Hamstring stretches are pretty common, funny thing is most people are stretching their back as much or more than their hamstrings!
Have you ever done a hamstring stretch by standing or sitting and then bending over to touch your toes? You probably felt your hamstrings, calves, and your back as well. Truthfully, touching your toes usually has more to do with back flexibility than your hamstrings.
What about pulling your toes to your face to increase the stretch by using your hands, a towel, or a wall? That’s your calf muscle, gastrocnemius in particular not soleus, and again doesn’t directly affect your hamstring.
All of these stretches I did at soccer, baseball, school…. seem to be off!
I wouldn’t say they’re wrong so much as lacking the specificity, efficiency, and effectiveness that can be achieved by knowing anatomy and biomechanics well. For instance the hamstring stretches mentioned above use upper-body/back as a lever arm to pull your pelvis forward to stretch your hamstrings. You can easily cheat this by tipping your pelvis back while bending your torso forward and you will have far less hamstring stretch. Your gastrocnemius (bulky calf muscle) moves the knee in flexion just like hamstrings, so it provides a very similar feel and affects an area that is similar.
So what’s the deal!?!?
Simply put, your hamstrings attach to the bottom part of your pelvis and the top of your lower leg, not your back, foot, or ankle! They are movers of the knee and hip so those are the two joints that you want to isolate and play with to get the best stretch.
So if I’m stretching my hamstring eventually, does it matter how I get there?
It depends on your goals. If your goal is to move the kinematic chain and stretch the fascial layers then you’ll be doing well with the stretches I mentioned above. If your goal is to stretch your hamstrings, you’ll do it sort-of, but not very well. By engaging a little bit of each muscle you engage less of the muscle that you want.
The take home message is stretching is like everything else we do in life: the more present, focused, and aware we are the better the results!
As a poignant aside, are you aware that most people that have high stress or don’t interact with stress and emotions well have tight hamstrings? Like other stretches, a hamstring stretch can help the muscle, but it won’t change the underlying physical patterns, thoughts, and emotions.
NSA is the best single tool that I have found that integrates body, mind, emotion, and spirit. It facilitates healing, change, and growth through your systems as a whole so we can reorganise and replace prevention with optimal. This is why I became a chiropractor!
Enjoy watching my two hamstring videos below, and let me know if I can help you, someone you know, or help you find a great NSA doc in your area.
(Dr. Gregg Smillie is a chiropractor in Vancouver specializing in Network Spinal Analysis)