Causes Of Tight Hamstrings And How To Fix Them (Expert Tips)

Martin Caparrotta
By Martin Caparrotta
Updated on 5 October 2020
Expert Content

Having tight hamstrings is a common problem when it comes to flexibility.

Whether you’re new to flexibility and stretching or you’ve been doing it for some time, tight hamstrings is a common issue that many people complain about.

If you’re looking to find out the main causes of tight hamstrings and what to do about the issue, then you’ve landed on the right page.

In this article, we’re going to take a detailed look at the main causes of tight hamstrings and get some expert advice about what can be done about it.

There are a number of reasons why you may be experiencing tight hamstrings, but there are various steps that you can take to alleviate the problem.

Editor's note: The content on this website is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. Our articles and the products featured in them are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. Always speak with a certified medical professional before making any changes to your lifestyle, diet and/or exercise routine, and/or taking any supplements.

So, with the introductions out of the way, it’s time to start taking a closer look at the issue of tight hamstrings and what can be done about them.

What Are The Hamstrings?

If you’re reading this article, then you probably already know the basics about hamstrings, but let’s cover what you need to know quickly anyway.

The Hamstrings are a group of muscles and their tendons at the back of the upper leg. They include muscles called the Biceps Femoris, Semitendinosus, and Semimembranosus.

The hamstrings are used in walking, running and jumping. They flex the knee joint, adduct the leg, and extend the thigh to the backside of the body.

Now that we’ve covered the basic facts about the hamstrings, it’s time to take a look at some of the common causes of tight hamstrings.

The Common Causes Of Tight Hamstrings

You probably already know that having tight hamstrings is a relatively common problem. But why is that the case?

According to flexibility experts, there a number of reasons why you may be experiencing tight hamstrings.

The first one is that hamstrings often get tight simply because we do not use the range of motion they bring very often. Lack of use of the full range of motion can cause muscles to tighten up over time.

“One cause that is specific to the hamstring is from lack of use,” says certified strength and conditioning specialist Nick Occhipinti.

“The hamstrings get stretched when we go into a lot of hip flexion with a straight knee. For many people, they simply never access this range of motion.

“Unless you train it specifically, how often do people bring their legs above their waistline? Maybe if you take martial arts or are a dancer this is common, but for most people it is not.”

“Many people think they have tight hamstrings, but if you actually measure their hamstring length, you’ll find their hamstrings aren’t actually short, they just feel that way,” explains physical therapist Jasmine Marcus.

“That’s why people can stretch for days and never feel any change. Instead, strengthening the hamstrings can often alleviate this feeling.

“Some of the best ways to strengthen the hamstrings include deadlifts, hamstring curls, hip thrusts, or weighted bridges.”

Meanwhile, fitness expert and celebrity trainer Joey Thurman points out that sitting for long periods can also contribute to the problem.

“The most common cause of tight hamstrings is under-active and over-active muscles from sitting too much, and an anterior pelvic tilt,” explains Joey.

“When we sit all day, our hip flexors on the front of our legs become shortened and over-active, the glutes become overstretched and under-active, and in turn this causes an anterior pelvic tilt which pulls on the hamstrings, making them tight.”

Another reason is down to running. If you do a lot of running, it is normal to see your hamstrings tighten up.

This is because having tighter hamstrings can improve your running efficiency. This may be great for your running times – but it is not so good for your hamstring flexibility.

A third reason, as touched upon above, is due to the actual muscles themselves being weak.

Sometimes it is not that the muscles themselves are tight, but it’s that your body is preventing you from moving into certain positions as a ‘reflex’ to prevent injury.

“A common cause of tight hamstrings is muscle weakness,” explains Hydrow’s strength and movement specialist Peter Donohoe.

“A weak muscle will shorten to its safest position – it’s our bodies protective mechanism. Build strength and you’ll facilitate length.”

Registered kinesiologist Marian Barnick explains that the position of the pelvis and the hips is also a major contributing factor.

“The most common cause of tight hamstrings is the position of the pelvis and hips,” explains Marian.

“The pelvis rotates out of neutral, either anteriorly or posteriorly changing muscle length and therefore tightness.

“The pelvis and hips change their position from neutral because of general day-to-day lifestyle, such as sitting posture, illness, or injury.

“Tight hamstrings are not hereditary. Just watch a baby move their hips and stretch their legs right over their head.”

So, to summarize, it is very common for Hamstrings to get tight for a number of reasons.

One main cause of tight hamstrings is that you don’t use that range of motion enough. Frequent running can also cause the hamstrings to tighten further. And the fact that the hamstring muscles themselves are weak could also be a contributing factor.

What Can Be Done About Tight Hamstrings – Expert Tips

There are various stretches and exercises that can be performed to tackle tight hamstrings.

“In order to help resolve tight hamstrings, start doing exercises to build that muscle,” says Peter Donohoe.

“Stretch regularly and hydrate well. It’s also important to know that tight hamstrings can cause back pain. Stretch your hamstrings and you’ll immediately take pressure off of your lower back.”

If you have particularly tight hamstrings or are recovering from a strain or injury, it may be best to get a physical therapist to help you recover.

There are lots of stretches that can be performed to help with hamstring flexibility. Here are two simple ones to get started with, as recommended by Peter Donohoe.

