Is your hamstring tightness becoming unmanageable? Use this info to soothe sore muscles and save yourself from a sidelining injury.
Why are tight hamstrings one of those problems that just never fully go away? Seriously, it seems like no amount of stretching, foam rolling, or preventative Ibuprofen can stop tight hamstring symptoms from plaguing your PRs.
Luckily, we’ve got some insider know-how to share with you. Chronically tight hamstrings are a major nuisance no doubt, but with these tips and tricks hiding up our sleeve, your pain will soon be a problem of the past. Plus, we might be able to help you isolate the cause of your tight hamstring—so you can actually address the problem(s) instead of slapping a Band Aid over it.
Don’t let tight hamstrings get you all strung up. Click on a question below to quickly find the answers you need to get off the sideline and back in the game.
- Why are my hamstrings so tight?
- What causes tight hamstrings?
- What are the side effects of tight hamstrings?
- How to loosen tight hamstrings?
Why are my hamstrings so tight?
Whether it’s the first thing you notice waking up in the morning or the last thing that’s keeping you from crossing the finish line, the pain caused by tight hamstrings is really hard to ignore (trust us, we’ve tried). The tension in the back of your legs is pretty much all you can focus on, which stops you from honing in on your proper running form or controlled breathing.
The upside? You’re not alone. As frustrating as hamstring tightness may be, this problem is incredibly common amongst both active athletes and sedentary couch potatoes.
In other words, you don’t have to be a hardcore pavement pounder to rack up some tender hamstrings; this area of the human body is equally vulnerable to irritation regardless of activity level or exercise intensity… but why?
Fun fact: your hamstrings have an interesting anatomical design, consisting of three long, thin muscles which pick up a ton of torque from load-bearing movements. They work by pulling your leg back and forth, propelling the body forward when walking or running (“hip extension”) as well as helping to contract and bend the knee (“knee flexion”).
So listen up, athlete! There are a few reasons why your muscles might be just as sore as your Netflix-loving counterpart. It can get a bit confusing, so let’s break down the different tight hamstring causes to help you identify what’s troubling you and nip this annoying injury in the bud.
What causes tight hamstrings?
Are you banging your head against the wall and asking yourself “why are my hamstrings always so tight!?” Yup, we’ve been there. The first step is to take a look at your lifestyle. Assessing your day-to-day routine can point out red flags that could potentially explain your woes.
Too much sitting
How many hours per day are you sitting? Sure, you might be an ultra runner who puts enormously high mileage beneath your belt a few times per week. But if you’re working a 9:00-5:00 office job where you sit at a desk all day long, you could be doing your hamstrings a serious disservice. Add sitting at a desk to the time spent commuting in the car, scrolling through Instagram (we know you do it), and catching up on episodes of The Bachelor, it could be nearly impossible to combat your tight hamstring symptoms.
When your knees are bent in this seated position, your hamstrings are flexed and shortened. Even if you dedicated 20 minutes a day for 3 times a week on stretches for tight hamstrings, it should come as little surprise that this muscle group snaps back to their comfortable, shortened position. The importance of stretching can’t be stressed enough for people who keep their hamstrings in a seated (shortened) position for 8+ hours daily.
If you think too much chair time might be contributing to your pain, one of the best exercises for tight hamstrings is to be mindful of your seated position and make time to stretch your muscles throughout the day. Take a lap around the office every 15 minutes, stand up during your lunch breaks, and do some stretches for tight hamstrings while you’re chilling and watching TV.
Whatever you do, just try to cut down on the amount of time your legs rest in a 90-degree angle. You can even kick your feet up on a stool to extend your legs straight, if space permits! Ahhh, the good life.
Your pelvis alignment affects everything from your spine to your hips, your legs to your feet. If there’s any uneven pelvic pull that disrupts the way your body should stand naturally (ouch!), it could very well result in painfully tight hamstrings.
