So you find that your hamstrings are tight, and when you bend forward with straight legs there is no way you can reach your toes? You have never found a great need to stretch them regularly, but when you hear that tight hamstrings may contribute to a tight and possibly painful lower back, it does make sense to give them more attention. In this blog I describe three ways of stretching these muscles in a safe way for your back, and bending forward to reach your toes isn’t one of them…
Hamstrings consist of 3 bundles of muscle that run from the sitting bones down the back of your thigh, along either side of the knee to top of the shinbones. The main functions of the hamstrings are to flex (bend) the knee and extend (straighten) the hip. They also help to stabilize the knee. If you have a sedentary lifestyle your hamstrings may be weak and tight. They can also get tight as a result of activities such as hiking, running or playing a variety of sports. To continue enjoying exercise and to avoid lower back tightness and pain, it is important to maintain hamstring flexibility by stretching them every day. Also many yoga poses are easier when the hamstrings are less tight. Child’s pose for example, (discussed here) gets more relaxing when the hamstrings are more willing.
The 3 ways in which to stretch the hamstrings described below are safe for the back because the back is supported on the floor. Try to keep the back completely relaxed as you stretch your legs. You can do this by imagining the back to stay heavy, broad and soft.
Make sure you don’t feel any pain while doing these stretches: even though intense, a good stretch will not give you sensations of burning, stabbing or throbbing. If you want to find out more about the right way to stretch muscles, read here how long to hold a stretch and how to work with the breath. With these hamstring stretches, start holding them as long as comfortable and over time work up to 90 to 120 seconds.
Leg Raise with a Belt
This is a lovely way to stretch the hamstrings. The belt ensures that your leg does not have to work too hard to stay up. Use a long belt (a bathrobe belt works well) so that the upper arms can stay relaxed on the floor. The back is supported and should not tighten while you stretch the back of the leg. If the hamstrings are tight the leg will not straighten up completely, but it is still better to aim for a vertical position with the knee bent than straightening the leg completely at a 45-degree angle. When the leg is closer to the floor its weight pulls on the lower back and you may lose the beneficial effect for the back.
Start by doing this stretch in a dynamic way: exhale and straighten the leg, (leaving the hips heavy); inhale and bend the leg slightly to release the stretch. Once this feels good you can start holding the stretch. While holding the stretch, imagine lots of space behind your knee to keep the experience positive! And breathe….
Legs up the Wall pose
This supported inversion is soothing after a stressful day. It is also perfect when your legs feel heavy due to hot weather or long standing and walking. It can be beneficial for lower back pain when this is due to lower back tightness. To come into the pose you have to first get quite close to the wall sideways before bringing both legs up. You may have to adjust the distance from the wall depending on the length of your hamstrings.
One arm and opposite leg stretch
This is a dynamic hamstring stretch that also gently extends the spine and stretches the upper back and chest.
-Lie on the back with your arms next to the body and knees bent up towards the chest.
-Inhale and straighten one leg up to the ceiling and bring the opposite arm next to the ear. Swap sides for 4-8x and then try both legs and arms at the same time.
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