A User’s Guide to Hamstrings

f you’re interested in reading more on ideas presented in the article below, I suggest reading Alignment Matters.  If you’d like movement instruction via video, start with Alignment Snacks: Quads and Hams.

As promised (800 car-trip miles later), The Hamstring Blog.

Some quick hamstring tidbits:

1.The “hamstrings” are really three separate muscles: Biceps femoris, semimembranosis, and the semitendinosis.

2. The hamstring group passes over both the hip and the knee joint, which means it connects the pelvis to the shins. The thigh bone is held snug in the hip socket by this muscle group. Sometime too snug (see#8).

3. When at its correct length, the hamstring group allow the pelvis, thigh, and lower leg to be positioned in “neutral”, which means positioned optimally for force production and joint salvation. Like this:

4. The hamstrings are commonly listed as knee flexors (muscles that bend the knee) but this muscle group should ideally be used as a hip extensor (muscles that pull the thigh backward relative to the pelvis), when walking.

5. The backward motion of hip extension *should* be the primary motion used to propel the body forward when walking (think of an ice skater pushing back against the ice to move forward), but instead, modern living has reversed our natural gait pattern and now we just lift a leg out in front and fall forward. Ow.

6. Chronic sitting and/or chronic pelvis tucking move the hamstring muscles’ attachment sites toward each other, which requires the muscle to tighten. Why? Muscles are not allowed to slop around in the body — if you postural habits put slack in the line, the muscles respond accordingly and reduce their length.

7. When the hamstrings are really (really) tight, they can prevent the knees from straightening or the pelvis from untucking. A tucked pelvis is the primary cause of pelvic floor disorders. For strong pelvic floors, lengthening the hamstrings is a requirement! You need a neutral pelvis to prevent organ prolapse!

8. When the hamstrings are really tight, joint space in the knees and hips is reduced and becomes asymmetrical front to back, which increases friction. Which makes heat. Which makes inflammation. Which prevents cells in the cartilage from regenerating. Boo.

**If you don’t have time to read all of the above points, they basically say that tight hamstrings are the root problem for knee, hip, low back, and pelvic floor issues and that muscles become tight by postural habits.

Why are my hamstrings so tight?

While it seems like there could be a hundred different situations that can affect human tissue, it is probably one of the four reasons listed here:

1. You sit a billion hours a day.

2. You tuck your pelvis because you think you should.

3. You wear shoes will a heel (any heel!) which causes your knees to bend or pelvis to tuck to balance the geometry, which causes the hamstrings to shorten.

4. Your psoas* tucks your pelvis, which causes the hamstrings to shorten (this is a result of high levels of psychological stress, lots of athletics or fitness, or certain postural habits).

5. You don’t have a natural gait pattern (and no one does any more, really) so these muscles are fairly inert and tighten due to underuse.

*Psoas tension is a common culprit in hamstring issues. The mechanics are a bit complicated, but if you are interested in the physics of the psoas, how it affects the spine, pelvis, and legs, and the exercise program to address it, check out this three-hour online course (click here).

And now, what you’ve all been waiting for…

How to Stretch Your Hamstrings.

There is basically just a couple guidelines to getting the hams to their optimal length (the one that allows the knee to straighten and the pelvis to rest in neutral on the thigh).

DON’T BEND YOUR KNEES while stretching.

DON’T TUCK THE PELVIS while stretching.

Here is a picture of my favorite hamstring Rx…erciseTM, the Strap Stretch with What To Look Out For (click on the picture to blow it up):Because the muscle passes over the knee and hip joint, moving the pelvis or changing the knee joint angle during Strap Stretch is a “cheat” and leaves the hamstrings the same old length as when you started.

If you ever go to a yoga class, there are always a ton of people with the leg all the way up, blocking the sun out of their eyes. Try this: place a hand towel under the mid-hamstring point, and make sure you can’t pull it out when doing this stretch. You may find that you need to lower the stretching leg almost all the way to the floor to find your true hamstring length.

