How often do you stretch your hamstrings and continue to do so on a daily basis because they don’t seem to loosen up? I’ll be honest, I did it for years. Would it frustrate you that the hamstrings might not actually be tight, but the problem is another muscle not functioning properly?
Here is a great quote by Gray Cook on foam rolling,
“Foam rolling should lead you to better movement. If it doesn’t, then you aren’t doing something right, and foam rolling may not be what you need.”
Now what if we just changed that around to relate to stretching?
“Stretching should lead to better flexibility. If it doesn’t then you aren’t doing something right, and stretching may not be what you need.”
It’s such a simple concept, right? Maybe what you are doing isn’t the right intervention.
Firstly, to help convey my point let’s talk about anatomy. The hamstrings are a biarticular muscle, which means they cross both the hip and knee joints. For the purpose of this post, we will only talk about the hamstring as a muscle that extends the hip. Is the hamstring in the best anatomical position to be a hip extensor? No, not at all. Especially when you have such a strong and powerful muscle like the gluteus maximus to perform this motion.
Overworking of the hamstring to extend the hip is a simple case of synergistic dominance. A synergist is a muscle whose job is to assist with movement, NOT be the prime mover. Here the hamstring becomes the dominant muscle to complete hip extension when the gluteus maximus should be the prime mover. So what happens as a result of this dysfunctional hip extension? Yup, you got it- TIGHTNESS! Plain and simple the hamstring is being overworked. Every time you run and extend your hip backwards to propel the body forward, you are doing so with the wrong muscle which increases stress and tension. Cramping is also a common symptom in the hamstrings when the gluteus maximums isn’t properly functioning.
What this all boils down to is a common case of gluteal amnesia. So wait, my butt is asleep? Yup! Instead of focusing your efforts of flexibility maybe you should switch your attention to proper hip extension work by using the gluteus maximus. Below are a few exercises to get you started. See how much flexibility you can gain in the hamstrings by strengthening the gluteus maximus properly!
This quadruped hip extension is a great activation exercise. While maintaining a neutral spine and NEVER extending your hip up so high that your lower back hyperextends, try to focus on feeling the gluteus maximus contract with each movement. Many people often say, “I can do the movement, but I don’t feel anything happening.”
Do NOT rush through these bridging exercises. Ideally we would do them 3x a week starting with the hip lift. The first week do 2-3 sets of 8 repetitions, the second week do 10 repetitions, and the third week do 12 repetitions, hold each for 3 seconds. Then move on to the next progression while following the same format.
Let’s be honest, regardless of hamstring tightness or not, the majority of people could benefit from some good glute activation and strengthening work. It is essential, especially for distance athletes and preventing lower back problems. Make sure to try the exercises above, your hamstrings will thank you!
Garrett McLaughlin is an athletic trainer, personal trainer, and certified active release techniques provider in the Nashville area. He is passionate about helping others not only achieve their health & fitness goals but make them move better in the process. Contact Garrett for top quality advice on improving your running performance and reducing the chance of injury to stay running longer!