Why Your Hamstrings Are Tight & How to Stretch Them

Box of stretch bands

Hamstring tightness can hinder physical activity and cause low back pain. Here’s how to safely stretch your hamstrings while lying, sitting, or standing.

Disclaimer: If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Well Guide contain information from peer-reviewed research, medical societies and governmental agencies; however, these articles are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Do you have tight hamstrings? If the answer is yes, you are not alone.

The hamstring muscles are the large muscles located at the back of the leg. Tight hamstrings can cause discomfort in the back of your thigh and buttock area. Because of their proximity to the low back, tight hamstrings can also cause low back pain. Stretching can help relieve some of the tension caused by tight hamstrings. For this reason, it is essential to know how to stretch your hamstrings properly and safely since forcing a stretch can lead to injury.

Why Your Hamstrings Are Tight

The hamstring muscles are made up of three different muscles – the semimembranosus, semitendinosus and biceps femoris – which are located at the back of your thigh. This muscle group can get tight for various reasons, such as inactivity, tasks that require a lot of sitting, or activities that heavily involve the lower body.

If you have tight hamstrings, you might feel muscle tension in the back of the thigh when you bend forward or reach towards your toes.

The Effects of Tight Hamstrings

Hamstring tightness can make certain daily activities more difficult because your range of motion is limited. For example, bending down to lift something off the floor or leaning forward to put on shoes requires lengthening of the hamstrings, so doing these activities with tight muscles can be quite tricky or uncomfortable for some people. Hamstring tightness can also make walking more uncomfortable, leading to less physical activity, which can have an impact on your overall wellness.

The hamstrings attach to the back of the pelvis at the ischial tuberosities, or that part of the pelvis more commonly known as the “sit bones.” When these muscles are tight, they pull on the pelvis which can strain the lumbar spine, potentially leading to lower back pain.

Types of Hamstring Stretches

There are many ways to stretch your hamstrings. It's important to choose the stretch that is safest and most comfortable for your body. What most people don’t know is that purely stretching for a few seconds is not the best way to improve your hamstring flexibility. Better ways to improve flexibility include:

  • Static stretching: Holding a stretch for 30 seconds or more can lengthen a muscle.
  • Dynamic stretching: Moving into and out of a stretch can improve flexibility.
  • Postural corrections: Some postures encourage shortened muscles, so avoiding those postures can help decrease tightness.
  • Strengthening opposite muscles: Muscles work together and have different roles in moving the body. Often when one muscle is tight, another one is weak. Strengthening an opposing muscle can help improve the flexibility of its counter. An example is strengthening the quadriceps, which are located at the front of the thighs, to help improve the length of the hamstring muscles.

For the purpose of this article, we will focus on static stretching of the hamstrings. When performed regularly, static stretching has been proven to increase the length of the muscle. In a study performed by Kokkonen et. al,, 2007, static stretching performed for 3 rounds of 15-second holds, 3 times a week for 10 weeks showed an improvement in hamstring length. The various types of hamstring stretches include:

  • Lying hamstring stretches: These stretches could be deemed best for beginners. This is because they are done in a supine (on your back) position, which keeps your back flat and relaxed. Lying down stretches are typically done first in physical therapy before progressing to seated or standing stretches. A stretching strap is often used to make these stretches more effective and comfortable.
  • Seated hamstring stretches: These stretches can be done on the floor or sitting in a chair. These stretches use the weight of your trunk to lean into the stretch.
  • Standing hamstring stretches: Standing hamstring stretches could be the most difficult of the three since the standing position involves some balance.

Hamstring Stretches and Osteoporosis

Before explaining how to stretch your hamstrings, it is important to reinforce that certain stretches may not be right for people with compromised bone mineral density. For example, standing hamstring stretches involve trunk flexion, or a lean forward, which is not encouraged for those with advanced osteoporosis. However, you can safely perform these exercises if you keep your back straight and hinge at the hips instead of rounding the spine. If you are unsure if this stretch is appropriate for you, or if you aren’t sure whether or not you are doing it correctly, it is best to consult with a physical therapist prior to starting any hamstring stretches. 

