Overview

The hamstring is a group of three muscles that run up the back of your thigh. Sports that involve a lot of sprinting or stop-and-start movement, like soccer and tennis, may cause tightness in your hamstrings. So can activities like dancing and running.

Keeping these muscles loose is important. Tight hamstrings may be more prone to strain or tearing. There’s also a difference between tightness and injury. If you feel pain in your hamstring, it’s best to see a doctor before attempting to treat your injury at home.

There are a number of exercises and stretches that you can do to help keep your hamstrings loose. It’s a good idea to warm up your muscles before stretching. Try taking a walk or doing some other activity so your muscles are warm.

Never stretch while you’re in pain or try to force a stretch. Breathe normally while doing stretching exercises. Try to incorporate hamstring stretches into your routine at least two or three days each week.

Stretches to loosen tight hamstrings

Stretches are one of the easiest ways to relieve tight hamstrings. They can be done almost anywhere and require little or no equipment.

Lying hamstring stretch I

  1. Lie down on the ground with your back flat and your feet on the ground, knees bent.
  2. Slowly bring your right knee to your chest.
  3. Extend the leg while keeping the knee slightly bent. You may use a yoga strap or rope to deepen your stretch, but don’t tug on it too hard.
  4. Hold for 10 seconds and work up to 30 seconds.

Repeat with your other leg. Then repeat this stretch with each leg two to three times total.

Lying hamstring stretch II

  1. Lie down on the ground with your back flat and your legs extended fully. For this stretch, you’ll also want to be near the corner of a wall or doorway.
  2. Raise your right leg, keeping the knee slightly bent, and place your heel on the wall.
  3. Slowly straighten your right leg until you feel a stretch in your hamstring.
  4. Hold for 10 seconds and work up to 30 seconds.

Repeat with your other leg. Then repeat this stretch with each leg a couple more times. As you gain more flexibility, try moving yourself closer to the wall for a deeper stretch.

Seated hamstring stretch I

  1. Sit on the ground in a butterfly position.
  2. Extend your right leg with your knee slightly bent.
  3. Then bend forward at your waist over your right leg.
  4. You may hold your lower leg for support, but don’t force the stretch.
  5. Hold for 10 seconds and work up to 30 seconds.

Repeat with your other leg. Repeat this stretch with each leg two to three times total.

Seated hamstring stretch II

  1. Grab two chairs and place them facing one another.
  2. Sit in one chair with your right leg extended onto the other chair.
  3. Lean forward until you feel a stretch in your hamstring.
  4. Hold this stretch for 10 seconds and work up to 30 seconds.

Repeat with your left leg and then again with each leg a couple more times.

Standing hamstring stretch

  1. Stand with your spine in a neutral position.
  2. Then place your right leg in front of you. Bend your left knee slightly.
  3. Gently lean forward while placing your hands on your bent right leg.
  4. Be sure to keep your back straight to avoid hunching over your leg.
  5. Hold this stretch for 10 seconds and work up to 30 seconds.

Repeat with your other leg, and again with both legs two to three times total.

Yoga

Yoga stretches can also help with tight hamstrings. If you’re taking a class, mention to your teacher that your hamstring muscles are tight. They may have modifications you can try or specific poses that may help.

Downward Dog

  1. Start on the floor on your hands and knees. Then lift your knees up and send your tailbone toward the ceiling.
  2. Straighten your legs slowly. Tight hamstrings may make this pose difficult, so you can keep your knees bent slightly. Just make sure to keep a straight spine.
  3. Take a few deep breaths or hold for however long your instructor directs you to.

Extended Triangle Pose

  1. Start in a standing position. Then move your legs about three to four feet apart.
  2. Reach your arms out parallel to the ground with your palms facing down.
  3. Turn your right foot in toward the left and your left foot out 90 degrees. Keep your heels in line with one another.
  4. Slowly bend your torso over your left leg and reach your left hand to the floor or a yoga block for support. Stretch your right arm toward the ceiling.
  5. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds, or however long your instructor directs you to.
  6. Repeat on the other side.

Foam roll hamstrings

Foam rollers can help stretch out and loosen your muscles. Most gyms have foam rollers you can use. If you don’t belong to a gym, or if your gym doesn’t have foam rollers, consider buying your own if you regularly get tight hamstrings.

To roll out your hamstrings:

  1. Sit on the floor with your foam roller under your right thigh. Your left leg may stay on the ground for support.
  2. With your arms behind you, roll your hamstring, the entire back of your thigh, from the bottom of your buttocks to your knee.
  3. Focus on your abdominal muscles during this exercise. Keep your core engaged and your back straight.
  4. Continue slowly rolling for 30 seconds to 2 minutes total.

Repeat with the other leg. Try to roll out your hamstrings three times each week.

Foam rollers can also be used to relieve back pain and loosen various muscles in your body, including your glutes, calves, and quads.

Massage therapy

If you’d rather not massage your hamstrings on your own, consider making an appointment with a licensed massage therapist. Massage therapists use their hands to manipulate the muscles and other soft tissues in the body. Massage may help with anything from stress to pain to muscle tension.

Your primary care doctor may help refer you to a therapist, or you may search the American Massage Therapy Association’s database to find practitioners in your area. Massage is covered under some insurance plans, but not all. Call your provider before setting up your appointment.

If your sessions aren’t covered, some offices offer sliding scale pricing.

Physical therapy

Physical therapy (PT) may be best if your hamstrings are chronically tight or strained. You may or may not need a referral to see a physical therapist. It’s best to check with your insurance provider before setting up an appointment. You can find local practitioners near you by searching the American Physical Therapy Association’s database.

At your first appointment, your physical therapist may ask you about your medical history and the activities or sports you like to do. They may also perform tests to assess your hamstrings.

Your physical therapist will then guide you in a variety of stretches, exercises, and other treatments that are specific to your individual needs. The number of appointments you need will depend on your unique goals. You’ll also be expected to incorporate the stretches you learn into your daily routine.

Prevention

There are a few things you can do to stop tightness before it starts. You can also ask your doctor for specific conditioning exercises that may help.

  • Warm up before engaging in different sports or other intense activities. At least 10 minutes of walking, light jogging, or easy calisthenics may help prevent hamstring tightness.
  • Regular hamstring stretches before and after your activities may also help prevent tightness. Try to take three to five minutes before and after your sports or activities to stretch.
  • Keep your body strong overall, not just specific to your activities.
  • Eat a healthy diet, and drink plenty of water to fuel and replenish your muscles.

When to see your doctor

Make an appointment with your doctor if your hamstrings are often tight and painful. Pain that doesn’t go away may be a sign of injury.

Other symptoms that may signal an injury are:

  • sudden, sharp pain
  • popping or tearing sensation
  • swelling or tenderness
  • bruising or discoloration
  • muscle weakness

You may be able to treat a mild strain at home using RICE (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) and over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers. If you can’t take more than four steps without feeling tremendous pain, make an appointment to see your doctor. Severe strains may involve a complete tearing of the muscle. Some may even require surgery.

Takeaway

Don’t let tight hamstrings slow you down. With a little tender loving care and some regular stretching, you can keep your muscles loose and ready for action.

Try to incorporate different stretches into your routine about three times each week. Ease into stretches gently.

If you feel pain or have other concerns, don’t hesitate to make an appointment with your doctor.

All photos courtesy of Active Body. Creative Mind.