very strong opinion on whether they should stretch or not stretch their hamstrings. So should you stretch your hamstrings or not?

Can you hurt yourself?  Yes.  Yes, you can.  

Do I usually tell people to stretch their hamstrings? No.

Are there probably ten different things you should do before you stretch your hamstrings?  Absolutely.

So why am I not a huge fan of stretching your hamstrings?

For starters, most people do it incorrectly. They just cause their discs in their back to bulge while they’re stretching their hamstrings as opposed to actually stretching their hamstrings.

Worse yet they wind up overstretching and tearing the muscle as opposed to stretching it and then wind up in more pain.  Have you ever stretched your hamstrings or had someone else stretch your hamstrings and you winced in pain?  Then you were tearing the muscle, not actually stretching it or causing any positive change to the muscle but you were tearing it, causing further problems down the road.

But even if you did it correctly, is it the best way to get length to your hamstring?  No.

Before we go any further understanding where exactly the hamstring muscle group is located is important.

When referring to the hamstrings it is important to know that the hamstrings are a muscle group, comprised of 3 different muscles. The muscles are located on the back of the leg. People can get this confused with the quadriceps which is the group of muscles located in the front of the leg.

The hamstrings are used to bend the knee.

Why I bring this up is the fact that when most people feel the need to stretch their hamstrings, they actually need to strengthen their hamstrings. The quadriceps and hamstring muscle groups should be equal in strength but many times they are not.

The quadriceps on the front of the leg tend to be much stronger than the hamstrings on the back of the leg.

There is a quick way to test this. Have someone resist you trying to kick your leg out (straighten your leg), chances are a lot of you are still going to be able to straighten your leg even with someone resisting you. Now if you do the same test where you try and pull your leg back (try to bend your knee) and the person puts their hand on your calf and tries to keep you from bending your knee, this will test the hamstrings.

You should be able to bend your knee with the same amount of force that you straighten your knee out with. Most of you are going to be unable to do so.  Most people will be able to straighten their knee with ease with resistance and not be able to easily bend their knee with resistance.

This is because of weakness in the hamstrings.

This weakness causes the hamstrings to feel like they need to be stretched, when in fact, they need to be strengthened.  For the Top 3 Exercises to Strengthen Your Hamstrings click here.  

When your hamstring is weaker, you begin to develop tiny knots in the muscle as it struggles and works overtime to keep up with the stronger quadricep. Eventually these knots cause the hamstring to not function correctly anymore.

Imagine putting a bunch of knots in a piece of string and asking it to still work in the same capacity it did without the knots in it.   It won't be able to stretch as far and eventually as you continue to stretch the string to try to reach the same spots it did before, it will break.

These knots continue to get bigger and bigger until they start to cause pain and the pain gets worse and worse.
Most of the time when you have pain in your hamstring you have knots.

When you go to stretch the hamstring and it has knots in it, all you are doing is pulling at a piece of string with a big knot in it. The knots will not go anywhere but the string will start to tear, on either side of the knot, the harder you pull.

You wind up with microtears in the muscle as you stretch, creating more knots. And the vicious cycle begins.

One of the worst things you can do is have someone stretch your hamstrings for you.

What is the point of this? If you need help, find an open doorway, grab a towel, anything but never let someone just excessively stretch your hamstrings. I cringe when I see trainers doing this at the gym and their clients are wincing in pain and telling them to go harder. I shake my head knowing that that trainer is just putting him/herself out of a job because they are doing nothing but tearing that poor clients hamstring and somewhere down the road that person is not going to be able to work out.

Just an FYI a stretch should NEVER hurt. It should feel like a stretch, nothing more.

So when do I recommend stretching the hamstring?

I said it was okay sometimes so how should you do it?

First you need to get out your foam roller, the one with spikes on it because a flat one is not going to get into the hamstrings to get out the knots, a spiked one will.

And if you need reference on how to foam roll below is a video or you can click here to go to Total Performance Physical Therapy's You Tube Channel and find several videos on foam rolling.

Spend a few minutes rolling out the hamstrings on the spiked foam roller. Spend more time if you find that there are areas of pain. Stay on those areas for about 20 to 30 seconds each. Do not try to get the tender points out completely as you are rolling, you can make yourself incredibly sore, just spend a few seconds on each spot, they will come out over time.

You should roll for about 10 minutes every day, whether you have pain or not, whether you are active or not. 10 minutes minimum a day foam rolling is essential for muscle health.

Then you can stretch the hamstrings, after they have been rolled out.

When stretching your hamstrings, you cannot bend from your back. You must sit up straight and hinge forward at your hips. You can also lay on your back and use a strap to stretch your hamstrings so you don’t have to worry about bending your back and risking herniating a disc. When you bend at your back, you put significant pressure on your discs and risk them being herniated. Also, if you bend at your back, you are stretching your back and not your hamstrings.

You can also stretch your hamstrings in standing. You can do this by propping your foot up on a stool, standing up nice and straight to keep your back straight. Hinge forward at your hips until you feel a stretch in the hamstrings. You want to hold the stretch for 30 seconds and repeat it six times on each side.

No matter if or how you decide to stretch your hamstrings, it is important to remember not to overstretch your hamstrings and that you do not bend your back to herniate your discs and you do not overstretch. Taking the proper precautions is important to keep yourself free from injury.

If you have problems with your hamstrings, want someone to test your hamstring strength, or think your hamstrings may be causing you low back pain, then click here to schedule a complimentary 3 point pain consultation.  (Montgomery and Bucks County Pennsylvania residents only please)


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