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Hamstring Stretches: Practice and a Bit of Theory

3 min read

Originally taught at ESP's Splash for MIT 2021

What do hamstrings do for us in our everyday movements? What can happen if your hamstrings are tight or weak? What does stretching even do to a muscle, anyway? And lest we forget… the stretches! Join us as we explore the expansive, wondrous world beyond gym class sit-and-reach — relaxing and not-so-relaxing stretches you can do anywhere! No equipment or flexibility required!

Intro

Hey everyone, thanks for coming! This is a class about hamstring stretching. Of course, we’ll be doing some hamstring stretches if you want to follow along, and hopefully they’re friendly for all levels.

But the reason I wanted to create and teach this class is that exploring movement, through activities like stretching and doing flows of motions (sometimes it's "choreography", other times not), is really relaxing and empowering for me.

Three versions of a man in an empty room, left to right: doing a shrimp squat, squatting on the ground, and balancing with bent knees on the balls of his feet. From GMB Fitness.

Stretching and related activities are really important for mobility, flexibility, and overall health. Hamstring stretches in particular are a good gateway to bodily awareness, because they force you to think about alignment and where you're bending from.

But for a lot of people, stretching is an activity associated with painful or just boring memories. And you may have never asked or been told why we stretch and how we should stretch. Let's change that! :)

Disclaimer: I'm not a doctor, fitness instructor, or physical therapist. I'm not responsible for any injuries resulting from this. I don't own any of the photos used here.

Theory

What and where are hamstrings? Anatomy time! Your hamstrings are three muscles in the back (posterior) of your thigh. From lateral (side of your leg) to medial (middle of the back of your leg), they are: semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and biceps femoris.

Diagram of hamstring muscles

Your quadriceps, which are on the front of your thigh, oppose your hamstrings to keep your pelvis stable and bend and flex your knees. It's normal for quads to be stronger than hamstrings, just try to maintain that ratio by not over-training or neglecting one or the other.

What do hamstrings do for us in our everyday movements? Bend and straighten the knees and hips, rotate the legs. Crucial to walking, running, jumping...

What can happen if your hamstrings are tight or weak? Lower back pain, increased risk of injury, your other muscles are probably affected too (e.g. quads are stronger than the hamstrings, pulling pelvis into forward tilt; hip flexors assist; hamstrings get pulled and over-lengthened).

Warmup

It's important to warm up before stretching. Stretching cold muscles is less effective and leaves you more susceptible to injury. Cardio and dynamic stretches are a good way to warm up: jumping jacks, air squats, high-knees, butt kicks, etc.

Stretches

I'll go through standing, bent over, kneeling, and seated stretches, bringing up things to keep in mind during each. In general, make sure your hips are square, you're hinging at the hip, and that you're feeling the stretch in the right area. Also you don't actually need to keep your legs straight / knees locked.

Keeping your hips square means that both your hip bones are on the same plane, rather than one turning or facing another way. If you're extending you right leg in front of you, for example, you might want to actively keep your left hip forward.

Note: This doc is just an outline, the actual workshop included many remarks and tips for each stretch :)

Standing

Leg on raised surface:

Flex one foot:

Bent over

Classic touch-your-toes:

Wide stance

Kneeling

Seated

Classic sit-and-reach:

One leg:

Advanced/Other Stretches

Downward dog: This is a very common yoga pose, but I consider it advanced in that even when you have a decent amount of hamstring flexibility, you still have to try actively to ease into it and have proper form.

Sepia tone, woman doing downward dog pose on yoga mat, with text labels pointing to parts of her body and describing good form

Standing split: Note that splits don't just depend on your hamstring flexibility. They also require flexibility your hip flexors and quads and, in the case of standing splits, strength.

Woman doing standing split against white background, with text labels pointing to parts of her body and describing good form

References

pls don't flame me LOL

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamstring

https://www.runnersworld.com/health-injuries/a20809265/10-tips-to-relieve-hamstring-tightness/

https://www.ktsmassageandyoga.com/blogcontent/seatedforwardfold

Photos from various Google searches, see their URLs

lastly, a mood:

Testimonials

"Thank you so much for teaching!! I really enjoyed stretching out my hamstrings :) I've never done a series of stretches that was focused on a single muscle before, and i thought it was really interesting!"