How to Fix Tight Hamstrings
Muscle cramps seem to sneak up on you during the worst moments. Whether you’re in the middle of a race or the final few periods of a crucial game, a cramp or muscle tightness can throw a wrench in your athletic performance. And the hamstrings are a common culprit for muscle groups that tend to flare up the most often.
If you’ve been running into issues with a set of tight hamstrings, it can begin to set you back on your training goals. Or worse, be the limiting factor in maximizing your athletic performance or setting a new PR in competition.
This article covers everything you need to know about why your hamstrings are essential as an athlete, what causes them to become tight, how to prevent it from happening in the first place, and most importantly – what to do to alleviate pain and tightness once hamstring soreness has already set in.
- The Importance of Hamstrings for Athletes
- What Causes Tight Hamstrings?
- How to Fix Tight Hamstrings
- How to Prevent Tight Hamstrings
The Importance of Hamstrings for Athletes
The hamstrings play an essential role in most athletic movements involving the lower body. Anything requiring the flexing and coordination of your knee and hip joints needs a healthy functioning hamstring to make it happen.
Evey running, squatting, or jumping movement in sports relies on the hamstrings to generate force when you push off the ground and control the speed of your legs as you swing through each stride.
Although you might primarily think of the legs when talking about the hamstrings, they also play a critical role in positioning your torso and optimizing your center of gravity. If you have immobility or muscle imbalances in the hamstrings, it can throw off an entire chain of biomechanics that directly impact your athletic performance.
What Causes Tight Hamstrings?
There are a variety of symptoms that accompany a tight set of hamstrings – muscle soreness, minor pain, difficulty moving, cramps, and a general feeling of muscle weakness.
The cause for tight muscles is typically due to overuse during an intense training session. During exercise, microscopic tears form and elicit an inflammation response. Usually, the side effects of inflammation are manageable and even unnoticeable. But, there are times you cross the threshold of the amount of exercise-induced muscle damage that produces a more considerable amount of inflammation and accompanying pain from delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS.)
Muscle tightness can also occur if you’re training an unfamiliar movement, have taken a long break from training, or have spent an extended period of time inactive prior to training.
How to Fix Tight Hamstrings
Four different muscles comprise the hamstring muscle group:
- Semitendinosus (Medial)
- Semimembranosus (Medial)
- Long-head Bicep Femoris (Lateral)
- Short-head Bicep Femoris (Lateral)
All four muscles that make up the hamstrings are susceptible to exercise-induced damage and the onset of muscle soreness.
Luckily, there are quite a few ways you can help alleviate muscle tightness in your hamstrings to get you back into action and training properly.
Strengthening Muscles to Prevent Cramps
Most of the attention for the cause of muscle cramps gets focused on hydration, nutrition, and recovery. And while all of those factors are important, it’s often overlooked that muscle damage and fatigue also play a crucial role in causing cramps to happen in the first place.
Because of this, it’s likely that when cramps occur, it is due to weakness in specific muscle groups. Muscles that connect with other muscles to move a joint are particularly susceptible to cramping when they’re fatigued, which is the reason why sometimes your hamstrings seize up on you during longer periods of exercise.
If your hydration and nutrition are already in check, it’s a great idea to begin examining your resistance training regimen to ensure your hamstrings receive the proper amount of attention and training volume to keep them functioning properly once they become fatigued.
While muscle endurance can be developed during distance or sprint training, one of the best places to address this issue is in your resistance training. The reason why it’s often overlooked is simply that it’s a ‘slow, gradual process’ compared to hydration and nutrition, which can be addressed in the immediate or near-term before an event.
But for a well-balanced training program, you don’t want to accidentally under develop crucial muscle groups and end up running into issues down the road. Your resistance training efforts are something that accumulates over time to keep you healthy, training, and competing in the long term.
Best Hamstring Exercises:
- Single-leg/Standard Romanian Deadlifts
- Reverse Hip-Raise (Reverse Hyperextension)
- Nordic Hamstring Curles
- Seated/Lying Leg Curls
- Glute-Ham Raise
- Single-Leg Glute Bridge
- Physio Ball Hamstring Curls
- Cable Pull-Throughs
- Kettlebell Swings
Stretching for Preventing Cramps and Tightness
Stretching can help improve range of motion and dampen the effects of lost mobility due to muscle tightness. We’ll go through various simple hamstring stretches to incorporate into your daily stretching routine to reduce musculotendinous stiffness.
As an important note, you shouldn’t use static stretching as a form of warmup before exercise, and you should incorporate static stretching after or well before your training sessions. We’ll cover more effective warmup activities further down the page.
Best Hamstring Stretches:
Seated Hamstring Stretch:
- Sit flat on the floor with one or both legs positioned in front of you.
- With your legs kept in the straight position, bend forward from your waist.
- Continue stretching until you feel moderate tension.
- Hold for 15-30 seconds.
*Modifications: You can modify the difficulty of the exercise by elevating your body with a chair or bench.
