Why stretching your hamstrings won’t help your back pain. In fact it’s making it worse…

Hamstring stretching is a common, generic exercise given as part of low back pain program as well as improving athletic performance.

Here’s what you need to be asking yourself:

  1. Is stretching my hamstrings necessary?
  2. What is the goal/purpose of stretching our hamstrings?
  3. When is it the right time to do so?

I hope to bring some clarity on the topic of hamstring stretches and what exactly it is doing and NOT doing for you.

Let’s Start With Anatomy

The hamstrings are found on the back side of the thigh, one toward inside/one toward outside, and both have attachments from the butt bone (Ischial tuberosity) at the top to just below the knee joint on the tibia.

The hamstring contributes to bending of the knee and extending your leg back behind your body but also is what prevents your pelvis from falling forward into an anterior tilt. 

When the hamstrings are weak and long, the hips will dive forward placing your lumbar spine into a more compressed/extended position leading to wear, disc bulging and nerve impingement.

Due to that mechanical position, as stated above, the hamstrings are weak along with: glutes (butt), obliques (core) which further demands your low back to engage to make up for the slack.

Now that we have covered some anatomy, we can discuss what studies have shown. According to the International Journal of Sports and Physical therapy, “to avoid decrease in strength and performance that may occur in athletes due to static stretching before competition or activity, dynamic stretching is recommended for warm-up (moving as you stretch).”

This study along with many others confirm that, yes, when you stretch your hamstrings for static durations 30+ seconds 4-5 reps it increases the muscle length of what you are stretching. It is also mentioned that static stretching is NOT what you should do prior to running/training because it weakens the muscles contractility.

This is a paradigm shift for many people that holding a stretch (static stretching) prior to exercise makes you weaker in your workouts and potentially places you more at risk for injury.

If you are weakening the hamstring strength by stretching and elongated it, it is going to do a worse job helping you lift weight. Also, it will allow your pelvis to dump forward so that once again, your back is going to have to make up for it with activity.

Now that we understand some anatomy and have seen some evidence, what is the solution? 

We need to activate the hamstrings to reduce the forward position of the pelvis. This can be done on one or both sides of the pelvis which mechanically places the hamstrings in a better position, allowing for more mobility.

At Austin Physical Therapy we use specific exercise progressions that target the patterns that people present, known as Postural Restoration techniques. The Postural Restoration Institute (PRI) offers an innovative approach that goes beyond what google has to offer.

At Austin Physical Therapy, we want to find the source of pain and not just deal with the symptoms of the source.

Contrary to traditional physical therapy, we work on “turning off” the overactive muscles and “turning on” the under active ones through these progressive exercises. We address dysfunctional muscle patterns, the respiratory system and asymmetrical patterns that ultimately allows the person to be more balanced.

So before you bend over to start stretching before a run, ask yourself, is stretching my hamstrings necessary?

Written by: Casey Westbrook, PTA

Sources Citation:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3273886/

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/26695993_Stretching_versus_strength_training_in_lengthened_position_in_subjects_with_tight_hamstring_muscles_A_randomized_controlled_trial

Contact us today if you’d like to speak with a physical therapist about pain management or additional advice on how to reduce inflammation! We have two convenient locations in Brownsboro and Huntsville, AL.