While everyone else seems to be able to effortless reach their toes in a forward bend, you’re barely able to get your fingertips past your knees before body is yelling at you to stop.
Hamstrings can be tricky, and many of us suffer from chronically tight muscles in the backs of our legs.
Beyond the aesthetics of looking graceful on your yoga mat, there are important health reasons as to why one should stretch their hamstrings; but our hamstrings don’t just need to be flexible!
These muscles are a veritable powerhouse in our lower body: without proper maintenance our hamstrings become weak and unable to perform their essential functions with painful consequences.
What Are The Hamstrings?
The hamstrings are a group of 3 muscles (the semitendinosus, the semimembranous, and the biceps femoris) located in the back of the thigh, and connect the sit bones to the bones of the lower leg. (1)
These muscles work together to perform 2 important functions:
- Knee flexion: The main function of your hamstrings is to bend the knee, as when walking, running and climbing stairs. They also serve to rotate the lower leg inwards or outwards, which is necessary to maintain correct placement as we walk.
- Hip extension: The secondary role of the hamstrings is the enable the thigh to move backwards, such as when we go from sitting to standing or perform a squat. This function is also what provides the force necessary to propel us forward when running.
The Benefits of Happy Hamstrings
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgery recommends athletes follow a daily routine of hamstring stretches and exercises to keep hamstrings functioning at their optimal level; (2) but even if you’re not a marathon runner there are many practical reasons you should be interested in increasing your hamstring flexibility and strength.
Posture & Pain Relief
Tight hamstrings can cause or exacerbate musculoskeletal issues leading to chronic back pain and poor posture.
When your hamstrings are tight they limit the natural motion of the pelvis, increasing the stress in the lower back. Overly inflexibly hamstrings pull on their attachment to the pelvis, giving it an anterior tilt - visible as an exaggerated curve in the lumbar spine. The result is that when you bend forward, the flexion has to come from the lower back muscles. (3)
One of the most valuable concepts I learned through my teacher training was that ideally we want to create a little bit of effort spread amongst many muscles when performing a yoga pose; but this also applies to every action we do with our bodies.
Tight or weak hamstrings prevent you from optimally distributing the work, causing unnecessary stress in the lower back as it’s forced to pick up the slack. (5)
Even seasoned athletes have a tendency to have strong calves and quads, but neglected hamstrings. This muscle imbalance means these other muscles have to work harder, exacerbating the problem and increasing the risk of injury.
Stretching your hamstrings can also improve your performance: When muscles are tight blood is unable to circulate properly within them, thus depriving them of the oxygen necessary to keep them functioning at peak capacity. (6)
Our hamstrings are our main source of power when it comes to performing explosive movements, such as when running and jumping. Having healthy hamstrings increases your speed and agility. (2)
4 Yoga Poses To Stretch Your Hamstrings
1. Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana)
- Standing with feet hips distance apart, bend forward at the hips and reach for the ground.
- If your hands can’t touch the floor, rest them against the thighs or the calves.
- Allow your head to hang in a neutral position.
- With each inhale find length from your hips to the top of your head.
- Exhale to move deeper into the stretch.
Hold for 5 or more breaths. Remember for longer holds to rise up slowly to prevent a dizzy spell!
2. Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose (Supta Padagusthasana)
- Lying down on your back, flex both feet to activate the legs and lift one leg up towards the ceiling.
- With the foot still flexed, place the arms anywhere behind your leg (thigh, calf) or grab your big toe between your thumb and index finger.
- Keep your hips squared and grounded as you stretch the leg.
- Inhale to find length from hip to toe, exhale to move deeper into the stretch.
Hold for 5 or more breaths, then carefully lower the leg and repeat on the opposite side.
3. Head-to-Knee Pose (Janu Sirsasana)
- Sit on your mat with your legs extended in front of you, ensuring you are well grounding in your sits bones and along the entire length of the legs.
