Many of us tend to have occupations or sedentary hobbies that have us sitting for prolonged periods while tapping away on keyboards, clicking mice and straining our eyes at computer screens, so why is it when go to stand up, we notice that the backs of our legs feel stiff? What gives? We didn’t go for a run and pull our hamstring! It is common to develop tight hamstrings as a result of poor sitting habits. What’s more, we form hip imbalances as some muscles become shortened and tight while others become elongated and tight.
The hamstrings tend to become overstretched, and stiffened. So traditional static stretching aimed at lengthening these muscles is often counter-productive and possibly harmful.
While sitting, the hip flexor muscle group, particularly the iliopsoas, can become shortened and tight, and when standing this can pull the pelvis into anterior tilt, and it can be a tug of war with the hamstrings trying to pull the pelvis more into posterior tilt, if the hamstrings aren’t strong enough they often lose this battle. What can make matters worse is that sitting on our butts can make our gluteus muscles forget that they are the thickest, largest muscles in the body, and instead that they are not much more than glorified seat cushions.
This is tough on the hamstrings because they rely on the glutes to help them extend the hip, as they are both prime movers of this action, but if the glutes are suffering from “glute amnesia” as it has been termed, a disproportionate load share falls on the already stretched out and stiff hams. So, not only are they losing the pelvic tug of war with the hip flexors, they aren’t getting enough help from their synergistic cohort.
A Bit of Anatomy:
The hamstrings are a muscle group comprised of three muscles, the biceps femoris, semitendinosus and the semimembranosus. These muscles originate together on the Ischial tuberosity (‘sit bones’), then divide just above the back of the knee joint to attach on either side of it onto the tibia and fibula. Along with the gluteal muscles, they work to extend the hip.
The hamstrings are also the prime mover of knee flexion, and when the knee is slightly bent, they also internally and externally rotate the knee, and stabilize lateral movement while the foot is planted on the ground. The semimembranosus also attaches to the medial meniscus on the inside of the knee joint, working to shift the meniscus to allow knee flexion.
The Iliopsoas muscles, ( the Psoas major, psoas minor, and the iliacus) generally referred to as the hip flexors, are the primary movers of raising your knees, as well as stabilizing the pelvis. This is also a muscle group like the hamstrings, but this time they have a common insertion at the lesser trochanter, (the inside of the upper part of the femur) and have different origins. The psoas major and the psoas minor originate on each side of the vertebral bodies of the lumbar (L) vertebrae L1 to L 4, while the iliacus muscle originates in the iliac fossa, the inside bowl of the pelvis.
Via its attachment to the lumbar spine, The psoas contributes to lower back stability as well, countering the force exerted from the lumbar paraspinal muscles.
A sample of Some Beneficial Exercises that will help Eliminate the Feeling of Tight Hamstrings :
First off, you can provide direct fasciae release of your hamstrings using a tennis or lacrosse ball and a firm surface you can sit on, like a wooden chair ( preferably not upholstered) or sturdy coffee table. Sit on the chair and place the ball under your upper thigh, so it nestles in under the upper part of your hamstring, near the attachment at the “ sit bone” from here you can wiggle the ball side to side using your leg to administer a self massage, go slow, this might feel a bit tender, move the ball down the length of the thigh while repeating the wiggling movement.
Next, you have to think about balancing out the muscles of the pelvis with some selected strengthening, stretching and activation exercises to wake up and tonify or release the hypertonic muscle causing imbalance issues. Glute Bridges are a time tested and true exercise to wake up the glutes.
As long as your goal isn’t to build big “buns-of-steel, a moderate program of reps and steps will help to wake up and strengthen the gluteal muscles, like 3 sets of 12 reps done 3 to 5 times a week, or even everyday if you choose.
To do them, keep in mind to:
- Start in hook-lying position, that is, on your back with your knees up. Your heels should be close to your butt but not right against it, as you raise your hips, your knees should be directly over your ankles. Knees should be hip width apart
- Rest your arms on either side of your body, palms preferably down, but you do what’s comfortable for you. Shoulders should stay flat on the floor
- Raise your pelvis up, really think about squeezing your butt to do this action, it helps to dig your heels in while imagining them slide away from your buttocks, this will help to inhibit the hamstrings from taking over.
- Remember, be smooth and controlled with your action.
The hip flexor muscles will likely need to be lengthened, but they might also need to be awakened to activate properly as well, sometimes those deep lunge stretches might be too much for what they actually need. Lunge stretches are still a good way to stretch the hip flexors, but think more of using the glutes to help you release them.
Using ‘reciprocal inhibition’, you can get a muscle to release by concentrically contracting its opposite muscle:
- Get into a lunge position, the knee on the floor should have a cushion (be kind!)
- Instead of just pushing your pelvis forward, think about squeezing your glute while your hip is still directly over your knee. You should feel a lengthening at the front of your hip with this, if not, you can deepen the stretch a little further, but don’t let go of your glutes! Hold this for 5- 10 seconds, and of course repeat on the other side.
In the near future, I will be featured in the Brio video series, where along with Dr. Jeff Lee, we will go over these exercises and more, so stay tuned!