Too long, too short or too weak – just what’s up with those hamstrings? Tight hamstrings are a common complaint for a lot of folks. In fact amongst my yoga students this is usually the first moan and groan I hear upon approaching a forward fold like Uttanasana. “Oh my hamstrings are so tight” or “I can’t even touch my toes” are expressions commonly heard in a yoga class. Yet, tightness in hamstrings can also be felt if hamstrings are hyper-extended (due to postural maladies such as an overly anteriorly-tilted pelvis) in which case stretching them further might only compound the range of problems the student is already facing. This is something that yoga instructors need to be wary of since we are by way of pedagogical upbringing, flexibility biased. There needs to be greater awareness and empathy for overall muscular-skeletal balance and a better understanding of what might be causing those imbalances before implementing a yoga plan and solution. Problems that look the same may not always stem from the same causes. Thus applying the same uniform approach can pose risks for vulnerable students.
Secondly, your hamstrings can seem “tight” (either from being overly contracted or lengthened ) and weak at the same time. Unfortunately hamstring muscular weakness is also often overlooked in the world of fitness due to an over emphasis on quad strengthening and appearance thus adding further imbalance to postural alignment and stability.
For a discussion on alignment techniques and cues for forward flexion, visit my earlier article where I cover more technical issues around classical yoga postures and how to approach these from a safety perspective as you advance from primary to more advanced postures. This article looks more closely at forward flexion practice AROUND the hamstring set of muscles and how specific weaknesses demand a more considered solution that might involve the strengthening of other muscle groups.
Hamstring Group of Muscles
The muscle within the hamstring group most prone to injury is a muscle known as the Bicep Femoris. Along with the Semitendinosus and Semimembranosus, they make up the 3 muscles that form the hamstring complex that originate from and attach to your sitbones. Hamstring muscles help stabilise your hips, walking, running, and in particular, with the deceleration of these movements on the downward motion. This means along with the gluteal muscle complex, hamstrings play a significant role in helping reduce pressure on knee and ankle joints for athletes when sprinting and jumping. Hamstring strains are one of the most commonly experienced injuries in amongst athletes who engage in sprinting and explosive movements. Muscular tightness is often cited as a key factor contributing towards hamstring injuries. However, hyper-extended hamstring muscles, in particular the bicep femoris due to excessive lordosis of the lower back ( excessive anterior pelvic tilt ) can also create tightness that can contribute towards a higher risk of hamstring strains.
Too Tight, Too Long, Too Weak
Practitioners often approach yoga classes with the intention of improving flexibility. Mainstream yoga has perpetuated the image of hyper – flexible yogis contorting their bodies into deep backbends or meditating whilst hips and legs are resting in lotus pose. The most commonly expressed desire I hear from students is to be able to touch one’s toes and no where is this more ritually tested than in the second posture of the Sun Salutation A sequence known as Uttanasana or the standing forward fold.
By way of good standard physiotherapy and movement mechanics discipline, the ability to forward flex to ninety degrees whilst keeping the back in neutral spinal alignment is a great position for any healthy body to be in. However, this is rarely thought to be enough in a yoga environment as practitioners, inspired by images of extreme flexibility test the limits of their own flexibility by going much further than what a healthy functional body requires. This is sometimes okay but other times, it may not be in the practitioner’s interest depending on what the state of the hamstrings may be in the first place.
We experience feeling “tight” in the hamstrings with the effect that our forward flexion movement is restricted below the 90 degree angle when the muscles are over – contracted due to excessive workload or training. This is a common scenario and where this is the case, yoga postures that involve forward flexion and the stretching of the hamstrings are extremely helpful.
However, another common scenario resulting in the feeling of “tightness” in the hamstrings can be caused by poor posture. This often presents itself as an excessively arched lower back involving anterior pelvic tilt. It can be caused by differing weaknesses within the body but most commonly, tight (and weak) hip flexors and weak lower abdominals go hand in hand to create this type of postural misalignment. When the body is chronically in excessive lordosis, the sit bones where the hamstring muscles attach to constantly tug at the hamstrings thus causing sometimes, a feeling of soreness or tightness that can prevent full range of forward flexion movement. When this happens, extreme stretching through yoga can compound a problem and cause additional tears. This type of injury is common amongst yoga teachers and ballerinas due to the nature of the type of extreme stretching we engage in. Thus before you encourage a student to go beyond the 90 degree forward fold, consider if there are any pre-existing muscular or postural imbalances that first require fixing. A colleague of mine describes the hamstring injury as the injury of a thousand tears. Rarely is it ever an injury that comes from one particular incident or accident but rather the product of cumulative stress and disruption to the muscle tissue over a period of time.