- Bend your right leg and place the bottom of the foot on the inside of the left thigh, allowing the hip to open and knee to fall towards the floor.
- Keep the left foot flexed - toes pointing to the ceiling - at all times.
- With a straight spine inhale to find length from tailbone to the tip of the crown and on the exhale bend over your extended left leg reaching for your thigh, calf or foot.
4. Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana)
- Begin seated as in Head-to-Knee Pose, keeping both legs extended with the feet flexed.
- Inhale to find the length along your spine, exhale to dive gently forward over the legs and reach for your thighs, calves or feet.
- Another great hamstring stretch is Splits (Hanumanasana), however this pose also requires you to have quite open hips. If you’re interested in working on your splits, check out our in-depth pose guide.
5 Hamstring Strengthening Exercises
In our regular yoga practice we do quite a bit of hamstring stretching, however hamstring strengthening exercises are less likely to make an appearance.
Here are 5 of my favorite exercises from strong, powerful hamstrings!
- Come to stand with feet hip distance apart.
- Squat down, as if sitting in your favorite chair.
- Maintain a straight spine.
- Keep your weight in your heels.
- Place the hands at the chest in a prayer position, or raise the hands over the head.
Crescent Knee Lifts
- From standing, step your left foot back approximately 3 ft.
- Stay on the toes of the left foot, reaching through the heel to activate your leg.
- Bend your right knee, bringing it to a 90 degree.
- Either keep the hands in prayer position at the chest or raise the arms over the head.
From Crescent we’ll begin to pulse the left leg up and down.
- Exhaling, bend the left knee to lightly touch it to the mat.
- Inhale to rise back up.
- Repeat 5-10 times per side.
- Set up the same way as in Crescent pose.
- Place the left foot flat on the ground, pointing your toes towards the upper left corner of your mat.
- Turn your torso to face the left wall.
- Stretch your arms towards the front and back walls.
- Turn your head to face the front of your mat.
- Straighten your right leg, and inhaling reach as far as you can forward with your right hand.
- Once you can go no further, exhale to bring the hand down towards your mat, bending at the waist.
- Reach your left hand towards the ceiling and gently look up at your fingers.
Now, this is where we begin to work.
Instead of dumping your weight into your hand, try to float above the ground: this action requires you to call on the power of your hamstring to keep your in place.
You may even raise the arms over the head, using even more core and leg strength.
- Set up for Crescent Pose
- Exhale to bend the left knee and on the inhale push through the foot to rise up on your straight right leg.
- Flex your left foot and push through it as if you’re standing on the wall behind you.
- You can either keep your hands outstretched towards wall in front or bring them to prayer position.
If you like you can have some fun by combining your Warrior III and Crescent Knee Lifts!
- Exhale in Warrior III
- Inhale float back down to Crescent Pose
- Exhale, knee-to-floor touch
- Inhale to push back up into Warrior III
These can be tricky! Remember to keep the breath steady and with practice you’ll be able to flow from posture to posture with ease and grace.
- Come to lie on your belly.
- Keeping the feet hips distance apart, bend at the knees and reach back to grab the tops of your feet with your hands.
- With an inhale, push your feet into your hands to pull yourself up.
- Continue to push with the feet, while pulling with the hands.
- Protect your back by activating the core, hugging bellybutton to spine.
By including these simple exercises into your weekly fitness routine you can increase your hamstring flexibility and strength and keep these vital muscles happy and healthy.
Remember, we are always looking to create balance in yoga (and no, I’m not referring to handstands): It’s important to be both strong and flexible to keep our body properly supported on and off our mats.
So, while you may have the goal of touching your nose to your knee, be sure to keep in mind the concept of balancing the body by including hamstring strengthening exercises alongside your stretches.
The ability to take a pose to its deepest level is not the definition of health and fitness. Believe me when I tell you all that’s down there is your sweaty feet! Work at a level that feels good, never overstress your body to conform to an idealized standard.