Do You Really Have Tight Hamstrings?

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Interestingly, many trainees and coaches make the mistake that squat depth is solely about tissue length. In essence the thought process is such that one generally assumes the reason why someone can’t get to depth is because of poor tissue length and quality. While true much of the time, on occasion, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Eric Cressey and I had a little “skull-session” on this not too long ago, and he happened to bring up a very valid point. Namely, if we know that tissue length requires an increase in the number of sarcomeres in a muscle; and we compound this with the fact that recent research has suggested that (typical) stretching basically does nothing more than increase our tolerance to it (Weppler and Magnusson 2010); and we know that the vast majority of people don’t stretch nearly enough in the first place, how is it that modalities such as PNF stretching work so well?

In other words, if it were only about tissue length, then why are modalities such as PNF techniques (which utilize active firing of a muscle against resistance for a short period of time, followed by a 5-10 second stretch) so affective?

Two words: Neural inhibition.

As renowned physical therapist, Gray Cook, has noted on numerous occasions, we need to start thinking more along the lines of movement patterns, and less on individual muscles. For instance, will spending 30 minutes of a training session doing nothing but activating the glute medius improve one’s squat; or will improving the squat pattern help turn on the glute medius?

More to the point, what’s often seen as a weak this or tight that, can often be the result of a faulty motor pattern that the body has lost the ability to perform.

Using a common example, the toe touch progression is a simple (albeit highly effective) exercise to improve body awareness (or sensory awareness) for deep squatting. While often overlooked, it simply teaches relaxation of the tension in the lower back and how to shift weight from the heels to the toes (and vice versa) in a smooth and consistent manner.

You can also think of it as teaching your body that it’s okay to enter into deep ranges of motion while simultaneously convincing it to “release the brakes.”

Lets be honest, if you have a major disconnect at something as simple as touching your toes, squatting, even if it looks good to the naked eye, might not be the best idea.

Ask anyone who can’t touch their toes what the main culprit is, and 9 out of 10 will say they have tight hamstrings. What’s surprising is that most do not have tight hammies! Instead, what’s happening is that they’re demonstrating a faulty movement pattern by firing a muscle that should be lengthening in an attempt to not fall backwards.

Note:we could also talk about “neural tightness” here, but my head already hurts from using too many big words.

Popularized by Gray Cook, the toe touch progression essentially fools the body into allowing some length at the hamstrings. I’ve seen it happen almost on a weekly basis: Joe Schmo walks into the facility and explains how he hasn’t been able to touch his toes since stone washed jeans got him laid back in 1986. While there’s bound to be a tissue quality issue, I can usually (not always) have him touching his toes in a matter of ten minutes. Here’s how:

Grab a 2×4 or anything similar and place it on the floor. With the first progression, you’ll place your toes on the board, and your heels on the ground, which throws the body into a posterior weight shift.

Place a ball, rolled-up towel, or foam roller between your legs and squeeze. This does two things: 1) it forces you into a short-foot posture (no longer pronating), and 2) it forces the adductors – which are hot-wired to the core – to fire, and provide more stability. Through a process called reciprocal inhibition, the lower back can now sit back and relax for a bit.

With your knees slightly bent, reach up into the air, bend over, and try to touch your toes. As you reach a sticking point, squeeze the ball/foam roller as hard as you can. With each rep, you should notice yourself inching closer and closer to your toes.

Rave music, glow sticks (and shirts**) are optional. Perform ten repetitions and proceed to the next variation, which is…..

The same exact sequence, except this time, you’ll place your toes on the floor and your heels will now be elevated. Using the same protocol as above, perform ten repetitions.

Jesus, that’s a good beat.

So, with a little diligence, you should see a marked improvement in the movement pattern within a few sessions, if not a few minutes. So, again, do you really have tight hamstrings? For a few, maybe. But more often than not, it comes down to a faulty movement pattern that just needs to be re-grooved.

** Naiiiiiiled it!

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