People who sit, squat, or bend too frequently—or have a poor, swaying back posture known as “flat back syndrome”—are likely to have a posterior pelvic tilt. Translation? This signals a muscular imbalance around the pelvis area that causes your pelvis to tilt backwards and upwards, resulting in a domino effect of problems. Not good.
Tight muscles in your hamstrings pull down on your glutes, which then rotates your pelvis posteriorly, leading to back and leg pain. Welcome to a whole world of hu To counteract this misalignment, you’ll need to perform stretches for tight hamstrings that can loosen up your muscles and alleviate the tension on your sit bones.
Tight hip flexors
Pelvic issues are one of those “chicken or the egg?” conundrums: tight hamstrings can turn your pelvis down and up, but on the other hand, stiff hip flexors can create an anterior pelvic tilt (a forward, downturned pelvis), resulting in tight hamstrings. In other words, a pelvic tilt can cause tightness, but tightness can also cause a pelvic tilt. It’s a lose-lose.
So, how do you know which came first? Repetitive movement, poor posture, and constantly sitting in a sedentary lifestyle force hip flexors into a constantly-shortened position, creating one of many tight hamstring causes. The anterior tilt forces the hamstrings (which are connected to the back of the pelvis) to remain “on” or activated in order to protect the lower back from injury. For that reason, this tight hamstring condition is sometimes called “protective tension”.
To correct an anterior tilt that’s pulling and tugging on your hamstrings, you need to activate often unused muscle groups. Ahem… calling all abs! Time to wake up those sleeping beauties and use them to counteract the downward pull of your pelvis. This is where you’ll also want to focus on strengthening exercises for tight hamstrings as opposed to stretching exercises; you want to avoid putting more slack on the already weak and stretchy muscle group!
Get ready for a science lesson, kids. Your body is a kinetic chain of moving parts, so even though you might feel tight in your legs, the problem might originate elsewhere (spooky!). Neural entrapment, commonly known as a “trapped nerve,” can create tension in the form of tight hamstring symptoms. Problems with a disk in your lumbar spine can create radicular pain—or pain that radiates into your legs along the nerve root—in hamstring muscles that feel tight, tingly, or numb.
If you’re experiencing any burning or numbness, it could be a sign that your nerves are somehow involved with your leg pain. DO NOT play around with this. Stretching can make your condition worse, so take our advice and go get it checked out by a doctor before you do some irreversible damage to your nervous system. We want to see you out on the streets for many years to come!
True for all running injuries, if you don’t take care of your hamstring health the first time you mess it up, you’re more likely to run into repeated problems. You might think it’s (finally) loosened up and ready to go, and you’ll feel great going into mile 3 of your run. Gracefully, you’ll break into an all-out sprint when—BAM!—your hamstrings start barking at you, reminding you just who’s in charge.
Most hamstring injuries occur as a tear in the musculotendinous complex, or the region in which a muscle and tendon join each other (note: tendons are the tissue bands that connect your muscles to your bones). This region is uncommonly large in the hamstring, particularly at the top where it attaches to the ischial tuberosity (the small, bony projection on the bottom of the pelvis, just below the butt), which helps explain why this running injury is so common.
The key to halting on-going injuries like runner’s knee and chronically tight hamstrings is to give your body the full amount of time it needs to heal itself. We know that when you’re training for a marathon, you’re not going to let anything stand in between you and your next PR. But if you don’t take off enough time to recover from a hamstring injury, you could end up taking yourself out of the game for much, much longer. What would have been a week off might turn into a month’s long battle—talk about frustrating!
The reason why: after a soft tissue injury, our bodies enter a repair phase. During this time, the soft tissue begins to form new cells as it rebuilds and remodels itself (think of your favorite home makeover show on HGTV!). If you perform an activity that your underdeveloped tissue is unprepared for, it won’t be able to withstand the stress. The tissue stiffens up, muscles get weaker and shorter, and you just compound the damage every time you cut recovery short.
