Chances are you're stretching your hamstrings all wrong. From an early age, you were taught that touching your toes is the key to stretching your hamstrings, which looks something like this:
According to Matt Ibrahim, a Boston-based strength coach and owner of Movement Resilience, the common bent-over or leaning forward to touch your toes hamstring stretches shown above have two main problems.
They're not an effective way to stretch your hamstrings
With these old-school stretches, your goal is to get as close to touching your toes as possible. Then you just sort of hang in this sloppy position, which can actually place more stress on your body than it relieves.
"You are really yanking on your muscles, ligaments and nerves," Ibrahim says.
This may cause your central nervous system to signal your hamstrings to tighten—the exact thing you're trying to correct—as a way to protect your muscles from damage. Even though you probably feel a stretch in your hamstrings, in the long term it won't relieve any tightness or tension.
Also, relying on this type of exercise to warm up and loosen your hamstrings does little to prepare you for lifting, running or sports. Rather, it gives you a false sense of security that your hamstrings are ready to go, when in reality they are just as tight as before you did the stretch.
It's terrible for your back
Few people have the hamstring flexibility to touch their toes, but plenty of people can do it. How is this possible? They compensate for their tight hamstrings by rounding their lower back.
Considering how many people suffer from lower-back pain, this isn't a smart idea. "What we really want to do is crank down and push your vertebrae out of your back," jokes Ibrahim.
If you have a healthy lower back, this type of stretch probably won't cause a back injury. But if you have regular lower back pain, it has the potential to put even more stress on your injury and cause pain.
There are better ways to stretch your hamstrings that are less risky.
How to Properly Stretch Your Hamstrings
Ibrahim has a simple four-exercise circuit to improve hamstring flexibility and prepare the muscles for activity. The combination of the four exercises reduces hamstring tension, increases length and takes the hamstring through a dynamic movement so it's ready to handle stress from sprinting and heavy lifting on exercises like Deadlifts.
You can add this four-exercise hamstring routine to your dynamic warm-up or perform it if your hamstrings are feeling exceptionally tight. For best results, repeat the circuit 2-3 times.
In the video above, Ibrahim provides a demonstration for each of the exercises.
Hamstring Foam Roll
Foam rolling your hamstrings basically tells your central nervous system to chill out, which reduces the amount of tension in the muscle. This is the simplest way to improve hamstring flexibility without even stretching your muscle.
Reps: 5 (up and down your leg) each side
Single-Leg Lowering stretches your hamstring, increases mobility at yours hips and activates your core muscles. It helps make sure you have the flexibility, range of motion and core stability to move your hamstring with no assistance from your lower back muscles—a common cause of lower-back pain.
Reps: 5 each side
Single-Leg Hamstring Floss
Hamstring Flossing puts tension on your hamstring from a bent to a straight leg position. This again stretches the hamstring while decreasing tension within the muscle. It's an amazing exercise that can be performed on its own for a quick hamstring fix.
Reps: 5 each side
The final movement in the sequence is a dynamic exercise that ties the previous three together into a movement that helps prepare the hamstrings for explosive exercises.
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