Protecting the Spine While Stretching Your Hamstrings, by Lisa Snow

lisa-snow-2Many people want to improve their hamstring flexibility, and it’s a good goal.  Healthy hamstrings can help you excel at activities from running and biking to dance and yoga.  But whether you’re trying to prevent a back injury or you already have one, it’s important to be kind to your spine while stretching your hamstrings.

From gyms to outdoor running trails, exercisers are often seen bending over to touch their toes.  In the best case scenario, they’re reaching down and staying still for at least 30 seconds.  Even there, check out the amount of spine flexion.  The main thing being stretched is the low back—not the hamstrings.  Since many people slump forward at desks all day as it is, the back doesn’t need to be “stretched” forward any more.  Sure, you feel you’re hamstrings when you touch your toes, but that’s less because they’re being stretched, and more because they’re working hard to keep you from falling forward onto your face.

Standing Toe Touch

Standing Toe Touch

In the worst case scenario, people trying to touch their toes are bouncing up and down.  This actually makes both the low back and the hamstrings stiffer—the exact opposite of what you’re trying to achieve.  When people bounce up and down the body perceives this as similar to getting whiplash.  The muscle spindles—tiny protective mechanisms inside each muscle—kick in to protect you from tearing or spraining the muscle.

standing_hamstring_stretchThankfully, there’s a way to stretch the hamstrings while sparing the back.  Put one foot up (on anything from a curb to a weight bench or a parkbench seat) while reaching up and forward.  Don’t reach down for your foot.  By reaching up, you automatically hold the back in a safer position, and aren’t temped to slump forward.

Next time, we’ll explore other great ways to improve hamstring mobility.  These include foam rolling the lower body (including hamstrings, quads, calves, and ITB/outer thigh), getting a massage from a licensed massage therapist, and doing strength exercises that take the hamstring through its full range of motion.

Missed last month’s column? Read it now:

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