The hamstrings are a group of three muscles located at the back of the thigh. They include the biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus. The three work together to extend the hip and flex the knee. In a seated position, the hamstrings and backside muscles lengthen and become tight as they work to keep you upright. When you stand up, the hamstrings shorten and contract to help swing your leg forward. If you spend a lot of time sitting, your hamstrings can become chronically tight. You might feel cramping, discomfort, or pain in the back of your thigh when you try to straighten your leg. There are several other causes of tight hamstrings, which we’ll explore in this article. We’ll also offer some tips on how to soothe and strengthen your hamstrings.
8 Causes Of Tight Hamstrings
Whether you’re an athlete or desk jockey, you’re likely to experience tight hamstrings at some point. The following are some of the most common causes of hamstring tightness.
1. You Have Underactive Glutes
The gluteal muscles are a group of three that make up your buttocks. They include the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus. These muscles are responsible for extending and rotating your hip (1). The gluteus maximus is the largest of the three muscles and is the primary mover in activities like walking, climbing stairs, and rising from a seated position.
The relationship between the glutes and hamstrings is an important one. The gluteus maximus helps to stabilize the pelvis and keep the spine in alignment. When the glutes are weak or underactive, the hamstrings have to work overtime to compensate.
This is especially common for hip extension movements like kicking a soccer ball or running. As the hamstrings work harder, they can become tight and uncomfortable.
Strengthening your gluteal muscles allows them to fire more efficiently and take some of the strain off of your hamstrings. Exercises like squats, lunges, and bridges are all great for activating and strengthening the glutes. Isolation exercises like leg lifts and kickbacks can also help.
2. You Sit For Long Periods Of Time
Sitting for long periods of time can cause your hamstrings to become tight and uncomfortable. When you sit, your hips are flexed and your hamstrings are in a lengthened position. This can cause the muscles to become weak and tight over time.
If you have a sedentary job or spend a lot of time driving, you’re especially at risk for tight hamstrings. You might also notice that your hamstrings feel tighter after long flights or car rides.
Try to get up and move around every few hours to help prevent your hamstrings from becoming too tight. If you have a desk job, take a few minutes to walk around or do some gentle stretching every hour or so (8). When you’re traveling, take a break every few hours to walk around the airport or rest stop.
Having a regular exercise routine can also help to keep your hamstrings loose and prevent them from becoming too tight.
Ergonomic modifications to your workspace can also help (4). If you have a desk job, make sure that your chair is at the proper height and that your computer monitor is at eye level. This will help to reduce the amount of time you spend sitting with your hips flexed.
A standing desk or treadmill desk is another option to consider. These allow you to work while standing or walking, which can help to reduce the risk of tight hamstrings.
3. You Have Poor Posture
Posture refers to the alignment of your body when you’re standing, sitting, or lying down. Poor posture can put a strain on your muscles and cause them to become tight and uncomfortable.
Excessive anterior pelvic tilt (APT) is one of the most common postural problems that can cause tight hamstrings. Normally, your pelvis should be level when you’re standing.
However, suffering from excessive APT means you’re standing with your hips tilted too far forward. Your butt and stomach are pushed out, which puts your hamstrings in a lengthened position and can cause them to become tight over time.
In this case, attempting hamstring stretches only worsens the problem by further lengthening the already overstretched muscles.
To correct excessive APT, you need to focus on strengthening your posterior chain muscles. These are the muscles that run along the back of your body and include your erector spinae, glutes, and hamstrings. Exercises like deadlifts, good mornings, and glute bridges are all great for strengthening your posterior chain (3).
It’s also important to work on correcting your posture throughout the day. When you’re standing, make sure that your pelvis is in a neutral position. When you’re sitting, keep your shoulders back and your chin level. Avoid slouching or rounding your back. Taking regular breaks to walk around and stretch your muscles can also help.
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4. You Have Tight Hip Flexors
Your hip flexors are a group of muscles that includes your iliopsoas, rectus femoris, and sartorius muscles. These muscles attach your pelvis to your thighs and allow you to lift your knees.
When your hip flexors are tight, it can cause your pelvis to tilt forward and put strain on your hamstrings. This can lead to tightness and discomfort in the muscles.
To prevent your hip flexors from becoming too tight, focus on stretching and strengthening the muscles. Exercises like lunges, split squats, and step-ups are all great for strengthening your hip flexors.
For stretching, try a standing forward fold or a low lunge with your back knee down. You can also use a foam roller to massage your hip flexors and help loosen the muscles.
5. You Injured Your Hamstring Before
Pushing a muscle beyond its limits can lead to an injury. If you’ve ever experienced a hamstring strain, tear, or other type of injury, it’s likely that the muscle is still tight and uncomfortable.
This is because when a muscle is injured, it goes into spasm in order to protect itself. It also develops scar tissue that shortens the muscle fibers and limits your range of motion. The neurological response to an injury can also lead to changes in muscle firing patterns that can cause the muscle to become tight.
If you’re still dealing with tightness and discomfort from a previous hamstring injury, it’s important to seek professional help. A physical therapist or other healthcare professional can develop a rehabilitation program specifically for your needs. This may include exercises, stretches, and other treatments to help you recover from your injury and improve your range of motion.
Myofascial release, dry needling, and massage can also be helpful for treating previous injuries. These techniques can help break up scar tissue and improve blood flow to the area.
Active release technique (ART) is a type of myofascial release that’s specifically designed to treat soft tissue injuries (10). A certified ART provider will use their hands to apply pressure and stretch the muscle. This can help break up scar tissue and adhesions, improve range of motion, and reduce pain.