Standing Hamstring Stretch:
- Stand in a neutral position with your feet less than shoulder-width apart.
- Step forward with your right foot and flex the foot up towards your shin.
- With your right leg straight, bend over at the hips with your hands on your thigh for support and your left leg slightly bent.
- Stretch until you feel moderate tension and hold for 15-30 seconds.
- Repeat for the left leg.
Supine Hamstring Stretch:
- Lay down flat on your back, either on a yoga mat or the floor.
- With a stretching strap attached to your foot, gently pull one leg upwards toward your body.
- Keep a slight bend in your knee and continue to stretch until you feel moderate tension on your hamstrings for 15-30 seconds.
- Repeat for the opposite leg.
*Modifications: If you are not using a stretching strap or require a less intense stretch, you can support your thigh behind your knee with your hands and pull your leg towards your body.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Keep your legs straight, and knees slightly bent.
- Hinging at the hips, bend your torso downward.
- With your arms hanging loosely in front of you, continue reaching for your toes until you feel a moderate stretch.
- Hold for 15-30 seconds.
Hamstring Stretching Tools
While you can do many hamstring stretches with just your body, there are a few devices worth having in your gym bag to maximize the time and benefits of your hamstring stretching practice. We’ll discuss a few of our favorites and then include an Amazon grid with links to some of the best hamstring stretching tools out there.
The first tool is the Hammy Stretch hamstring stretching strap. The Hamy Stretch is simple, but its secure foot platform and adjustable strap make perfecting your supine hamstring stretches much more effortless.
The second tool is the IdealStretch Original Hamstring Stretching Device. The IdealStretch helps you get an excellent stretch in your hamstrings without putting pressure on your spine or dis-orienting your hips during stretching. It may not be small enough to fit in your gym bag, but it’s a great tool to have for your home stretching practice, and its light steel frame makes it portable enough to take with you while you’re traveling if you’re serious about your hamstring stretching.
Mobility Athlete is reader-supported. So if you add some new mobility tools to your gym bag using one of our links, we can receive a small commission (at no additional cost to you!) It helps us keep the lights on here at the site. Thanks for your support!
Self-myofascial release, like foam rolling and massage gun therapy, is one of the best ways to both prevent delayed-onset muscle soreness when used before a workout and to reduce tightness post-workout.
Myofascial release has a cascade of positive benefits on your body. It helps increase circulation to re-oxygenate your muscles and transport nutrients and metabolic waste, and it temporarily improves range of motion and perceived pain.
How to Prevent Tight Hamstrings
Aside from using self-myofascial release before a workout to help prevent the onset of muscle soreness after training, there are a few other protocols you can take advantage of to keep muscle tightness from happening in the first place.
Adding in an active warmup before any training session or competition is the best way to decrease both the effects of experiencing muscle soreness as well as reducing your chances of injury.
Before any form of training, moderate aerobic activity is shown to prevent muscle soreness without losing muscle force for your training session. Additionally, you can perform lightweight hamstring-specific exercises to prime blood flow specifically to your hamstrings.
Here are a few exercises you can incorporate into your warmup that activate the hamstrings:
- Jogging High Knees
- Jogging Butt-Kickers
- Glute Kickbacks
- Leg Curls (Light)
- Romanian Deadlifts (Light)
Ice Baths and Cold Showers
The benefits of ice baths and cold showers have quite a lot of overlap with preventing muscle soreness and jumpstarting workout recovery.
Most notably, cold therapy decreases the inflammation response and promotes protein synthesis. Just like using an ice-pack is part of the R.I.C.E. method for reducing inflammation to local injuries, cold therapy applies that concept across more extensive areas of your body.
If ensuring that you can get back to training will a full range of motion (as you would for skill acquisition or endurance training,) then cold therapy is a very straightforward way to improve recovery between sessions. However, if your goal is hypertrophy or strength development, the natural inflammation response your body produces immediately post-workout is critical to triggering the adaptations that create progression. The natural inflammation response typically lasts about an hour after training, and it is likely best to periodize your cold exposure for recovery accordingly.
Vibration therapy, especially when combined with foam rolling, supercharges many of the same positive benefits of self-myofascial release.
When used as a part of your warmup routine, vibrating foam rollers can additionally improve neuromuscular function, improve muscle strength, and even increase positive hormonal responses.
If you want to take a deep dive into the science behind how vibration therapy works and its numerous benefits, take a look at our article on the effects of vibrating foam rollers.
Not only does being adequately hydrated have massive impacts on your overall athletic performance, but it can also help reduce the chances of muscle tightness in the long run.
Nearly every chemical reaction in your body while exercising needs water to work correctly. When you’re dehydrated, your body has to prioritize using the available water. Because your body needs fluid to flush out metabolic waste during exercise, dehydration can further exacerbate the inflammation response and, in turn, increase your chances of muscle tightness both during and after training.
If you want more tips on how to improve your recovery post-workout, including hydration strategies, check out our article on the top workout recovery habits of successful athletes.