By Matt Giordano, @theyogimatt
The Lower Back
Do you suffer from tight hamstrings?
Many runners, active adventurists, and even those who sit at a desk all day experience tremendous hamstring tightness. (“Hamstring” is the term usually used for the muscle group that runs along the back of your thighs.) 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, constantly tight hamstring muscles will result in lower back tension, discomfort or issues with your intervertebral discs – which exist between each of your vertebrae in your spine, providing cushioning for shock absorption. Preserving the natural curvature of the lower back and avoiding back pain (or nerve pain) 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 correct itself. When the hamstring muscles are tight and pulling the pelvis into a posterior tilt, the lower back will hold tension because those muscles, in turn, are trying to pull the pelvis back toward neutral in order to bring the proper curvature back in the lumbar spine.
So most people feel the tension in the lower back and start stretching those muscles. Unfortunately, this perpetuates the issue and can even exacerbate pain. 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 challenge is finding the right hamstring stretch to properly loosen the hamstrings. So what is the best approach to hamstring stretching?
The “Hidden Hamstring”
Something I have noticed in most athletes is that when they stretch the hamstring muscles they do all the right stretches – like a standing hamstring stretch where they bend forward over one leg, or a chair hamstring stretch where they bring their leg up on a bench, etc.
However, it is rare that I would see them stretching the inner thighs as well. As a result, they are missing what is often referred to as the fourth hamstring or what I call the Hidden Hamstring: The adductor magnus.
The 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 hamstring muscle can be tight enough that it doesn’t allow us to get into the stretch of the adductor magnus. In other words, hamstring muscle tightness holds us back from getting to the necessary depth.
Rather than straining and overstretching the hamstrings to target the adductor magnus we can simply add a slightly different stretch, one that also targets the adductors (inner thighs).
Let me explain how it’s done.
Best Hamstring Stretches: The Magic Pose
There are a couple of amazing postures in yoga that stretch the adductors and the hamstrings at the same time. One of the best ones for hamstring stretches is the “Triangle Pose.”
This pose is one of the most iconic yoga postures and there’s a great reason why! 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 ones.
If you are new to the 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 slight stretch is all you need.
A very similar pose is called Side Angle, and this is triangle pose but with one knee bent. With the knee bent you will reduce tension in the hamstrings and actually be able to stretch the adductor magnus a bit more easily, so I recommend starting here and then moving to Triangle Pose. If your hamstring stretches are too aggressive you risk injuring your muscles.
Now for the practical part. How do you actually get into Triangle Pose and begin to loosen your tight hamstrings?
How to get into Triangle Pose
- Start by placing your feet wide apart from each other.
- Turn your right foot and thigh outward until it is perpendicular to the left foot.
- Bend your right knee.
- Place your right hand on a block, book, or chair on the outside of your right thigh. (You can also place your hand and prop on the inside as well, which will change the stretch and potentially offer a more accessible experience for those with less hamstring flexibility.) You should feel a slight pulling sensation.
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.
- 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 stretching sensation in your hamstring is a 7 out of 10. Stay in Triangle Pose for 5-8 breaths.
- To come out of Triangle, re-bend the front knee, press down into your feet and rise up. Repeat this same procedure for the left side.
The result may or may not be immediate back pain relief. Remember, hamstring tightness is only one part of the problem. (And, besides, it will take time for your tight hamstrings to improve as you add hamstring stretching to your daily routine.) You will also need to work on strengthening the muscles that extend your lumbar 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 your core routine includes just as many lower back strengtheners as front abdominal strengtheners. Your core 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 lower back. As a result, your lower 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.
If you are used to other kinds of stretches for your tight hamstrings, like a wall hamstring stretch, try adding Side Angle and Triangle Pose hamstring stretching into your post-run/hike/climb routine while you are warm and observe the results!
Until next time,
Matt Giordano is an international Yoga instructor and founder of Chromatic Yoga.
The content of this post does not constitute and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have about your health or a medical condition.
A note from Xero Shoes
I hope you enjoyed this helpful post from Matt. Correct stretching is an important part not just of avoiding hamstring tightness and finding back pain relief, but of avoiding injuries in general.
I just wanted to add a note about something else that’s super important that people often overlook: form. What I mean is the way we run or even walk.
Why does this matter? The way we move affects the kinds of stresses we put on our muscles, bones, ligaments, and tendons (just like how our posture can contribute to low back pain). This is true of our hamstrings along with the other muscles of our legs and feet.
I mention this because people sometimes ask me, “What are the best running shoes for hamstring injury prevention or for getting over a hamstring injury?” I’m not a doctor or physical therapist, and can’t give medical advice. I can say, though, that most “typical” footwear interferes with what your body is built to do. For example, elevated heels impact posture, stiff soles and excessive support reduce foot strength, pointed toe boxes restrict natural movement, and cushioning eliminates your foot’s ability to feel the ground.
If you can see that it’s probably a good thing to let your body move the way it’s made to, then you’ll want to consider a “barefoot” shoe.
Our barefoot shoes are designed to do just that: allow your feet to move as they should and give your body the feedback it needs to adopt a better form. Find your pair of Xero Shoes here.
You can read more about form, why it matters, and even how it relates to lower back pain here.
I always want to make sure I’m clear about this: if you have a running injury, talk to a medical professional. They may recommend physical therapy or other kinds of treatment. I’m not a doctor and nothing I am saying here is intended to be medical advice or to take the place of professional guidance.