In some cases, surgery may be necessary to release the scar tissue and relieve the tension in the muscle. However, this should only be considered as a last resort after all other treatment options have failed.
6. You’ve Started A New Exercise Routine
If you’ve recently started a new exercise routine, it’s possible that your muscles aren’t used to the level of activity. This can lead to microtears in the muscle fibers, which can cause inflammation and discomfort. This process is natural and necessary for muscle growth, but it can be painful in the meantime.
It’s also common to experience tightness after an intense workout. This is because your muscles are filled with lactic acid, which can cause them to feel stiff and sore.
If you’re starting a new exercise routine, it’s important to take things slowly at first. Begin with lower weights and lower intensity workouts. As your muscles adapt to the new level of activity, you can gradually increase the intensity and duration of your workouts.
It’s also important to warm up before exercise and cool down afterwards. Warming up helps increase blood flow to your muscles and prepares them for activity. Cooling down helps your body recover from the workout and prevents stiffness (12).
Rest and recovery are also essential for preventing tightness and discomfort. Make sure to give your body ample time to rest between workouts. This will help your muscles repair themselves and prevent further microtears (11).
The right diet and supplements can also help your muscles recover from exercise. Eating enough protein is essential for muscle growth and repair. You may also want to consider taking a creatine supplement, which can help improve muscle recovery.
7. You’re Not Stretching Enough
If you don’t stretch your hamstrings on a regular basis, they can become tight and uncomfortable. This is especially true if you exercise regularly or participate in activities that require repetitive motions, such as running or cycling.
Stretching is an important part of maintaining flexible and healthy muscles. Aim to stretch your hamstrings at least once per day. If you exercise regularly, be sure to stretch both before and after your workout.
Know the different types of stretching as well as how and when to stretch properly to avoid injuring yourself. Generally, it’s best to stretch after your muscles are warmed up. This can be done by taking a brief walk or doing some light calisthenics before stretching.
Dynamic stretching, which involves moving your body through a range of motion, is often recommended before exercise.This type of stretching helps to prepare your muscles for activity and can reduce your risk of injury (2). Examples of dynamic stretches for the hamstrings include leg swings and high knees.
Static stretching, which involves holding a stretch for 20-30 seconds, is typically done after exercise. This type of stretching helps to lengthen your muscles and improve flexibility (2).Examples of static stretches for the hamstrings include the standing hamstring stretch and the lying hamstring stretch.
Yoga and Pilates are two great options for stretching and strengthening your hamstrings. These disciplines also emphasize proper alignment and body awareness, which can help to prevent injury.
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8. You Have An Underlying Medical Condition
There are a number of medical conditions that can cause tightness in the hamstrings. Some conditions like patellar tendonitis, iliotibial band syndrome, and even stress fractures result from tight hamstrings and worsen over time increasing the discomfort you feel.
Other conditions, such as sciatica and herniated discs, can compress the nerves that run through the hamstrings and cause pain or weakness in the muscles.
Below is a list of some common medical conditions that can cause tight hamstrings:
- Sciatica:This is a condition that affects the sciatic nerve, which runs from the lower back down through the legs. A condition that causes the narrowing of the spinal canal. This can put pressure on the sciatica and can cause pain, numbness, and weakness in the legs (7).
- Spinal stenosis: This is nerves, causing pain, numbness, and weakness in the legs (9).
- Piriformis syndrome: This is a condition that occurs when the piriformis muscle, which is located in the buttock, becomes tight or spasms. This can cause pain in the buttock and down the leg (6).
- Hamstring tendonitis:This is a condition that causes inflammation of the tendon that attaches the hamstring muscle to the bone. Hamstring tendonitis can cause pain and tenderness in the back of the thigh (5).
If you have any of these underlying medical conditions, it’s important to seek treatment from a healthcare professional. Treatment will vary depending on the condition, but may include physical therapy, medications, or surgery.Stretching and strengthening exercises may also be recommended to help relieve symptoms.
The Bottom Line
There are many different reasons why your hamstrings might be feeling tight and uncomfortable. It could be due to factors like poor posture, weak muscles, or previous injuries. Stretching and strengthening exercises, posture improvement and a more active lifestyle can all be helpful for treating tight hamstrings.
If you’re still experiencing discomfort, it’s important to seek professional help. A physical therapist or other healthcare professional can develop a rehabilitation program specifically for your needs.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- Anatomy, Bony Pelvis and Lower Limb, Gluteus Maximus Muscle (2022, nih.gov)
- CURRENT CONCEPTS IN MUSCLE STRETCHING FOR EXERCISE AND REHABILITATION (2012, nih.gov)
- Non-surgical interventions for excessive anterior pelvic tilt in symptomatic and non-symptomatic adults: a systematic review (2020, nih.gov)
- Office ergonomics: Your how-to guide (2021, mayoclinic.org)
- Proximal Hamstring Tendinopathy: A Systematic Review of Interventions (2021, nih.gov)
- Piriformis Syndrome (2022, nih.gov)
- Sciatica (2022, nih.gov)
- Sitting for Too Long, Moving Too Little: Regular Muscle Contractions Can Reduce Muscle Stiffness During Prolonged Periods of Chair-Sitting (2021, nih.gov)
- Spinal Stenosis (2022, nih.gov)
- The Effect of Active Release Technique® on Clinician and Patient-Reported Outcomes: A Systematic Review (2022, nih.gov)
- The Importance of Recovery After Exercise (2015, nifs.org)
- Why Warming Up and Cooling Down is Important (n.d., tricitymed.org)