Supple or Stuck. What Is the State of Your Hamstrings?

Contributed by Coach Becky

How many times during the Elite Athletic Development / CrossFit Arlington Heights Dynamic Warm Up do you feel like your leg just won’t go straight for Russian March or Iron Cross? How often do you feel a tug in the back of your legs during Windmills or Sumo Squat to Stand? My guess is this happens on a fairly regular basis, and the likely culprit is tight hamstrings.

So how does this happen? There are a few different things that may contribute to your tight hamstrings.

You Have Bad Posture. When your mother told you to “sit up straight,” she knew what she was talking about. Many people walk around with an anterior pelvic tilt and don’t even realize it. So if everybody is doing it, can it be so bad? Physiologically, an anterior pelvic tilt puts a lot of strain on your hamstrings, causing them to work really hard to counterbalance anterior force by trying to pull your pelvis into extension. This constant need for your hamstrings to be turned “on” results in a chronic shortening/tightening.

Left: anterior pelvic tilt. Center: neutral Right: posterior pelvic tilt

Left: anterior pelvic tilt. Center: neutral
Right: posterior pelvic tilt

You Sit. Alot. When you sit for an extended duration, your knees are flexed and you support a posterior pelvic tilt. So what does that mean? Knee flexion and hip extension are the two primary actions of the hamstrings, so being in those positions all day will lead to chronic shortening of the muscle; chronic shortening is another term for tightness.

You Can’t Distinguish Between Hip Flexion and Lumber Flexion. When you flex at your lumbar spine (which most people do), it allows your hamstrings to remain in a shortened position, thus adding to the tightness. If you are able to flex at your hips (like you should be doing), it allows the hamstrings to lengthen. So if you spend your whole life bending over from the back instead of from the hips, your are never giving your hamstrings the opportunity to stretch out in that position.

Left: lumbar flexion Right: hip flexion

Left: lumbar flexion
Right: hip flexion

It’s Actually Coming From Your Back. In cases of nerve impingement, lumbar disc herniations and other lumbar spine injuries, the feeling of tightness in your hamstrings may actually be the result of compression on your sciatic nerve. How do you know if this is the case? Symptoms typically include sharp, shooting pain down the front or back of the leg. To be safe, you should always consult your physician.

This Sounds Like Me. How Do I Fix It? Depending on the cause of your hamstring tightness, you may need any combination of mobility exercises, myofascial release work, isolated strengthening, or even medical intervention. Try an EAD / CFAH Mobility & Recovery class, Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. or Saturday at 8 a.m. as a first step. You may be surprised to find that after just 10 minutes of mobility work on your hamstrings, you will feel a significant difference. Think you need a little bit more direction? Email Coach Becky at and schedule a consultation.
Becky Rivard is a senior performance coach at Elite Athletic Development / CrossFit Arlington Heights. She is a NATABOC Certified Athletic Trainer, Illinois Licensed Athletic Trainer, National Academy of Sports Medicine Corrective Exercise Specialist & Performance Enhancement Specialist, National Strength and Conditioning Association Certified Personal Trainer and CrossFit Level 1 Certified Coach. Spend one hour in Coach Becky’s Mobility & Recovery class and you may rethink how tough you think you are.