At the behest of a client, a trainer may stretch a client’s chronically tight hamstrings to provide some relief and increase range of motion. It’s an all-too-common scenario that plays out in gyms and training studios across America and many parts of the world. This frequently becomes a daily ritual that brings temporary relief to those annoying “tight” tissues.
Now, let me pose a couple of questions that many trainers and clients don’t seem to ask themselves: If stretching those restricted tissues is truly effective, then why am I always having to do it? Shouldn’t this issue dissipate and resolve itself?
If you are repeatedly doing the same thing and expecting a different result, then perhaps you need to step back and reassess your protocols.
Are you experiencing restricted tissue movement due to restrictions in lengthening, or are those areas actually overactive?
What do I mean by overactive?
Let’s stay with the hamstrings to answer this question. Many people have excessive anterior pelvic tilt from habitual sitting, which often prevents the front of the hip from extending. This can cause the opposing tissue line (the hamstrings) to work overtime due to the lack of activation from the front tissues.
Get the Best Stretch Ever with Stick Mobility! Shop Sticks Today!
The body lives in a constant state of regulating lines of length and tension. We’re bipedal animals who require vertical length & strength. Think of how the trunk of a tree is dependent on finding equal dispersal of tension (360°) as it grows. If we cut into one side of the trunk, then the directly-opposing side of the trunk automatically takes more tension and stress. The body works in the same way. If the hips lack the ability to extend - and, better yet, have strength in extension - then we feel the consequences in the opposing tissues (hamstrings).
This is the reason why improper stretching provides some temporary relief but doesn’t resolve the issue. You’re trying to kill a fly with a sledge hammer. Wrong strategy for the wrong problem. A majority of people who experience tight hamstrings don’t actually have short and/or restricted tissue lines. If you continue to improperly stretch tissues that are hyperactive, you will eventually weaken that tissue line.
How do you know if it’s a length or stability problem?
Lay down on your back with both legs straight. Elevate one leg up towards the sky/ceiling while keeping the knee in extension and also making sure that the off-leg doesn’t externally rotate outward. If your off-leg externally rotates away from your midline, then you’ll get an incorrect assessment of your range of motion. If your leg can get to 80-90° (some say 70-95°) then it’s not a stretching issue. Your body is looking for stability in the hips, and not everything is working together to accomplish this.
Another great way to evaluate yourself or your client is by asking them to take a half-kneeling position on the floor (one knee down and the other leg in front). Don’t give any other cues or instructions. What you’re looking for is to see if the person externally rotates the back hip (down leg) when setting up in this position. The reason why someone would externally rotate the back hip is to gain stability so they don’t fall over.
The brain is like a lawyer, it’s trying to find the loopholes and most efficient ways to accomplish the task(s) it’s given. When the back leg is externally rotated, it will create a tripod base of support with both feet and the knee which is extremely stable. If the client uses this strategy, ask them to internally rotate their back hip so it’s neutral (facing forward) or slightly internally rotated.
What you’ll see is they have a hard time staying upright (keeping the hip extended) and they’ll feel unstable and want to collapse (fold) at the hip. Now we know that the client needs to reestablish stability and strength in hip extension, which will allow the hamstrings to decrease their workload and give them some much needed rest.
The next time you or your client are experiencing tight tissues, be sure to ask yourself if it’s a stability or mobility problem before yanking and pulling on body parts. You can Google minimum ranges of motion for each tissue line if you need clarification or a point of reference.
Another strategy is to look at the client’s body position at rest. Remember that where one angle decreases, the opposing angle increases. Increasing angles then come under more tension while fighting gravity’s pull on our body. So, before you pick up that sledge hammer, see if there’s a fly swatter available.