Forward Bends – Flexibility vs. Mobility

Here’s a little anatomy tidbit: The term flexibility applies to muscle. The term mobility applies to joints.

The moving of the pelvis during the hamstring stretch means that you aren’t stretching your hamstrings at all but are distorting the lower back joints (lumbar vertebrae) instead. People who are “hypermobile” typically rearrange their body so they don’t stretch their muscles, but instead stress the joints above or below that muscle group.

In a nutshell: People who are hypermobile actually have poor muscle flexibility. And stretching is difficult because these folks don’t *feel* anything in a stretch because they open the joints — not the muscles.

Example: The forward bend

Forward bends should help the user find the hamstrings, but most people bend from the spine, not from the hips or bend the knees to get to the floor. Here is my best attempt at drawing the difference…

Moral of the the forward-bend story is this; Once the pelvis stops moving on a forward bend, so should the rest of your torso. Especially if you have any issues in the hips, knees, of lower back.

Common question: Should I bend my knees to go farther then?

Common Katy Answer: If you bend your knees, then 1) you’re not stretching your hamstrings and 2) you are making your low back hold the load of your upper body. If you are using forward bends to improve muscle length and strength, then it is better to stay within your range of motion — even if it means you lose the beautiful sweeping motions you used to do in class. Replace it while mindfully honoring your current muscular boundary. You will make much more progress and do a better service to your body.

Note: I am an excellent biomechanist. Really, I am. I am NOT a very good graphic artist. So let’s hear it for some lukewarm graphic artistry skills! {crowd responds with a loud cheer!} My favorite is the squiggly spinal column.

I am awesome.

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55 thoughts on “A User’s Guide to Hamstrings

  1. Love how we need billowy curtains and hair/makeup done! There was out-loud laughing here.

    When you do the double calf stretch on a half-dome, is that doing anything to stretch the hamstrings? What if all you feel in that exercise is excruciating pain in your upper calf? (And this is after doing the single and double-calf stretches every day for 3 months.) Thanks for all the additional tips on this hamstring stretch; I’m going to try it out right away!

    1. Yes, when you untuck your tail, that gets the hams, try the d.c.s without anything under the feet – that will reduce the lower leg tension and give you a break 🙂

  2. Thanks Katy. And to add, external rotation of the femurs zeros in on that hamstring stretch even more.

  3. I am giving a YELP for help- can a desperate mom get another creative drawing or video that shows how to carry really fat babies and not compensate by tucking under the pelvis or sticking out a hip?

    Also- what is the best way to learn how to walk for someone who is not near your institute? (and probably not any people with healthy gaits to copy!) Which of your DVD’s address this?

    And again- THANKS FOR THE BLOG! I have pre-ordered your book, but as I am waiting, I am printing up your blog archive!

    1. Yes! I hear you 🙂 best way to learn is to become the teacher! I teach the full program online and if you can’t do the whole thing then at least listen to all the free hours of course content at http://www.restorativeexercise.com!!! I’ll try to do a baby carry post shortly. Probably video 🙂

      1. YAY! I feel about videos the way that you feel about sitting (for short periods when necessary?) but a baby carrying video would be excellent! I am guessing that long term, it will be something to work up to, like the family walk.

        I think I am catching on that you are teaching us to work hard all day long with great posture….I am wondering why I am so excited about that….

        Your General Alignment class looks DELICIOUS, but I am going to let myself flit around before committing. I am interested for my own health and for my kids education, but teaching people how to be healthy sounds THRILLING (especially if they are actually interested in what I have to say!- I am burning out my family and friends!- my kids are happy to hear that if I get rid of the couch, they can have the cushions.)!

        How do you recommend your RESes go about teaching/training other people? What has that looked like for your RESes so far?

  4. I can easily get the lifted leg straight up with a straight knee but no matter how I wiggle or move I can’t get the thigh of the resting leg on the floor, any suggestions?

    1. Sounds like super tight hams and psoas. Put your torso up on stacked pillows – then, whatever joint angle you have at the hip is equal to the shortness in the trunk. Stretch your hams in that position. Also, consider the psoas course (it bass tons of info and video exercise class). A tight psoas needs to be realty with ASAP. It does a number on the entire body!

