Tight hamstring? Maybe it’s not your hamstrings fault
Many people have experienced a tight or strained hamstring at some point in their life. A hamstring strain is a common injury amongst runners, and those who participate in club sports and pick-up sports games in their free time. The common prescription is to stretch your hamstrings more often, and before and after you exercise or participate in sports. Unfortunately, this is usually a fruitless effort in preventing a hamstring injury. Let’s start by looking at the anatomy of the hamstring musculature, and why stretching the hamstring may not do anything to help prevent injury.
The hamstring complex is made up of three major muscles. They are the Biceps Femoris (long head and short head), the Semitendinosus, and the Semimembranosus. The biceps femoris has two points of origin, with the long head beginning at the lower portion of the pelvis, and the short head beginning at about the middle of the femur. Along with the long head of the biceps femoris, the semitendinosus and semimembranosus also start at the lower portion of the pelvis, and run down the back of your thigh where all three insert into the tibia, right about behind your knee. The muscles of the hamstring complex work together to flex the knee and internally/externally rotate the hip. They also help to prevent hyperextension of the knee.
Common Causes of Injury
There are three types of hamstring strains ranging from a grade 1 strain which is mild, and heals relatively quickly; to grade 3 strain which is a complete tear of the muscle. The most common cause of a hamstring strain is generated from a muscle overload that excedes the ability of the hamstring complex to lengthen under load. This is generally seen when there is a sudden load applied to the hamstring, such as in sprinting or running. While the hamstring muscle is technically lengthening as you push your foot into the ground to drive forward, it is also contracting at the same time. When a muscle is extended while under load like the hamstring this, there are a few factors that may cause injury. Some major risk factors are:
- Muscle Tightness- If the hamstring muscles are not sufficiently flexible enough to extend through the full range of motion, especially while under load, they are at a higher risk of becoming strained. To prevent this, consistent stretching of the muscles should be a part of your routine.
- Muscle Fatigue- When your hamstrings are fatigued, their ability to absorb force and energy are reduced. This leaves them more susceptible for injury.
- Improper Warm up- If you don’t take the time to warm up properly before a physical event, it dramatically increases your risk of a hamstring injury. This is not necessarily a short term issue, however if you don’t consistently warm up, over the course of time your body may compensate for the lack of activation in the hamstrings.
- Sudden Overload- The hamstrings are not structured to brunt the force of a sudden stressor to them. An example would be jumping on a moving treadmill and immediately sprinting. This sudden stressor may cause an injury to your hamstrings.
So how do you fix your tight hamstrings…. As they say, “It’s all in the hips.”
A major overlooked factor in hamstring injuries is the anatomy of your hips. In fact, I would dare to say that a majority of hamstring injuries aren’t due to tight or faulty hamstrings at all. The root cause of many hamstring injuries actually start with the hips, and more specifically the hip flexors. Your hip flexors are found at the front of your hips where your leg meets your hips. They are designed to flex your hips (picking your foot off the floor and knee up towards your chest while standing- think marching) and eccentrically control extension of your leg (extending it back down to the floor) . The majority of people, especially in our mostly sitting society today, have very tight hip flexors. They are constantly in a contracted state from sitting for a majority of our day. This creates what is called an anterior pelvic tilt. An anterior pelvic tilt shifts your hips up and backwards, creating an arch in your lower back. This is best demonstrated by the “booty popping” pose that many models do to exaggerate their backside. Although this may be a flattering look for an instagram post, it is very detrimental to lower back health, and hamstring health. If you can recall from earlier in the article – if you’ve actually made it this far lol – the hamstrings attach at the lower portion of the pelvis. With a posterior pelvic tilt, the lower part of the pelvis is shifted up, and away from its natural position. Because of where the hamstrings are attached, they are elongated with this type of posture, which creates added stress on them. With posterior pelvic tilt, you can stretch your hamstrings as much as you possibly want, but that will not fix the positioning of your hips. With this imbalanced posture putting extra stress on your hamstrings, it is just a matter of time before they give in and get injured.
Here are a few simple exercises that you can put into your warmup or workout routine, that can help with correcting posterior pelvic tilt, and hopefully save your hamstrings from injury:
- Hip Bridges- Activate the glutes, and elongates the hip flexors
- Kneeling Hip flexor Stretch- Stretches and elongates the hip flexors
- Forearm Plank- Strengthens the core musculature that is usually inhibited from posterior pelvic tilt.