LAKE OCONEE — Have you ever been playing golf, tennis, running or working in the yard and had that tight “pulling feeling” in the back of your leg?
What you’re feeling is tightness in a group of muscles commonly known as the hamstrings. The hamstring muscles are a group of four muscles that are located on the back part of the thigh. They are attached to the bottom portion of the pelvis at one end and then to the tibia and fibula right below the knee. The hamstring muscles are one of the few muscle groups in the body that cross two separate joints (hip and knee), which allows them to help in the movement of both joints. This makes the hamstrings an extremely important group of muscles, but also makes them muscles that can be pulled or strained easily.
Many people, especially men, have very tight hamstrings. Most have had this problem for a very long time, if not since childhood. Oftentimes, these individuals have tried for many years to do specific stretching exercises to decrease the tightness in the hamstrings, but unfortunately have met with little success. While it makes sense to stretch a muscle that is tight, hamstring stretching doesn’t always address the main problem. In the case of tight hamstrings, the muscle “tightness” is the result of the body trying to compensate for another muscle that is weakened.
When it comes to the hamstring muscles, I find in nine out of 10 cases, the tightness is due to the patient having very weak glutes (buttock muscles). The glutes are a major stabilizer of the pelvis, so if they are weakened and not working properly then other muscles associated with the pelvis must work overtime in order to maintain pelvic stability. Because of the hamstrings’ attachment to the bottom of the pelvis, and it being such a large muscle group, the hamstrings are most commonly the muscles “recruited” by the body to help stabilize the pelvis. Thus, the hamstrings become taut and tight for a reason. If we try to remedy the problem by just stretching the hamstrings, we find it’s like having your foot on the gas pedal and brake at the same time — you are doing a lot of work and the engine is revving, but you are not really getting anywhere.
In these cases, rather than emphasizing hamstring stretches, I always recommend strengthening the weak muscles (in this case the glutes) first. This allows the pelvis to have the proper stability without having to “recruit” the hamstrings for a job they were not necessarily designed to do. As the glute muscles become stronger, the hamstrings will start to become elongated and less tight without directly stretching them. Once this happens, I then suggest incorporating some specific hamstring stretches into the workout because the pelvis has been stabilized and the body is now much more receptive to the hamstring stretches.
The next time you feel that pull in the back of your leg and think all you need to do is just “a few simple hamstring stretches,” you might want to consider strengthening the glutes instead. Of course every individual is different, and when it comes to the body it is very hard to speak in generalities. So if you have a specific injury or problem area, and are not sure what should be done, then speak with a professional. The one approach that can be worse than not doing anything at all is doing something wrong and creating further damage.