How Tight Hamstrings Cause Back Pain & Other Problems

There are a lot of factors that can cause tight hamstrings but one thing is certain. If you develop tight hamstrings you’re likely to develop other issues as well. Lifestyles involving a lot of sitting naturally cause tight hamstrings by keeping your legs at a constant right angle for prolonged periods of time. Other things like overworking, without stretching can cause tight short muscles in your hamstrings resulting in a multitude of other problems.

Why are tight hamstrings bad?

Tight hamstrings can lead to lower back pain, bad posture, imbalances of muscles, and knee pain. If your hamstrings aren’t flexible enough they will be more susceptible to injury. Once your hammies are tight, other muscle groups will follow resulting in stiff joints and posture problems. For instance, tight hamstrings can lead to tight hip flexors, glutes, and lower back muscles resulting in a posterior pelvic tilt. In addition to tightness, pain, and being prone to injury, tight muscles have reduced performance. Muscles that are tight have reduced blood flow which results in a decrease in capacity of performance.

How can you tell if you have tight hamstrings?

There are some tests that a chiropractor or physical therapist can perform to identify if you have tight hamstrings. The most well known is the 90/90 test. To complete this test lie on your back with both legs flat. Reach down and clasp your hands behind the thigh of one of your legs. Bring that leg up so that the angle of your hip (back to femur) is at 90 degrees. Then bring your foot up so that the angle of your knee is at 90 degrees. You then attempt to move your foot up so that your leg is in a straight line. The inability to get within 20-30 degrees at your knee implies tight hamstrings. This test is not perfect however and many other factors can contribute to the inability to straighten your leg including scar tissue and past injuries. There is another much simpler test of course. If you can’t touch your toes while keeping your knees locked you probably have tight hamstrings. When performing this kind of stretch it’s important to make sure your stable and safe. We recommend doing it in a seated position. When performing this kind of hamstring stretch take note of where you’re tightest. If your hamstrings feel fine but your lower back is hurting it might not be an issue with your hamstrings. Other signs that you have overly tight hamstrings include low back pain and stiffness, knee pain, and radiating pain in buttocks and back of leg (sciatica pain). The latter could be caused by the sciatica nerve being pinched but is often related to tight hamstrings as well.

What causes tight hamstrings

Aside from genetic reasons, the most common reasons for tight hamstrings include too much sitting, not enough stretching, and sciatic nerve issues. Sitting for 8 or more hours a day pretty common in modern America. This can cause the muscles of your posterior chain (calves, hamstrings, glutes, low back) to shorten, causing them to tighten. Sitting also results in lower blood flow which has other adverse effects on your muscles. It’s common knowledge that you should stretch after exercise. However, you don’t often think about stretching after sitting. If you work a desk job you may want to consider adding a stretching regimen into your daily routine. If you’re an athlete and find yourself experiencing hamstring tightness you may want to add more stretches to your post-workout routine.

How to prevent and treat tight hamstrings

Preventing hamstring tightness is pretty straightforward. However, it can be more difficult if you have a desk job or find yourself sitting for several hours out of the day. Typically prevention refers to strengthening rather than stretching. The best exercises for avoiding tight hamstrings include those that strengthen your core muscles and quadriceps. Planks and leg extensions are examples of exercises that will strengthen those muscle groups aiding in the prevention of hamstring tightness. Stretches that focus on your hamstrings, hip flexors, lower back, and calves will dramatically increase hamstring flexibility and reduce tightness. Foam rolling your hip flexors, quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves will help in your stretching routine. This will also promote good blood flow and help to break up the fascia surrounding your muscles allowing them to stretch more completely. If stretching and exercise don’t work there are always therapy modalities such as massage, chiropractic care, and physical therapy which will help you get the rest of the way there.

Hamstring Stretches

  • Hurdle Hamstring Stretch
    • Start by sitting on the floor with one leg out straight.
    • Bend your other leg at the knee positioning the sole of your foot against the outstretched leg.
    • Reach forward over your straight leg toward your toes. Bend at the waist as much as possible, but bending your back is okay if hip mobility is limited.
    • Hold this position for 15-30 seconds. If this challenging at first, err on the side of a quicker stretch and progress to longer stretches through regular stretching.
    • Repeat this process with your other leg.
  • Standing Hamstring Stretch
    • Start by standing with your feet about shoulder-width apart.
    • Bending at the waist reach down toward your feet. Again, if you have to bend your back due to limited hip mobility that’s okay.
    • Keep both your knees straight.
    • Hold this position for 15-30 seconds.
  • Supplemental Stretches
    • Crossed leg standing hamstring stretch.
      • This stretch is performed by following the steps above for the standing hamstring stretch but instead of standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, cross your right foot in front of your left. Repeat the stretch for each leg.
    • Calf stretches
      • There are dozens of ways to stretch your calves. We recommend whatever method works best for you that you’re likely to continue doing regularly. Calf stretches can be as simple as standing on a step and allowing gravity and your body weight to apply a stretch to your calves. We will be writing an article that outlines several calf stretches shortly. In the meantime, if you have any questions feel free to reach out to us with questions.
    • Quad stretches
      • The most simple and straightforward quad stretch is to sit on the ground with your feet under your buttocks. Sit back on your feet. If you feel a stretch in your quads they’re likely in need of a stretch. This is adequate for stretching tight quads, but once you can sit in this position without feeling a stretch you’ll want to move on to more effective and deep stretches.
    • Hip flexor stretches
      • Lunges are a great exercise for building leg and core strength, but they can also be used for stretching your hip flexors. Hip flexors get tight from sitting for prolonged periods of time. This is a great way to help supplement your hamstring stretches.
  • Dynamic Stretches
    • Another form of stretching from static stretches is called dynamic stretching. With static stretching, you hold the stretch for longer periods of time (15-30 seconds). With dynamic stretching, you move quickly through the full range of motion. Dynamic stretching can provide different benefits to static stretching. If you’re not familiar with dynamic stretching we recommend discussing with your chiropractor, physical trainer, or physical therapist before attempting dynamic stretches.