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4 tips to manage "tight" and "weak" hamstrings

By Jonny Stahl




If we each got a dollar for each time we’d heard about “tight” or “weak” hamstrings, then we’d have a nice passive income stream. Why are the hamstrings (along with hip flexors – and they’re linked!) seemingly the victim in so many cases?


The hamstrings – like every other muscle - have specific roles to play during running. One big problem that many runners have is that their hamstrings are a slave to two key things:

  1. The position of the pelvis and rib cage

  2. Their technique (which is influenced by the pelvis and rib cage).

And the information out there on how to manage these issues is few and far between. If that sounds like an exaggeration to you, then let me give you an example.


Most people out there will encourage you to stretch and strengthen your hamstrings. Strengthening them can make a lot of sense, but that said, both stretching and strengthening your hamstrings are need to be considered with respect to the position of the pelvis.

Hamstring muscle anatomy and attachments
Hamstring muscle anatomy and attachments

The hamstrings attach onto the pelvis and onto the shin bone, just below the knee. In the vast majority of cases, the hamstring muscles function like a pulley system, meaning that knee side of the hamstring muscles shortens while the hip side lengthens.


Because the hamstring muscles attach onto the pelvis and onto the shin bone, by altering the position of those bones, we change the length of the hamstring muscles (either shortening or stretching them).


Due to excessive sitting, lack of movement, technology and other reasons, much of our society’s hamstrings are likely longer than their actual “neutral” length. They just feel tight because they’re actually placed on stretch and receptors within the muscle (we have loads of these) send messages to the brain to alert us that there’s tension and stress within that region, which we perceive to be “tightness”.


It is actually likely tightness, but not “shortness”. So there’s no long term value of stretching something that’s already being placed on stretch.


There’s also a thing in life called the Length-Tension Relationship. As you can see in the image below, muscles have an optimal length at which they can produce the most tension. Additionally, the longer or shorter muscles are, the less tension or force they’re able to produce.





Did someone say weak hamstrings?


If your hamstrings live at length and rarely are rarely able to produce anything close to their maximal tension/force, then they may feel weak.


On top of this, the more we train in such positions, the more we potentially reinforce them, meaning we live and perform with our hamstrings longer and weaker than they’re designed to be.


And we know that stretching muscles lengthens them and decreases force production ability, so stretching them likely ain’t the fix.


So, what to do?!


I mentioned at the beginning how important position are. If we improve the position of our pelvis and rib cage, we can actually shorten the hamstring muscles, thus improving their force production ability.


I also mentioned how there’s a relationship between the hamstrings and the hip flexors. There’s essentially an inverse relationship between the two muscle groups. When we re-orient our pelvis position and shorten the hamstrings a little, we’ll actually lengthen the hip flexor muscles a little too, allowing them to also, theoretically, produce more force.


I’m not by any means saying it’s bad to have lengthened hamstrings or shortened hip flexors. Those that have issues in these areas tend to have issues because they’re unable to active move in and out of these positions, as we’re designed to 😉.



Tips to improve these:


1. Improve structure (position)

2. Load in more optimal position(s)

3. Actively move in and out of positions

4. Integrate hamstring loading and strengthening into your sport or life (end-goal).



1. Improve structure (position)

We want to do this without forcing it. We can force many positions, but we also create a lot of resistance in doing so. What we want to be able to do is to be able to relax into better positions and allow our bones and muscles to not be struggling to maintain positions.


Breathing is in my experience the best way to do that, as we’re able to utilize pressures inside the body to achieve better positions.


Finding our feet on the ground or a wall give our brain an awesome reference point and allow us to get into better positions.


Here’s two great exercises to help us with this:

90/90 breathing with IR


Wall squat breathing


2. Load in more optimal positions

Once we’ve improved pelvis position and hamstring length, it’s time to begin loading in this position to allow us to get the most out of our hamstrings and ultimately, our body.


Remember, the contractile ability (how we contract and “activate” our muscles), along with hamstring strength, is greatest at their optimal length, so train them in that position.


We’ll train them at different lengths once we nail this phase – first things first!


Here’s two exercises to get your hammies firing:

Elevated hamstring bridge w/ breathing


Single leg stand with heel pull


3. Actively move in and out of positions

Now it’s time to move in and out of positions and get your hamstrings actively lengthening and shortening.


Why?


Because we want to build tolerance at different lengths and with different stresses. Consider it variability and capability in different positions.


Here’s two exercises to guide you with that:

Wall Split Stance RDL


Glute Bridge Slides



Integrate hamstring loading and strengthening into your sport or life (end-goal)


Let’s integrate some serious hamstring loading into your training.

The best way to do this is by sprinting. Just check the image below in case you’re doubting me.


Hamstring muscle activation during high-speed running vs. various hamstring strengthening exercises
Hamstring muscle activation during high-speed running. Credit: YLM Sport Science


Sprinting is also probably the most underrated exercise for just about anyone.


If you run longer distances, then sprint training will improve your relative speed AND it will train your ability to be stiff, explosive and elastic as you hit the ground.


If you play any running-based sport, then sprint training will improve your maximum speed AND it’ll also train your hamstrings like crazy, acting as an amazing injury prevention exercise.


Even if you don’t do a running-based sport, then sprinting is still just about the best all-in-one exercise, as it improves power, strength, anaerobic and aerobic conditioning, it’s fun and above all, you give yourself the opportunity to test your potential.


With the way I talk about sprinting, you’d think that I have affiliate system with the Sprint Gods.


I don’t (unfortunately), but sprinting is an amazing training exercise that should be in almost everyone’s program.



Summary

Most people who complain of hamstring issues and associated “tightness” or “weakness” aren’t actually tight in the hamstrings; they’re actually more lengthened than they need to be.


Improving pelvis position will re-orient your hamstrings improve their length (by shortening them), which will likely in turn improve their feeling of tightness and weakness.


From there, strengthening the hamstring muscles in their optimal position is an awesome way to build a solid hamstring strength foundations.


It’ll likely also decrease your lower back and hip stiffness and help you to move better.


After that, you want to start training your hamstrings in different positions and throughout different lengths. That will improve their performance capacity in stronger AND less strong positions, building your strength and movement capacity.


Lastly, it’s time to integrate. Build up your ability to sprint at maximum speed and you’ll get HUGE hamstring activation and loading.


You’ll also train your bounciness and elasticity for longer runs.





P.S When you're ready, here's three ways that I can help you to move, live and perform pain-free:


  1. 1:1 intensive coaching, programming and accountability (all-inclusive), just click here

  2. Online programming and accountability, just click here

  3. Education and consulting for coaches and companies who want to improve their quality of life, just click here

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