Tight Hamstrings? What makes you thinks so? A lot of doctors and physical therapists prescribe hamstring and low back stretches to alleviate low back pain, but are the hamstrings really the culprit? There’s a VERY good chance they aren’t. Why? Let’s look at some basic anatomy and what the hamstrings do.
The hamstrings attach to the pelvis and pull it down. On the other side the quads and hip flexors pull the front of the pelvis down. There should be a balance between the two muscle groups so the pelvis stays in neutral when you are standing. However most people sit all day and don’t get any exercise and if they do they usually work the quads (squat variations) and ignore their backside.
When you sit all day your quads and hip flexors get short and tight, so when you stand up they are pulling the pelvis down in front overpowering the hamstrings. At the same time, sitting, makes the hamstrings long but weakens them. Now the quads are overactive and over-powering the hamstrings and the pelvis is tipped forward into Anterior Pelvic Tilt. Add in a lot of quad dominant exercises like high or partial squats, running and incorrectly done lunges and the anterior pelvic tilt gets worse which make your back hurt even more.
Look at the photos to see what I’m talking about. Now look at yourself in the mirror, is your butt up and out? Do you have a big arch in the lower back (lordotic curve or lordosis)? Does your back bother you at any time? When you stand up from your desk or off the couch does it take you several steps to straighten out?
So why shouldn’t you stretch the hammies & low back?? Because they are ALREADY stretched to the max! Stretching them more just makes them that much longer and weaker. What you really need to do is stretch the quads and hip flexor and strengthen the backside. In general you should be doing twice as much “hip-dominant” (deadlifts, swings, glute brigde, etc) as quad-dominant (squats, lunge, running).
Stretching the quads and hip flexors and strengthening the backside will get the hamstrings and glutes stronger so they can pull the pelvis back under, towards neutral. This doesn’t mean you should stop squatting or doing mountain climbers, it means you should do twice as many deadlifts as squats, twice as many swings as mountain climbers.
Can you touch your toes while standing? If you can’t it doesn’t mean your hamstrings are tight. Beyond what we discussed above, having a weak core can also prevent toe touch. Can you touch seated but not standing? If so the chances are you may have an unstable core. If you can’t touch seated or standing you need to work on mobilization and patterning. By patterning I mean learning HOW to do a touch touch, there is a proper and improper way. Mobilization means being able to move the joints into specific positions, it has nothing to do with flexibility which refers to muscle length.
This image shows the 3 typical toe touches. The first is normal, the hips move back and the back rounds through each vertebrae. In the 2nd position the bending is coming from the upper back with limited shift of the hips backward. This MAY be an indication of tight hamstrings. In the 3rd position the person is simply folding at the hips and the spine is staying flat. That is more than likely due to never being told how to do a toe touch.
From the standing toe touch try doing the same thing sitting on the floor. If you couldn’t touch standing but can sitting then you have a stability issue. That means there is nothing stopping you from touching your toes standing but your brain detects that you are unstable, probably in the core, but it could also be in your ankles or other area. Regardless your brain won’t allow you to toe your toes because of this perceived instability. By addressing it you should be able to touch your toes while standing in relatively short order. On the other hand if you can put you palms on the floor you are probably hyper-mobile and have lax joints which is also a problem and the subject of another post.
In the next article we’ll show you specific exercises to strengthen and mobilize the hips, glutes, hamstrings and core to help eliminate low back pain.