Protecting the Spine While Stretching Your Hamstrings – Part 2, by Lisa Snow

lisa-snowIn last month’s article, you learned how to stretch the hamstrings while protecting the low back.  What else can you do to improve hamstring mobility besides stretching?

Foam rolling, also known as self-myofascial release, is a wonderful way to release trigger points and tight spots while improving overall mobility.  Foam rollers come in different densities.  Beginners, older adults, or people with injuries may want to choose a less dense roller (usually white), while younger or more active people might want to choose a firmer, denser roller (usually dark blue or black).

Foam rolling doesn’t actually stretch the muscles; instead it focuses on releasing tension in the fascia, the tough layer of tissue that covers and protects the muscles.  People with tight muscles or pain often say “it hurts all over.”  But the reality is that no matter how severe the tightness/pain, it’s not “all over,” but rather in very specific points.  Foam rollers allow you to find those tight spots on yourself and work through them.  It’s important to begin gently, as some points may be extremely tender.  Once you find a sore area, you can either stop rolling (holding the roller still on that spot while applying gentle pressure), or you can slowly roll back and forth over the point.  The most painful areas are the ones you want to spend the most time on.

Picture of foam rolling the hamstring 

In addition to rolling the hamstrings (back of the thigh), rolling other lower body muscles such as the quad (front thigh), gastrocnemius (calf), ITB (outer thigh–side of the leg–from just below the hip to just above the knee) will all improve mobility.  If some areas have no sore points, even when you apply more pressure, those parts of the fascia are already good and don’t need to be rolled.

Picture of foam rolling the quads 

Foam rolling the calves 

Foam rolling the ITB 

Foam rolling is safe and beneficial for almost everyone, from teen athletes to seniors in their 80s and beyond.  Even expecting moms can do a few foam roller moves.  (After the first trimester, moms to be should limit themselves to positions where they’re lying on their side—like the ITB—or where they’re sitting up—like the calf.  The issue isn’t the foam rolling, it’s that expecting moms shouldn’t be doing ANY exercises lying on the stomach or back in later trimesters.)  There are really only two groups of people foam rolling isn’t appropriate for.  People with severe back or joint pain shouldn’t foam roll on their own. If these patients foam roll at all, it should be in a physical therapy session.  However, keep in mind that a PT may recommend just getting massage therapy and skipping the foam rolling completely, depending on your situation.  People with obesity also shouldn’t spend time foam rolling.  It’s not harmful; it just doesn’t work for this population.  Due to a very thick layer of subcutaneous fat, the roller is never able to apply enough pressure to break up knots in the fascia.

Using a foam roller won’t solve all your mobility problems in a few days or weeks.  Persistence is the key.  A few minutes a day every day is far better that an hour at a time one day a week!  However, if you still have tightness after 6 months, it’s time to visit a massage therapist, physical therapist, or chiropractor who does soft tissue work.

Visiting a massage therapist is another excellent way to improve tight hamstrings.  There are countless benefits of massage, but here are just a few to consider.  A massage therapist can target very specific areas—picture how much smaller a human thumb or knuckle is compared to the size of a foam roller!  In many states, massage therapists are required to go through a couple of years of graduate school and pass state boards to be practicing health care professionals.  Massage therapists see the body holistically; they see you as an integrated system—a person—not as a knee or an elbow.  If you go in for one specific thing (such as tight hamstrings), a good Licensed Massage Therapist (LMT) may also notice other areas you need to work on (such as a tight chest or weak core or stiff hip flexors).  Paying attention to these subtle red flags may help you prevent injury down the road!

Another often overlooked benefit of working with a massage therapist is that you can get help immediately.  Doctors’ offices often have waiting lists of a month or more.  Physical therapists may require a referral from an MD in order to be covered by insurance.  Since most massage therapists do not accept insurance, all you have to do is pick up the phone and make an appointment.  Many therapists can fit you in within a week.  There are no frustrating insurance forms to waste time on!  No bureaucrats who can deny your claim.  Just you and the therapist building a relationship.  If your financial situation is such that you can only work with a massage therapist if they do take insurance, look for an LMT who works inside a physical therapy or sports medicine office.

Improving hamstring flexibility doesn’t have to be boring!  And it doesn’t have to take much time away from your regular workout.  In Part 3 of this article, we’ll explore how strength training can help rather than hurt your hamstring mobility.

Missed last month’s article? Read it now!

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