  5. Katy,

    You mention hypermobility. My chiropractor said that I have hypermobile hips. I don’t feel stretches much unless I REALLY stretch hard.

    Are hypermobility & PFD linked?

    And, if hypermobile, how does one correct it and use their muscles instead of joints?

    1. Your chiro says hypermobile hips but I’m sure he/she/it means hypermobile lower back (read this blog again to review the difference. What do you do? You learn where joints should move and where they shouldn’t. Start with the hAms vs the low back. And yes; the more you work from the lumbar spine and not the hips, the weaker the pelvic muscles!

  6. Excellent! I tried it paying attention to keeping the curve in my spine. I could feel my hamstrings and found I could not touch the floor with my palms. I was actually about 2 inches above the floor. Given that we want that spinal curve to remain is it possible to get finger tips to the floor eventually? Thanks

    1. Yes! As you find your hamstrings, this gives them the tug (then electricity, then blood flow) they need to lengthen your neutral spine to the floor! Cool, huh?

  7. Yikes! I couldn’t get the backs of my thighs to touch the floor with BOTH legs on the floor, until I consciously untucked my pelvis all the way, causing a space under my back that I think one of my kids could crawl through. Confession: I was thinking all this time that since my butt usually sticks out, I couldn’t possibly be tucking my pelvis, but apparently I really need to revisit the post about rib-thrusting!

    1. Awesome! You totally get it! When you have that huge space, psoas psoas psoas!!! I am so happy that you figured out the rib thrusting piece on your own! Can I say “alignment natural”?

  8. How well do traditional splits work to stretch the hamstrings and hip flexors (psoas?) when done properly (square hips, completely upright, neutral back)?

    1. If the pelvis and spine is in biomechanics neutral, then the psoas can be stretched, but it is common th significantly thrust and shear the thoracic spine (think the arched back of a gymnast) when doing them negates the stretch. I’d love to see a pic of “neutral splits” – you got one? More than stretching, the psoas really needs to be released. Those things are different.

  9. You’ve been talking about keeping your shins perpendicular to the ground when squatting. Is it the same for a forward bend? It feels off-balance to me. Perhaps I’m overthinking this.

    1. No need to keep vertical shins– in fact, the mire you let you hips drift back, the more you’ll stretch the hams.

  10. Thanks so much for this post Katy. Another great and really useful one. A simple question and I think I know the answer, just want it 100% sure, when you say ‘Try this: place a hand towel under the mid-hamstring point, and make sure you can’t pull it out when doing this stretch.’ you mean the towel is under the leg on the floor?

    1. Yah-but only as a tactile cue. Once you get your leg to the ground and really get what that means/feels like, you can get rid of it!

  11. There are a lot of other hamstring stretches out there and they commonly mention modifications for people that are unable to stand and bend due to medical issues and/or balance issues as well. For example a spinoff of the hamstring stretch you’ve shown above is usually done while sitting on the ground and touching the toes, however I think that would incorporate the lowback rather than the pelvis. Is there a modification for the stretch you’ve shown above for people who are unable to stand and bend forward?

    1. Yes, hamstring stretches are commonly modified, making them less useful unfortunately! If one can’t forward bend due to hamstring limitation then doing a seated version wouldn’t work either — a joint limitation won’t change due to spatial arrangement. The best option would be starting wig the first hamstring exercise in the post. It’s on the floor but has specific enough guidelines to keep you out of the low back. And, unless you balance issue or injury is so severe that you are told not to be up and walking around, bending forward 5 or 10 degrees to find the ham muscles, keeping eyes open to asked balance, should not cause any issues.

      1. Just thought of something — you can sit on something on the flor – stacking off higher and higher until your lumbar curve shows up (for some, there aren’t enough pillow in the house) and then tip your pelvis forward an inch or so to find the hams that way…

  12. Awesome post, thanks! One question though, I’ve noticed that my toes get tingly (like I’m losing circulation) fairly quickly when I’m doing forward bends. I’m pretty tight, so I’m not bending that far. Is this an indication of poor alignment in the stretch, or is it just because I’m so tight?

