Stretching after a workout should be a stable of any recovery program. Tight muscles can lead to muscle imbalances, abnormal movement patterns, and muscle spasms. However, as with any movement, there is an optimal way to stretch your hamstrings. Proper hamstring stretching does not mean that you should be feeling a stretch in your foot!
The hamstrings are a group of three muscles that include: the biceps femoris (long head), semimembranosus, and semitendinosus.
All three muscles of the posterior thigh originate from the ischial tuberosity of the hip and insert into either the tibia or fibula at the knee. The hamstrings flex the knee and extend the hip; thus, to stretch the hamstrings you must do the opposite actions: extend the knee and flex the hip. So if the hamstrings originate at the hip and insert at the knee, should you be feeling a hamstring stretch in your lower leg or foot?
What Am I Feeling Then?
If you’re feeling a “stretch” in your lower leg or foot during a hamstring stretch, you are most likely experiencing neurogenic symptoms arising from the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve, the largest and longest nerve in the body, branches off the lumbosacral plexus (L4-S3) near the hips and runs down the posterior thigh and leg all the way to the foot. Unlike muscles, nerves do not like to be stretched or tensioned. Instead, nerves are supposed to glide or slide within soft tissue nerve beds. Impaired neurodynamics or soft tissue restrictions limit nerve sliding and instead tension the nerve. This can generate symptoms of pain, numbness, and tingling, anywhere along the nerve’s sensory distribution.
Certain hamstring stretches, in particular, are very prone to also tensioning the sciatic nerve. While knee extension and hip flexion stretch the hamstrings, this movement can also potentially tension the sciatic nerve, if neurodynamics are impaired. However, the majority of individuals can handle this small amount of neural tension. Certain positions at other joints, like the neck, hips, back, or ankle, can place undesired, additional tension on your nerves. It is these particular joint positions below that you want to be sure to avoid during hamstring stretching to ensure you aren’t placing excessive tension on your sciatic nerve.
AVOID THESE JOINT POSITIONS TO MINIMIZE NEURAL TENSION: Ankle dorsiflexion, Lumbar spine flexion (rounding your back), Cervical spine flexion (looking down), Hip adduction or hip medial rotation (turning your toes inwards).
Therefore, an optimal hamstring string stretch should only stretch the hamstrings, without tensioning the sciatic nerve. So, what’s the best way to properly stretch the hamstrings while minimizing as much neural tension as possible?
Standing Hamstring Stretch With Leg Elevated
- Raise your desired leg to be stretched on a slightly elevated surface. Keep your toes pointed down.
- Extend your knee, but keep a slight bend in it. You will still get a hamstring stretch through lengthening at the proximal end near the hip.
- Tuck your pelvic or anterior pelvic tilt. The hamstrings attach to the ischial tuberosity of the pelvis, therefore a anterior pelvic tilt will lengthen the hamstrings proximally.
— Many times, just after these initial three steps, you will feel a good stretch in your hamstrings. To increase the stretch even more:
- While maintaining neutral spine position, slowly lean forward to increase hip flexion until you feel a stretch. Do not loose neutral spine position and slump forward, as this places large amounts of tension on your nerves!
***Throughout all these motions, be sure to avoid the above 4 joint positions that tension the sciatic nerve: ankle dorsiflexion, lumbar spine flexion, cervical spine flexion, hip adduction or hip internal rotation.
When properly stretching your hamstrings, you should only feel a stretch in your hamstrings. No “stretch-like sensations”, burning, numbness, or tingling anywhere else but your hamstrings at any time! If you are still experiencing neural symptoms with the above stretch, try pointing your towns down (ankle plantarflexion) and look up (cervical spine extension). If balance or kinesthetic awareness is an issue, try the exact same stretch on your back with the leg to be stretched elevated.