Hamstring Stretch One

Hamstring Stretch One

This stretch (show above) demonstrates a hamstring stretch you can do anytime and in any place. This position creates length in your straight leg while maintaining good alignment in your spine as you ‘pull’ or gently draw your heel towards you.

Hamstring Stretch Two

Hamstring Stretch Two

While lying on your back with spinal support from the ground, grab your straightened leg until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings. Hold for 30 seconds. Do this three times for each leg. Hamstrings can be stretched daily.

Meanwhile, exercise physiologist and personal trainer Bianca Grover recommends three main hamstring stretches.

Seated Toe Touches

“This is a great stretch to start with,” explains Bianca. “To execute it, you simply sit on the floor with your legs stretched in front of you, maintaining a neutral spine and reach forward in order to touch your toes. Make sure you keep your legs straight through the stretch.”

Seated Toe Touches

Seated Toe Touches (Photo: Adobe Stock)

The Sumo Squat

“Another good stretch is a sumo squat. To begin, you simply start in a squat position, spreading your legs slightly wider than shoulder-width apart with your toes pointed out. With your back remaining straight, lower your torso like you’re performing a squat trying to go as deep as permitted without pain. You want to get your legs into a position where your thighs are parallel to the floor.”

Supine Hamstring Stretch

“A supine hamstring stretch is also a solid choice for tight hamstrings. For this, you simply lay on your back bringing one foot close to your butt, flat on the ground for support. You can then grab your opposite leg, holding just above your ankle and bring it in, close to your chest.”

There are also lots of weightlifting exercises that can help to improve hamstring flexibility.

As flexibility expert Tom Merrick explains: “Not all flexibility work needs to be stretching. Doing weightlifting in a specific way can increase flexibility.

“Things like split-squats will increase your flexibility, and things like Romanian deadlifts will increase your hamstring flexibility.”

Additional Expert Comments

Tom Merrick The Bodyweight Warrior

Flexibility expert Tom Merrick (Photo: Tom Merrick)

Tom Merrick: “[Tight hamstrings and calves are] super common. To be honest, it’s a good measure of general postural chain flexibility. For an adult, if you can touch your toes, lift your arms pretty comfortably overhead and sit in a squat – that, for me, all the flexibility you need in your day-to-day life.

“Hamstrings get commonly tight mainly because we don’t use that range much.

“If you actually you think about it, until you start doing stretching, you don’t realise how much it’s lacking because in reality, you don’t use that range all the time. Running is super common and part of increasing running efficiency and economy… if you do any running then your hamstrings and calves will tighten up, because it improves your efficiency, so that’s another reason.

“The last reason is that usually [hamstrings and calves] are weak. Sometimes it’s not that your hamstrings are tight, it’s that your body doesn’t know if it’s actually strong enough to be in that position and so it won’t let you go there to make sure that you don’t hurt yourself.”

Bianca Grover: “Although tight hamstrings are not a cause for concern, it is good to know that unchecked tightness can cause the hips and pelvis to rotate back, flattening the lower back and causing back pain, knee pain or foot pain.

“Making sure that one’s workout is balanced and targets different muscles in the body equally is very important in preventing muscular imbalances, such as tight hamstrings.”

Marian Barnick: “How you move throughout the day, whether sitting, standing, or walking will directly influence the tightness of your hamstrings.

“Not maintaining a neutral spine while sitting will increase your hamstring tightness. Standing with one knee bent, hip pushed out to the side or leaning will tighten your hamstrings.

“Walking without a proper heel-toe gait pattern will tighten your hamstrings.”

Nick Occhipinti: “Most people with tight hamstrings immediately think they just need to stretch, stretch, stretch. But a tight muscle is also weak and needs to be strengthened.

“Hamstring strengthening exercises like leg curls, straight leg or Romanian deadlifts, nordic hamstring curls, and glute ham raises are great ways to put some length into the muscle but, more importantly, strengthen the muscle.”

Anything Else To Consider?

As always, it is always best to seek advice from a qualified professional before trying any new exercises and stretches.

Gaining the right advice and training for your issue can help to reduce the chances of injury.

Tom Merrick also has some general advice for you if you’re new to stretching.

Tom Merrick

(Photo: Tom Merrick)

“Especially for people who are new to stretching, you need to learn to ’embrace the suck and deal’ with that stretch reflex,” he explains.

“Doing some static stretching initially and learning how to suffer a bit and telling your nervous system that everything is going to be OK is a really key step to do.

“Then you can start incorporating in some more dynamic ways to build flexibility, like strength training and other flexibility techniques.”

Certified personal trainer and yoga instructor Karina Krepp also points out the importance of having patience as you address the issue.

“It took time to cause the imbalance, it will take time and dedication to return to neutral,” she explains. “I recommend stretching morning and evening. Yoga is a great option.”

Wrapping Things Up – Final Thoughts

So, that wraps up our look at tight hamstrings, what the problem is usually caused by, and some basic tips for improving the problem.

Tight hamstrings can be caused by a number of things, but running and being seated for long periods at a time can contribute to the problem.

Incorporating some basic stretches into your routine can help to loosen tight hamstrings and improve flexibility in the long term.

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