    1. Try adding external rotation. There’s a video for it on the post called all about your knees. And make sure you’re backed up all the way — toes should be liftable!

      1. Toes are liftable. I’ve been practicing my external rotation every time I stand since the yoga toes post, but I still get tingly after 1 minute in the double calf stretch. Is there a way to line up feet and knees in the strap stretch? I don’t know how to get my knees to externally rotate without the friction of my feet on the floor.

  13. the suggestion to place a hand towel under the thigh is a million dollar suggestion. I had not the faintest

    idea how much I was “cheating”. Life can be so simple when we understand. Thanks again Katy!!

  14. I knew I wasn’t flexible when I did the sit-and-reach test back in1st grade (CA public schools!) but I never knew it was all that bad. When I did this stretch last night I could raise my legs to about 30 degrees. If stretch everyday how long does it take for them to lengthen?

    I’m a huge sitter, and I even sleep on my side with my knees bent. “Muscles are not allowed to slop around in the body — if you postural habits put slack in the line, the muscles respond accordingly and reduce their length.” Wow. Does sleeping with bent knees put slack in the line, too?

    Hmm…I’ll ave to change some habits! Thanks, Katy!

  15. Love the towel feedback suggestion. I think this morning’s yoga class is going to be subtitled…let’s get real with our hamstrings! I’ll tell you…ever since I started going “heel-less” i n my shoes, stretching my calves more, did your psoas online class (and incorporated it), stopped rib thrusting…my already “feel pretty good” body has been feeling GREAT!


  16. Katy, I am new to your site. Your information is invaluable. Love your humor….makes learning fun and retainable!! 🙂

  17. I love all the graphics you did. As a visual person, I understand and learn faster if I can see it visually. My book request from you is “Biomechanics of Wellness” with graphics like you did on this blog.

  18. Katy, thanks for this great article! As a yoga teacher I’m very familiar with both the postures you illustrate. I do have some people bend their knees in forward fold (the super tight ones) b/c in my experience it does deliver a hamstring stretch, and more importantly it allows them to learn the proper way to hinge forward from the top of the femurs. This is mostly applicable to men, many of whom you have to work with a long time before they ‘get’ that pelvic tilt. When we do the transverse ab strengthener on all 4’s with the booty sticking up, all the ladies get it immediately but the fellows do not want to do ‘let that butt float up.’ Maybe they think it’s girly. Can’t wait to get home from the day job to explore pelvic tilt is supta pada gustasana! Keep up the great work!

    1. OMG! I am (uh, was, uh maybe) such a cheater. To get the back of both thighs to touch, just touch (not press into) the floor when reclined I have to tilt the pelvis so much that the lumbar spine is in a backbend! Yikes and hello psoas stretches. How could I go around thinking my psoas muscles were pretty OK?

    2. Actually, men and women have the same lack of hip motion commonly, but women are used to thrusting their ribs (to flatten stomach or lift the breasts.) Really make sure that what LOOKS like a hip-motion forward bend is actually the pelvis moving on the femur.

  19. hi katy,

    i’ve been reading up quite a bit today. have invested tons in chiro, pt, etc and am no longer in a spot to do so. 2 questions for you: 1- i am super flexible and am prone to both over-tuck, and over-extend the lordosis. i have trouble finding pelvic neutral. #6 on the way, some prolapse, tons SI pain, corkscrewed pelvis, posterior sacrum (the top is posterior and twisted). will the squats begin the work there?

    2- psoas. last pregnancy brought the awareness of the psoas with my chiro, who regularly adjusted by pressing in on the tight side to release. this helped baby’s position and my pelvic stability. i hear you mention the psoas often – is there another way to balance the psoas other than what i’ve described?

    love your passion! i feel similarly strongly about so many of these issues that affect us all… thanks so much for sharing your hard won empowering info!


