Whether you are suffering from knee pain, back pain or hip tightness, tight leg muscles are often part of the problem. This blog focuses on the importance of stretching leg muscles to relieve lower back pain, but this kind of stretching is equally important if you don’t have back pain. I will demonstrate the easiest positions to stretch various leg muscles and also explain how to do this efficiently. Depending on the position and the method, your stretching efforts will be effective or have no impact at all.
The importance of stretching leg muscles – some theory
In this blog I focus on the hamstrings, inner thigh muscles, and quadriceps. The psoas muscle is another major influence on the health of the spine. It will benefit from the supine stretches below, and you can read more about the psoas and hip flexors in this blog. Glut stretching is essential too and you can find out more about those muscles in this blog about sacroiliac joint pain: https://beneyoga.co.uk/sacroiliac-joint-pain/
The hamstrings attach at the top of the back leg to the sitting bones. When they are tight, they can cause the pelvis to tilt posteriorly and thus flatten the lower back. A flat lumbar curve will alter the other spinal curves so that the spine loses its suppleness and strength. We need the two sets of opposing curves in our spine for adequate weight distribution and efficient movement. Furthermore, when we bend forward with tight hamstrings, the pelvis cannot tilt sufficiently “from the hips”, but the movement will happen by rounding the lower back too much, thus risking lower back strain.
Sometimes, hamstrings hardly respond to stretching. In this case it is important to look at structural imbalances: the hamstrings may be tight because other muscle groups are not able to function properly. Changing alignment or posture is best done with a yoga therapist or other qualified body worker. Contact me here for more information: https://beneyoga.co.uk/contact-for-yoga-classes-in-chiswick/
The inner thigh muscles consist of several muscle groups working together to adduct the legs (bringing them towards the midline). When they are tight, they can exert a downward pull on the pelvic bone, thereby tilting the pelvis forward (anteriorly) and increasing the arch in the lower back. This leads to a tight and painful lower back as the muscles in the lower back are chronically contracted.
Quadriceps is the name for 4 muscle groups in the front of our upper legs. They run from the kneecap to the top of the femur (upper leg) bone. One of them, the rectus femoris, attaches to the hipbone. If the rectus femoris is tight it can pull the hipbone down and cause an arched, often tight and painful, lower back.
We can only stretch muscles when the mind is relaxed. When our mind is busy planning, remembering, going over the same event (yet again), it is giving signals to the body that it is in an active and potentially dangerous situation (the fight or flight situation of a stressed mind). When, on the contrary, we focus on the sensations in the body and our breathing, the breathing will slow down and convey to the body that it is safe to relax. Calm breathing triggers the relaxation response, which reverses the functions of the fight and flight mode. It enables healing by allowing muscles to relax, blood pressure to drop, and nerves to quieten down.
You can try relaxing by focusing on the breath right now: soften your face, jaw and throat, and simply observe your breath. Allow the inhalation to come naturally, lightly. Follow the exhalation to the very end. Maybe pause for a second at the end of the exhalation, if this feels natural. The trick is not to force anything. It is quite paradoxical that in order to achieve relaxation, you have to let go of wanting it too much. Instead, just allow it to happen…
In this way, stretching becomes an invitation to the body to release tensions. It is not a forceful pulling on the muscles, because that can only have the opposite effect. Over-stretching muscles, or only focusing on stretching without strengthening, can lead to physical imbalances and more pain in the body.
The stretches described below are suitable for most causes of low back pain. One of the exceptions is when you are still in pain of a herniated disc: the yoga for this condition is very specific and does not follow the rules of mere lower back tightness. Also people with back conditions such as spondylolisthesis or arthritis of the spine should not try yoga without expert and individualised help. If you are interested in yoga therapy for your back, do contact me here: https://beneyoga.co.uk/contact-for-yoga-classes-in-chiswick/
Stretch the whole back of your leg, hamstrings as well as calf muscles, by lying on your back and using a belt.
-Bend the left leg and place the left foot on the floor. Bending the leg in this way will help to keep the lower back relaxed.
-Use a yoga strap, old tie or bathrobe belt to hook around the right foot.
-Exhale and straighten the right leg towards the ceiling. Keep the right foot more or less above the hip and straighten the leg a little (or completely, depending on the length of the muscles) with each exhalation. If the hamstrings are very tight, there is no need to straighten the leg completely. Remember, forcing a stretch will have the opposite effect.
-Inhale and relax the leg again.
-When it starts to feel easier, hold the leg straight for a while.
-Work with the breath and only stretch as far as comfortable. A stretchy feeling is good, pain is not.
Inner thigh stretch
-With the belt in the same position, bring the right leg to the right without tilting one side of the hips up.
-Counterbalance the weight of the right leg by bringing the left knee to the left.
-It may be tempting to roll over to the side so the leg seems to stretch further. However, this would have no effect on the inner thigh but merely twist the spine and possibly harm the sacro-iliac joints. It does not matter how far the leg goes.
-Hold the leg to the side for a few breaths while keeping the whole back even and relaxed on the mat.
-Work up to 60 seconds and repeat with the other leg.
Standing quad stretch
You can stretch the quadriceps muscles while lying on your abdomen: tuck your tailbone under strongly and hold the left foot with the left hand or with a belt. Hold for up to 60 seconds, and repeat with the right leg.
This prone position can sometimes hurt the lower back, especially when the quads are very tight and the lower back too painful. If this is the case, it is better to stretch the quads in a standing position.
-Hold on to something while you hold one foot behind the back.
-Also in this standing position it is important to tuck the tailbone, thereby preventing the contraction of lower back muscles. Tilting the pelvis increases the quad stretch but that is fine, just allow the knee to go forward. With time, the quads will lengthen and the knee may point down more.
-Also, don’t wring your foot to one side but keep the inside and outside of your ankle even.
Work up to 60 seconds.
Finally, however important it is to stretch leg muscles, over-stretching is never good. Be gentle and stop before you feel a strong pull. This pull means that the muscles are pulling back, so keep the stretch soft instead.