Every time I see someone bent over doing a hamstring stretch, a tiny tear forms in the corner of my eye. No, it isn’t because my allergies are acting up again or because I just chopped up some onions. You see, this tiny tear was born from the following:
- Sadness, because I know the person is only making things worse.
- Anger, that is directed at the massive misinformation that is rampant in EVERY fitness magazine on the shelves.
- Frustration, knowing that people aren’t born doing the wrong thing and that means somebody had to teach this ridiculous stretch.
- Confusion, as to why this has been allowed to continue on for so long.
I will be the first one to admit, I don’t like crying in public, not because it’s embarrassing, but rather because I don’t usually carry any tissue with me to wipe away the inevitable snot bubbles I’ll be creating. Nobody likes snot bubbles my friend.
So how am I going to minimize the chance of me crying in reaction to this oft maligned activity? Well, I figure the best thing to do is whip up this here article giving YOU the reader a little more info so you can do the right thing the next time you are tempted to bend over and touch your toes for no good reason at all. I like to think of it as me saving the world, one hamstring at a time.
First, let me start with a quote (and NO, this wasn’t said by Albert Einstein):
“EVERYONE IS A GENIUS. BUT IF YOU JUDGE A FISH BY ITS ABILITY TO CLIMB A TREE, IT WILL LIVE ITS WHOLE LIFE BELIEVING THAT IT IS STUPID.”
It’s a fun quote to say the least, but let me change it around a little bit to better fit our topic at hand. Here is my version of how it should be said:
“EVERY TOOL HAS A PURPOSE. BUT IF YOU JUDGE THE VALUE OF A HAMMER BY ITS ABILITY TO CHANGE A LIGHT BULB, WELL, YOU NEED TO STAY OUT OF THE TOOLBOX.”
You might be wondering, what does this have to do with stretching your hamstrings? Well, something to keep in mind as we go along, is that ALL exercises (yes, that includes stretching) are basically tools that can be used for good. The challenge for most people is lining up the fitness goal with the correct exercise tool. The truth is that doing a hamstring stretch by bending over to touch your toes, has a value. The problem is that the vast majority of the people doing this stretch are NOT doing it for the right reason.
So, why do we stretch any of our muscles? Well, there are plenty of good reasons to stretch.
- Your sport requires you to be flexible (gymnastics, ballet, jiu jitsu, full contact Twister)
- You are rehabbing an injury and need to return normal/full range of motion to a joint/muscle
- You have over-shortened muscles that are causing abnormal movement and/or pain
- It feels good
All of these are great reasons to stretch, but the problem is, most people are not stretching their hamstrings for any of these reasons. The vast majority of people stretch with the false hopes of eliminating muscle soreness due to exercise, to improve athletic performance or to prevent injuries. Sadly the science does NOT tell us that one can achieve any of these results, rather, the exact opposite is true. Mechanically lengthening (stretching) a muscle that is already sore from exercise, causes additional trauma to said muscle, thereby slowing the healing process. Stretching muscles prior to activity “loosens” them up, also known as decreasing muscle tone. When muscle tone decreases, they are less able to generate force so performance goes down, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, loosened muscles can no longer keep the joint(s) they interact with as tight (safe from moving improperly), thereby increasing injury opportunity
Wait a minute. What? Stretching does NOT decrease the duration of muscle soreness due to exercise, it actually decreases athletic performance and increases opportunities for injuries? Say it ain’t so! (Take a peek at the included links to the scientific research so you don’t think I am just making stuff up)
Please let me be clear, I am NOT saying stretching is bad for you. What I am saying, is that each person needs to make sure they are stretching for the right reason and that said reason is backed by science that says it actually works. Science is our friend after all, so why not use it to our advantage?
Just so you don’t think my ADD dragged me completely off course from our main topic, the hamstrings, let me tell you a little about what DOES work when you just have this feeling that the backs of your legs are needing a good stretch. Now, we understand better than ever that stretching for the wrong reasons can be detrimental, so what the heck are you supposed to do when your hamstrings feel like overtightened piano wires? This feeling you are experiencing is most likely due to your hamstrings being overactive and in an over lengthened (stretched too far) position throughout the day because you sit around too much, lengthening your hamstrings across the hip joint. Over lengthening any muscle will cause it to want to contract in an effort to return to normal length and this is why your hamstrings feel “tight.” On the couch, in the car, at your work desk and on the toilet (some more than others), we all tend to sit way more than our bodies were ever meant to. It is just part of how our worlds have evolved, so instead of pretending like we are going to change that in your day to day life, let’s look at what we can do to help out those overactive, over lengthened and just plain angry hamstrings.
- First of all, do NOT stretch your hamstrings or you run the risk of making them feel tighter than they already are. Stretching an already over lengthened muscle is a recipe for disaster to say the least.
- To relax those overactive hamstrings, grab yourself a foam roller and check out my article I wrote ensuring you get the most out of this fantastic tool.
- Now that those angry hammies are relaxed a little more, you may want to strengthen them a little bit (hamstrings are often under developed and injury prone) by doing some hip extension exercises like kettlebell swings, various types of squats or even hop on the rower.
Stretching has its place in your fitness routine, so don’t go giving up on it just yet. All I am encouraging is for everyone to make sure they are doing it for the right reasons. Remember that hammer and light bulb thing I talked about before? Yeah, don’t do that and you should be just fine.
Jason Parsons, NASM Certified Personal Trainer | Certified Mixed Martial Arts Conditioning Coach – City Athletic Club (Las Vegas) | Follow Jason on Twitter: @JasonMParsons
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