​How to Stretch Your Hamstrings

Before starting the below stretches, do not expect to look like the demonstrations. Every body is different, so no two people will look the same when doing this stretch. There is no need to force a stretch, especially if it is uncomfortable to begin with!

How will you know if you are stretching effectively? You should feel some tension in the back of your thigh. This could be a pulling or tightness sensation. This feeling might be a little uncomfortable, and that’s okay. Mild discomfort is normal during stretching. However, at no point should you feel a sharp pain, numbness, or tingling. Be sure to ease into stretches slowly. Avoid stretching quickly or forcefully. As you hold a stretch, see if you can sink deeper into the stretch when you exhale.

Before beginning stretching exercises, try to warm your body. Stretching when your body is stiff and cold could lead to more discomfort. To warm up your body, go for a quick walk, even if it is just a 5-minute lap around your home  (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 2020). Foam rolling prior to stretching can also help loosen up tissues and muscles so that stretching is more comfortable. 

1. Towel hamstring stretch

This supine hamstring stretch uses a towel to assist with the stretch. A yoga strap may also be used if you have one. This stretch is a good option for those with acute back pain because the back is supported by the floor. 

  • Start by lying on your back with a towel in hand.
  • Bend the knee of your right leg so that your foot is flat. 
  • Wrap the towel around your left foot, while maintaining a straight leg.
  • Gently pull the left leg towards you by using the towel. 
  • Hold for 30-60 seconds.
  • Slowly lower leg and repeat on the opposite leg.

2. Hurdler hamstring stretch

This stretch is done in a seated position. The hurdler hamstring stretch uses the weight of the upper body to stretch the hamstrings. It can also benefit the hip flexors.

  • Start by sitting with your legs stretched out in front of you.
  • Bend your left knee so that your left foot is just outside your left hip, as if you are just about to jump over a hurdle. If this bothers the left knee, bend the leg in front of you, placing the foot on the inside of the right thigh.
  • Keep your right knee straight out in front of you and flex the right foot.
  • Lean your trunk forward reaching for your right foot until you feel a stretch in the hamstrings of the front leg. 
  • Hold for 30-60 seconds. 
  • To add in a hip flexor stretch, stay in this position and lean back over the bent leg.
  • Hold this for 30-60 seconds.
  • Repeat on the other side. 

​3. Standing hamstring stretch

This stretch is good for those who have difficulty getting up and down from the floor. It should be approached with caution, or under the supervision of a physical therapist, especially if you have low bone density.

  • Start by finding a step or a chair.
  • Place your right leg up on the surface you will be using.
  • Keep the right knee straight as you lean your trunk forward and reach your hands towards your toes. Keep your back straight as you lean forward. 
  • For a deeper stretch point your toes up towards the ceiling.
  • Hold this for 30-60 seconds.
  • Repeat on the other side. 

4. Seated hamstring stretch

This version of the hamstring stretch is best for those who have difficulty getting up and down from the floor, but would prefer not to stand and risk balancing. 

  • Start by sitting at the edge of your chair.
  • Place one leg straight out in front of you, pointing your toes up towards the ceiling.
  • Keep your knee and back straight as you lean your trunk forward and reach your hands towards your toes.
  • Hold this for 30-60 seconds.
  • Repeat on the other side. 
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  1. Mayo Clinic Staff. Stretching: Focus on flexibility. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. January 31, 2020. Accessed February 10, 2022. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/stretching/art-20047931
  2. Kokkonen J, Nelson A, Elderedge C, Winchester B. Chronic static stretching improves exercise performance. Med Sci Sport Exerc. 2007;39(10):1825–1831. doi:10.1249/mss.0b013e3181238a2b. 
  3. Radwan A, Bigney KA, Buonomo HN, et al. Evaluation of intra-subject difference in hamstring flexibility in patients with low back pain: An exploratory study. J Back Musculoskelet Rehabil. 2015;28(1):61–66.

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