After a decade of teaching yoga classes the most common complaint I hear over and over again is ….. my hamstrings are TIGHTTTTT !
I could feel my students’ frustrations as we stretched and stretched and stretched the back of the thighs. Did those tight students gain flexibility ? Maybe a little. But they STILL complained of tight hamstrings and limited range of motion in forward bended yoga positions. For many years I was baffled, and frankly just didn’t really know how to help them.
More recently, there has been much buzz in the yoga and movement industry on tightness vs weakness, pain science, and other body topics. What the research is showing is that “tightness” is a perception of the nervous system .. i .e. brain and spinal cord, and that is uniquely wired from person to person with variability depending on genetics, history, trauma, past surgeries, illnesses or injuries, etc. In the words of teacher Jenni Rawlings, “ strengthening doesn’t shorten tissues, and stretching doesn’t lengthen them. Once we account for the fact that the nervous system is what sets the resting length of our muscles, we can start to see that the body is much more complex than many of our simplistic models of stretching and strengthening really account for.”
Many of my back pain and spine fusion clients complain of tight hamstrings among other feelings of tightness globally in the body. This is a very subjective description and can mean different things to different people. Most of the time a tight or stiff muscle gets flexibility training, but nowhere in the literature is there a mechanical definition for tight.
In one study, “ stiffness was reduced after 5 immediately consecutive stretches but the effect was temporary and baseline range of motion returned within 60 minutes.” (Jules Mitchell)
The latest research is showing that the missing piece in managing “tightness” is actually … strength training. Strengthening, over time, tells the nervous system “ you are safe,” and safety begets comfort. As counterintuitive as it may seem, strengthening the hamstrings does not cause it to structurally change so that its resting length is shorter. Rather, it sends a message to the brain of active movement, productivity, and resilience to injury. The brain in turn says … yay! We can handle the demands of movement life. This movement is familiar. I can relax now.
In the words of Jules Mitchell, biomechanist, “ yes, stretch your hamstrings. But not because you think they will get longer and fix your posture. Stretch your hamstrings so you can move better. And while you’re at it, strengthen those hamstrings at all your degrees or extensibility.”
If you would like to explore a hamstring training course, a NEW RELEASE is in the FOREVER FUSED online library !