Do yourself a favor and sit back, relax, find a new show to binge-watch, and give your tight hamstrings a break for at least a weekend. Your future self will surely thank you!
The chances of you having tight hamstrings from inherently short muscles are rather slim. It’s much more likely that one of the above 5 tight hamstring causes are contributing to your stiffness. Think these through, assess your lifestyle—including how much you sit compared to how much you stretch—and get to work on giving your body some proper R&R.
If no tingling or numbness is present, you can probably tackle your tightness with at-home treatment methods. That being said, the best advice is to always have your injury examined by a medical professional (we have to say this).
What are the side effects of tight hamstrings?
Let me guess—the pain started with tight hamstrings, but now it feels like it’s pretty much everywhere? No, you’re not crazy. Unfortunately, it’s totally possible for your pain to radiate outward, placing a once-localized ache all over your body.
Anatomy 101 tells us that where we experience pain isn’t necessarily where the problem originates. Just how a bad knee can lead to tight hamstrings, a strung-up hamstring can throw your whole body out of whack due to muscular imbalances. All of a sudden, what was once just a little hamstring tightness turns into a game of whack-a-mole problem-solving, with new pain continuing to pop up and present itself in different areas.
Can tight hamstrings cause back pain?
Yep, absolutely. Your hamstring attaches to your pelvis, and they can pull on your hips to create misalignment in your spine. The consequences? Problems with your posture, the way you walk, and the way you support your back throughout daily activities can increase exponentially. This can aggravate (or in some cases, cause) conditions relating to sciatica or low back pain.
If your inflexible hamstrings create a stiff pain that runs from the backs of your leg(s) up into your lumbar spine, you should perform stretches for tight hamstrings that will help release tension and alleviate your lower back.
Can tight hamstrings cause knee pain?
The three muscles that comprise the hamstring run from your pelvis down the back of your legs. Their tendons then cross over the knee joint and connect on each side of the shin bone (called the tibia). With such proximity, it should come as little surprise that tight hamstrings can cause knee pain. As the knee works to achieve full extension with each stride, it’s forced to work in opposition against your stiff, tight muscles, and irritates several of the knee’s anterior structure. The results: pain that seems to never go away.
If your tight hammys are wreaking havoc on your knees, it might be time to hit the gym and amp up your cross-training game. Strengthen these weak muscles and take the strain off your joint using exercises for tight hamstrings on the knee flexion machine or with straight leg raises. You also might need to even out muscular imbalances by beefing up the strength of your quads—it’s time to go full gym bro!
Generally speaking, your joints thrive on motion—so some knee activity is usually better than zero activity. That being said, stick to low-impact workouts, such as swimming or cycling, over HIIT circuits that can worsen your pain and recovery time.
Can tight hamstrings cause foot pain?
If you have foot pain while running, it’s possible that your tight hamstrings may be the culprit. Hamstring tightness leads to limited knee extension, which generates greater underfoot pressure during your stance and push-off phases.
The soles of your feet are indirectly connected to your hamstrings through “tissue trains” that run all the way up to the crown of your head (all aboard!). If they cause too much pressure or unevenly absorb shock, it can create a number of foot problems, including plantar fasciitis.
If you’re having trouble getting at your tight hamstrings, try it from a different angle: from the bottom of your feet! All you need to do is stand on a tennis ball, applying as much weight as you can comfortably handle, and roll around the ball at a speed of 1 inch per second. The longer you roll, the more release you’ll feel.
Alight, let’s recap. So far we’ve taken a look at the different tight hamstring causes and how these stiff muscles can play out across the rest of your body. Now let’s turn our focus on what you can actually do about it using exercises for tight hamstrings. Ready, set, stretch!
How to loosen tight hamstrings
Tight hamstring symptoms are pretty unmistakable. During initial injury, you may or may not hear/feel a pop that makes you fall to the ground. Hamstring injuries can range from mild to excruciating pain, and depending on where you register on that scale, mobility can be challenging or downright impossible.