A More Conservative Approach to Forward Folding In Yoga
I am a great advocate of safe rather than sorry particularly when teaching in a larger class with students of differing abilities. When working through a Sun Salutation Sequence where flowing with very little time for adjustments or detailed explanations, I normally exhibit Uttanasana or Forward Fold as a 90 degree fold max, and focus my cues on lengthening of the spine and encourage students to simply place their hands on their thighs. I do this for many good reasons:
- the majority of the population are unable to fold with good alignment beyond the 90 degree model thus risk lower to middle back misalignment which can result in disc herniation where repeated over and over again over a long period of time;
- Focusing on spine-lengthening encourages good practice and fundamentals for ALL other aspects of your practice where a neutral spine is integral to ease of movement from one posture to the next;
- As discussed, you can unwittingly cause more tears to hamstring attachments where a proper postural alignment diagnosis has not been made ruling out excessive lordosis in the spine.
Most likely, students of greater flexibility and more advanced practice will adjust their folds according to their level of flexibility and confidence in spite of your more restrained verbal and physical cues anyway so adjust your cues for the most vulnerable in the class.
Best Yoga Stretch for Restricted Hamstrings
My favourite hamstring stretch from a safety perspective whilst we tread along the safe rather than sorry route is Supta Padangusthasana or Reclining Big Toe with strap. The reason why I love this so much for all students but particularly for those with restricted hamstrings is because your back is much more protected from bad alignment that can easily happen when standing.
This reclining pose gives you all the benefits of the hamstring stretch of Uttanasana without the stress on the spinal discs and lower back. I normally get my students to use a strap and get them to focus on lengthening the thigh bone whilst engaging the quad as they draw the leg towards the 90 degree angle. Also due to its asymmetrical nature where you are working the leg one at a time, a student can assess differing levels of tightness and contraction through the hamstring and hip complex on either side of the body, which is much more difficult to sense when performing this stretch whilst standing on two feet. Hamstring injuries often happen on one side rather than on both sides at the same time. As muscular skeletal imbalances tend to occur on one side of the body, hamstring constriction typically can be much worse on one side of the body also. Stretching in an asymmetrical pose such as Reclining Big Toe allows one to assess and correct specific problem areas.
Best Yoga Stretch for Weak Hamstrings
When are your hamstrings too weak? The hamstring it is said should equate somewhere between 50 – 80 % of the strength of the quad. Some considerations:
- Quads tend to generally be a bigger muscle;
- We are frontal and anterior muscle appearance biased. Thus when working out we tend to overwork the quad and forget about the hamstring. As such this makes a muscle which is already typically bigger even more unbalanced in relation to its antagonistic counterpart. This is terrible for knee stability since the hamstring serves to stabilise and protect the joints of the knees upon extension. Forceful knee bends when kicking a ball for example can place tremendous force on the knee joint with no compensatory comeback from the hamstring that is designed to soften opposing action from the quadricep.
- Women generally speaking have weaker hamstrings and more susceptible to knee injuries – this all being consistent with the theory of quad to hamstring ratio imbalance leading to knee injuries;
- Quads tend to be more conditioned generally speaking just from daily movement patterns.
Quite simply, you need to focus on hamstring strengthening, particularly if you suffer from chronic knee pain and a healthy dosage of glute conditioning and visits to the podiatrist and physio to cure that flat foot has not alleviated knee problems. It may be that your hamstring to glute strength ratio is out of whack.
Here are some great options for hamstring strengthening through yoga:
- Locust pose or Shalabasana. Place a folded towel underneath the public bone for better comfort. You want to aim to get as much of the thighs off the floor as you can.
- Bridge Pose or Setu Bandha Sarvangasana. Exhale length into the front of the body and contract the glutes and backs of the thighs. Float the hip bones up towards the ceiling as you push the ground away with all four corners of the feet.
- Warrior III Virabhadrasana III. Aim to bring the leg that is lifted in the back to the same level as the rest of the back and arms extended overhead. This of course gives you the added benefit of ankle and knee strengthening and proprioception training.
Yoga is All About Balance
Far too often, people gravitate towards yoga for flexibility gains. However, the practice of yoga encourages a practitioner to look for balance both in the body and the mind. Balance is a considered negotiation between flexibility and strength, prana and apana, lightness and stability. If you have lived with the perception that yoga is only about getting flexible enough so that you can touch your toes, then I encourage you to explore how the practice can help you build strength also. A foundation of stability is what will allow you to move and soar through your postures with lightness and grace whilst keeping your body safe.