In an age when so many in the U.S. spend the bulk of their days seated and/or sedentary, one of the more common muscle imbalance issues involves tight hamstrings, says Apex physical therapist Brock Monger.
And while simply having tight hamstrings isn’t a major health problem in and of itself, Monger adds that the long-term effects of hamstring tightness can manifest in other, sometimes more-debilitating ways.
“If you have tight hamstrings, you’re of course setting yourself up for potential injury when exercising or otherwise being active,” said Monger, co-owner of Apex Physical Therapy in Madras. “But beyond that, perpetually tight hamstrings can, over time, lead to discomfort and pain in your back or your knees.”
What are Hamstrings?
A powerful link in your body’s kinetic chain, your hamstrings are the muscles and tendons that run along the backs of your thighs, connecting from your knees up to your hips.
When your hamstrings are tight, the length of the muscle group shortens. This causes the muscles to continually pull down on the pelvis, tilting it backward and affecting the natural curve of the lower back. This can lead to strain, inflammation and pain in that part of the back.
“You might be surprised to learn that lower back pain is one of the most common ailments to come from tight hamstrings,” Monger said. “The shortening of the hamstring is a common result of sitting for long periods of time, and unless an effort is made to exercise and stretch this muscle group, posture issues can develop.”
Tight hamstrings can also create an imbalance in the knees, which over time can also lead to pain or a higher probability of injury.
So, how do you know if your hamstrings are too tight? Monger offers the following tests you can try on your own:
While lying on your back, legs flat and straight, raise one leg toward the ceiling while keeping the knee straight. A typical adult should be able to reach 70 to 80 degrees from the ground without bending the knee or experiencing too much pain. If your angle is less than that, you likely have tight hamstrings.
Sitting in a chair with your hips and knees at 90 degrees, try to straighten your knees without having to tilt your pelvis. If you can’t, then your hamstrings are probably too tight.
Hamstring Contracture Test
Sit on the floor or ground with one leg straight in front of you and the other bent with the knee up and the foot flat on the ground. Hold the knee that is bent and reach toward the toe on your straightened leg. If you can’t touch the toes while keeping your knee straight, it’s likely you have tight hamstrings.
If you suspect you might suffer from tight hamstrings, consider visiting a physical therapist, Monger says. Through an assessment, a physical therapist can pinpoint tightness, imbalance and weakness in your hamstrings as well as your whole kinetic chain including your back that may put you at risk of pain or injury, then develop a plan for addressing and treating these issues.