As you begin to heal and build scar tissue, you’ll feel tight in the backs of your legs as well as possible pain in your back, hips, knees, and feet. Your skin may or may not bruise, but it’s probably painful to the touch either way. Whether you have a hamstring injury or just general stiffness, it’s best to wait for the green light from a doctor before learning how to loosen tight hamstrings.
What stretches are good for tight hamstrings?
Running stretches that target your hamstring and related muscle groups are the best way to loosen up this high-strung area. Make it your goal to perform these exercises for tight hamstrings twice a day with at least 10-20 second holds on each side. Take a look at some of the stretches that should be at the top of your to-do list.
For low back relief
Seated Hamstring Exercise: Sit at the edge of a chair and straighten one leg so that one heel is on the floor and the opposite foot’s toes are pointed up at the ceiling. Sit up tall, roll your pelvis forward (trying not to round out your back), and feel a stretch in the back of your hamstrings. Hold for 30 seconds then repeat on the opposite side.
Vertical Hamstring Stretch: Lie on your back near a wall, door jam, or vertical surface. Prop one leg up against the wall (or into the air held with a resistance band) and slowly work towards a straight knee as you gently drop the opposite leg down towards your body. Your goal is to eventually reach a 90-degree angle comfortably, but give yourself plenty of time to get there.
For knee pain
Hamstring Curl: This exercise helps tight hamstrings by strengthening the muscle group while also assisting with internal and external knee rotations. You start by lying face down on the bench with the pads of the machine placed at the back of your legs below your calves. Grab the handlebars to stabilize your upper body and, keeping your torso flat, activate your hamstrings to bend your knees and curl the bar into a fully contracted position; hold here for 1 second.
Inhale as you release and return to your starting position, making sure not to overdo it in terms of reps or weight load. If you only have trouble with one knee, this exercise can be done with one leg to isolate your weak area.
Calf Smash with Ball: In order to strengthen your knee joint and work out tension both in your hamstring and calf muscle, sit down on the ground and pull one foot close to your butt so that your knee is bent in the air. Sandwich a lacrosse ball or something similar in size beneath your joint and in between the thigh and calf.
Pull your shin towards your body to create a “compression force,” then rotate your foot in alternating, circular motions to help create space within the knee joint. Continue until you feel a reduction in tension then switch sides.
For sore feet
Massage Roller: Place a massage ball or tennis ball under your foot and slowly roll your weight around on top. When you reach a sensitive pressure point, stop on it and breathe deeply for 20-30 seconds until the tissue releases and the pain dissolves. To isolate problem areas, roll the ball beneath your toes all the way to the back of your heel at a slow and steady pace. This stretch for tight hamstrings will start to hurt less the more frequently you do it, so hang in there through the pain!
Runner’s Lunge: Runner’s lunges are go-to stretches for tight hamstrings, hips, hip flexors, and groin, but they also provide the opportunity to work a good stretch into your feet, as well. Step your right foot forward to the outer edge of your mat, placed adjacent to your outer pinky finger. Drop your back knee if necessary and relax through your hips and back, allowing them to sink toward the ground.
Pay special attention to your back foot, making sure to send energy out through your heel towards the back wall in order to feel a stretch throughout your sole. Hold for 15 seconds, then switch to your left leg.
Of course, the classic toe-touch never fails to loosen those hammys. Sitting on the ground isn’t your thing? No problem—you can do this move standing throughout the day. Just extend one leg out straight out or propped up onto something, and (bending from your hips with a straight back) fold forward, driving your chest toward the front leg while bending the back knee.
Tight hamstrings are hard to kick, but if you spend enough time stretching and listening to your body, it’s possible to be pain-free. For those who struggle with including steady stretching in their training routine, it might be time to try some yoga for runners to keep your body lithe and limber! Pay attention to how your lifestyle affects your performance on the road, and you’ll be going for the gold medal in no time.