The Hidden Hamstring: Release Low Back Pain

By Matt Giordano, @theyogimatt

The Low Back

Do you suffer from tight hamstrings? Many runners, active adventurist, and even those that sit at a desk all day experience tremendous tension in the hamstrings (back of the legs). As a result, the pelvis might get pulled downward in a tucked (posterior tilt) position causing the low back to be chronically rounded (flexed). For most people this will result in low back tension, discomfort or intervertebral disc issues – which exist between each of your vertebrae in your spine, cushioning for shock absorption. Preserving the natural curvature of the low back can prove to be challenging if the hamstrings hold tension from overuse or underuse.

What most people don’t understand about the body is that it is constantly trying to re-correct itself. When the hamstrings are tight and pulling the pelvis into posterior tilt, the low back will hold tension because those muscles are trying to pull the pelvis back toward neutral in order to bring the curve back in the lumbar. So most people feel the tension in the low back and start stretching those muscles, and unfortunately, this perpetuates the issue. What might be the better solution is to strengthen those muscles and stretch the muscles that are the root of the tension – the hamstrings.

The Hidden Hamstring

Something I have noticed in most athletes is that when they stretch the hamstrings they do all the right stretches – bowing forward over one leg, bringing the leg up on a bench, etc. However it is rare that I would see them stretching the inner thighs as well, and as a result, they are missing what is often referred to as the fourth hamstring or what I call the Hidden Hamstring: Adductor Magnus. Adductor magnus squeezes the legs toward each other like the other adductors, but uniquely it also extends the thigh back behind the hip (the back leg when running or walking). Now often when we do a hamstring stretch the hamstrings can be tight enough that they don’t allow us to get into the stretch of the adductor magnus…our tension holds us back from getting to the necessary depth. Rather than straining and overstretching to target the adductor magnus we can simply add a slightly different stretch, one that also targets the adductors (inner thighs).

The Magic Pose

There are a couple of amazing postures in yoga that stretch the adductors and the hamstrings. Below you can watch a video of how to get into one of the best ones “triangle pose”. This pose is one of the most iconic yoga postures and it’s for a great reason! It not only stretches the hamstrings, but also the inner thighs, and sides of the torso. With slight variations of the shape, you can change the intensity of stretch in each area and target your tight areas, and back off your flexible areas. If you are new to triangle pose or generally have tighter hamstrings and adductors I highly recommend having a yoga block, books, or a chair to put your bottom hand on so that you don’t risk straining any of the muscle groups in this posture. A very similar pose is called Side Angle, and this is triangle pose but with a bent from knee. With the knee bent you will by-pass some of the tension in the hamstrings and actually be able to stretch adductor mangnus a bit easier, so I recommend starting here and then moving to triangle pose.

How to get into it Triangle pose

  1. Start by taking your feet wide apart from each other.
  2. Turn your right foot and thigh outward until it is perpendicular to the left foot.
  3. Bend your right knee.
  4. Place your right hand on a block, book, or chair on the outside of your right thigh – option to place your hand and prop on the inside as well which will change the stretch and potentially offer a more accessible experience).
  5. Stay in this posture – Side Angle Pose -to target the Adductor Magnus for 5-8 breaths. Pro Tip: Pull your two feet toward each other to warm up the inner thighs and hamstrings!’
  6. After your 5-8 breaths, your body will likely desire to straighten the front leg, if so proceed to triangle pose by straightening the front leg slowly, and stopping when the sensation is a 7 out of 10. Stay in Triangle pose for 5-8 breaths.
  7. To come out of triangle, re-bend the front knee, press down into your feet and rise up. Proceed to the left side.

The Results

The result may or may not be immediate relief of the back as you will also need to work on re-strengthening the muscles that extend your spine to help bring your back into its natural curve and out of the rounding position. Be sure that if you are doing “core” workouts that your core routine includes just as many low back strengtheners as front abdominal strengtheners…your isn’t just the front of your belly.

Triangle pose and Side angle pose will help you to stretch the muscles that might be tugging your tail bone down and flattening your low back. As a result your low back has a chance to come back to a place of better shock absorption and away from the stacked compressive position that is so prominent in many long-distance runners. Try adding Side angle and Triangle pose into your post run/hike/climb routine while you are warm and observe the results!

Until next time,

Matt Giordano