So of course following on from last week's episode 'HAPPY HAMSTRINGS #1', you’ve all been ‘flossing’ those sciatic nerves religiously and are ready to dive into to some serious hamstring action.
To say ‘dive in’ almost paints the image of the common hamstring stretch – throw that head as far towards your legs as you possibly can in the hope that the apparent iron rods down the back of your legs will give a bit. If this picture is ringing bells, please read on - not only could it be your first step to becoming bendy-wendy, it also could spare you a nasty lower back injury. If I had a penny for every disc injury I've seen that was preceded by a supposedly innocent hammy stretch...! Moreover, many friends, patients and even learned colleagues have complained that despite their regular stretching efforts, they seem to be getting nowhere.
So where are we all going wrong and what can we do to change things? As you know – my battle with my rigid runners has recently taken renewed vigour and I’m pleased to report folks – I seem to be winning! Below, you’ll find some of my favourite ways to work some pliability into inelastic hamstring and calf muscles. Tied in with the occasional yoga class, these truly are the stretches that have helped me turn a corner I thought was out of reach, but most importantly, to do so safely! I feel it important to stress here that flexibility and stability should be a whole body concept and targeting only one muscle group can create imbalance and postural strains. That said, the hamstrings are notoriously ‘toight’, short and causative of other structural issues, so most people could benefit from these isolated exercises alone!
Interestingly, shorter hamstrings can actually be a plus - athletes who need power from the legs e.g. jumpers, basketball players etc, can actually benefit from the 'coiled spring' effect of tighter calves and hamstrings. Similarly, the hamstring muscle aids stabilisation of the knee joint, so for those with stability issues, previous knee injuries, or certain sporting performance needs, your level of aspired hamstring flexibility perhaps should be capped.
Another thing my investigating revealed was that despite the common belief that short hamstrings contribute to low back pain, the research supporting the link is actually pretty poor. There was stronger support for hamstring asymmetry being linked to low back pain, so addressing if one side is tighter than the other seems more important than overall flexibility - in relation to low back pain anyway! (For more info on this and references, please get in touch.)
Despite the research , many people - myself included, report anecdotally how addressing tight hammys aided their overall comfort. For me, could that also be because of the strength work i've been doing? Absolutely! In fact, flexibility without muscular control isn't ideal (and potentially injurious), so it's always important to ensure stability surrounds your flexibility.
I will also add that even though hamstrings tension may not necessarily contribute to low back pain, a poorly performed hamstring stretch certainly can! How you go about addressing your inflexible pins is hugely important for injury avoidance - particularly to the lower back and especially in those who already suffer with lower back issues. So without further ado, allow me to introduce Chasing Lobsters' 'Highway to Happy Hamstrings'. :)
1. PEDAL THE DOWNWARD DOG
Possibly my favourite stretch of all time. Depending on your level of flexibility, you can either start with your hands on a raised surface, such as the stairs or a low bench, or you can go straight into the classic pose with hands and feet on the floor. It's important to focus on maintaining a neutral spine - no forward bend apart from a hinge at the hips.
To find your 'dog' start in a raised plank position and then push your hips up and backwards, keeping the legs straight - you should feel the stretch down the back of the legs. From this position gently bend one knee, allowing the same heel to lift slightly. Focus your efforts into the straight leg - this is where you'll feel the stretch. Hold for a second or two and then change. To deepen the stretch press your seat bones into the air as you drive the heel of the straight leg into the ground. Try not to allow the pelvis to twist as you bend the leg, and continuously apply pressure through the hands - pressing your chest to the floor, through your shoulders. Perform for at least a minute and enjoy as the stretch starts to ease!
2. DYNAMIC HAMSTRING 1 & 2
Discovering dynamic stretching was like someone turning on a light bulb for me. Rather than forcing your way to your end range (elastic barrier) and holding it (ouchee), you ease towards the barrier and then back off, gently encouraging the stretch within the movement. This in my opinion promotes a more functional and stable flexibility. It's important to not bounce or force the stretch; gentle, controlled movements with deep breathes are crucial.
Dynamic stretches are pretty strong, so control is absolutely key and I would certainly recommend preceding these with some flossing. Once again, ensure a neutral spine is sustained throughout the exercise and the forward 'bend' that you see is purely a hinge from the hips. Do not allow the front foot/leg to roll out - toes to the sky please people! Choose one of the two exercises depending on comfort, balance and ease and perform 15-20 both sides, then repeat.
3. STRETCH-CONTRACT-STRETCH Some mORE!
Officially known as PNF stretching and frequently noted as the most effective method for quick gains. I don't particularly enjoy this form of stretching, primarily because well, its hard work and painful, but it is undeniably effective - certainly in the short term.
If you're like me and grasping your ankle without compromising your spinal aligment isn't possible, you'll need a strap or towel or something of the like. Wrap it around your lower leg then extend your foot into the air and pull the band both hands to the point where you feel the stretch but can maintain a straight leg. Flex the foot and hold the stretch here for 10 seconds. This is then followed by 10 seconds of contraction; push against the band as if trying to return the leg to the floor. Without bending the leg, relax the contraction and then using the band, pull the leg further into the stretch and hold for 10 secs. Repeat this cycle 3 times on each leg.
4. SIMPLE STATIC STRETCH
Performed commonly and yet most of the time, badly! I've included this stretch today as an attempt to educate the masses. It isn't a regular to my routine but if I do use it, it tends to be at the beginning and the end of a stretch session, as a sign of progression more than anything else.
Place your left leg extended out on a step, or low bench with your heel down, toes pointing to the sky. From here, keeping both legs straight, push the underside of your bottom backwards so that you 'hinge' from the hips. You should feel a stretch down the back of the raised leg. Don't allow the back to arch over, or the foot to fall to the side - toes up and spine straight at all times! The degree tension is all controlled from the hips, so to increase the stretch simply bend the standing leg, whilst pushing the buttocks further back. Alternatively you can rest the leg on a higher step/surface. Hold for 30 seconds each side and repeat if not moving onto dynamic stretches.
For all of these exercises, I cannot stress enough how important it is to maintain a neutral spine AT ALL TIMES! This prevents any unnecessary loading of your low back and lumbar discs. As a take home message, i'll say this: approach your flexibility wisely. Whilst many report improved comfort post-stretching, tight hamstrings can have their benefits. Consider your circumstances; your performance needs, goals and physical requirements and adjust accordingly. Be watchful for and address any asymmetry in tension between left and right sides. Most importantly, listen to your body and NEVER force the stretch! Have fun playing with these folks - a bendier you is just around the corner!