The tension that a lot of people feel is relentless and just won't let go. They stretch and stretch all day long. Bending down to touch their toes, sitting and reaching, on their backs with a band, but nothing works!
Why are these things so tight and why can't we get them to be flexible?!
Hamstring TensionI read this excellent article by Eric Cressey on the true reasons for hamstring tightness. One of the most enlightening points that it makes is the fact that your hamstrings are very unlikely to be truly shortened.
You see, the hamstring muscle group performs two major actions: knee flexion and hip extension. If our hamstring tension was really caused by shortening of the muscles, then that would essentially require us to be in both of those joint positions (simultaneously) on the regular. Do you spend every day on your knees for hours? (No jokes, please.) No? Then you probably don't have a hamstring lengthening/shortening issue.
So that being said? What causes hamstring tightness? There are three main things: Protective tension (compensatory tightness), neural tension (most significantly, sciatica), and an injury to the muscle (whether it's an acute strain or tendinitis).
Most of my clients who have this issue have it due to the first option; protective tension. More often than not, they're lacking proper activation of the glute muscles to initiate hip extension and stabilize the hip joint. As a result, the hamstring has to not only compensate for the ability to extend the hip, but it also has to increase in tension to try and make up for the lack of stability that the body senses at the joint. As the fix, I spend a lot of time reeducating the action of gluteal hip extension. Obviously, this isn't the only compensatory mechanism for why the hamstrings are tight, but it's the most common one that I find.
Similarly, if the reason for the tension is neural or due to injury, we need to fix the root of the problem in these cases as well before the hamstrings will truly be able to release their tension. If there's sciatic involvement from either the hips or the lower back, then some sort of intervention to relieve the stress on the nerve is required. If there's been an acute hamstring strain or built-up scar tissue, then time, manual massage, and proper strengthening will help accelerate recovery. If there's a chronic tendinitis, then that brings us back to the compensation issue which needs to be corrected.
In the meantime, is there anything we can do to help decrease hamstring tension while attempting to correct these mechanics?
Well, from my experience, I'm finding that static stretching for this area is less and less effective. Like I touched on before, if the hamstring isn't truly shortened, then why bother trying to truly lengthen it?
Instead, I'm starting to employ more dynamic stretching (even after exercise) in order to promote the muscle to neurally relax under tension and let go during repetitive stretch rather than prolonged. My clients have reported feeling that these methods have made them feel like the muscle is under decreased tension and have relieved pain more than holding the stretch ever did.
All in all, this goes back to my philosophy that simply stretching and mobilizing is never the answer to the problem. The base mechanics always need to be addressed before the issue is resolved. So, if you fall in this category of someone plagued by chronic hamstring tightness, take a moment to consider the reason for it.