    1. Jul: At this point, I would focus on the squat prep as it sounds like you aren’t able to “control” your body in different poses. Just doing a poorly aligned squat isn’t that beneficial and now isn’t really the time to start learning! The prep exercises are crucial, though, and easy to check yourself.

      Regarding the psoas, there is an entire protocol that I teach on the psoas webinar (lecture+class) that has the 7-8 things we do at the Institute to get it to the right length on both sides (great for baby positioning!)

      Thanks for your thanks too. I really appreciate it!

  20. Hi Katy,

    Great website and extremely useful articles, so thanks! I’m a novice Pilates teacher, so your articles are excellent at helping me to understand functionality of the body.

    Am trying to help one of my brother’s with extremely tight hamstrings.. they scare me they’re that tight and affect how he stands and walks. He’s played football for many years and now can’t ‘cos the hams are so tight.

    Katy, can I just check that when you say ‘the Pelvis tucked’ do you mean that it has a posterior tilt to it?

    I LOVE the drawings and humour, best I’ve seen and so really do help in understanding the words.

    Many thanks,

    Rachel, UK

  21. Hi, Thank you for this article, which I came accross this article while searching online for advice on how to stretch muscles when you have very mobile joints.

    I’ve been experiencing knee pain and was recently told by a physio that tight hamstrings, quads and piriformis may be to blame as they’re holding my pelvis and lower limbs out of alignment. This was a big surprise to me as I can touch the floor with flat palms (almost elbows!) with straight legs.

    This is confirmed in your article, and another I also found, but what I haven’t found anywhere is step by step advice on exactly how you can begin stretching your muscles rather than opening your joints. The physio wasn’t able to help either when I told him I can’t feel my muscles stretching when I performed the suggested stretches.

    Do you know of anywhere I could read more about this to learn how to properly stretch my muscles?

  22. You say wearing a heel (any heel) will shorten the hamstrings. Danskos are about the only shoes I can stand in for more than 5 minutes (due to chronic pain issues), but they are designed to be ergonomically correct. Do they still fall into the “any heel” category?

    1. Well, there are many Dansko styles. A heel is defined by how high the back of the sole of the shoe is higher than the front. I’m an advocate for flat footwear, but really it’s the exercises that get people out of the chronic body pain (read freee chapter at http://www.footpainbook.com to get the bigger picture!)

  23. And the (next) best hamstring stretch option for someone who teaches in a gym that doesn’t have straps is …?

  24. One more question – how can pregnancy affect one’s ability to get the backs of those thighs on the ground?

    1. Pregnancy doesn’t affect one’s abilities to get those legs down — only tight muscles do that!!

  25. I have a degree in Graphic Design and I can tell you that design is all about communicating, not just making something look “fancy”. The graphic drawings in this post communicated the point clearly to me so in my opinion this post includes good graphic design! Now I need to get off my butt and stretch my hammies…

  26. Okay,I just got down on the floor to see if the back of my thigh touches, and there is NO WAY. I don’t understand how it can. I’ve always thought I was very flexible. I can do the stretch just fine, leg straight and past 90 degrees, and my *calf* is pressing into the floor, but not the back of the thigh. I can’t make that actually press the floor without sitting up, even by arching my back mightily. My butt is in the way! I’ve never worn heels–mostly go barefoot–and I didn’t think I was a rib-thruster, but looking through comments, I guess I’ll go read up on that.

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  28. I do not know if it’s just me or if everybody else encountering problems with your blog.

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  29. Okay. So laying flat on the floor in neutral spine with slight curvature (what would be considered natural), my thighs touch the floor. However when I try to do straight leg lifts, bending from the hips to touch the floor with legs straight, all of these (and more) give me intense pain from the hamstrings near my knees through to the heel, on both legs. What do you think this is caused by and how should I fix this?

  30. dear katy. i had a stillborn baby 8 weeks ago. Yes, very sad but I am just telling you because I am not breast feeding so my recovery in the physical sense is going to be slower. I have your DR book and your down there dvd. Would you suggest me starting with that? Thank you. I appreciate your work a lot. From Peru 🙂

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