Protecting the Spine While Stretching Your Hamstrings – Part 3 by Lisa Snow

lisa-snowPart 1 of this article covered how to stretch the hamstrings while protecting your spine.  Part 2 covered why foam rolling by yourself and massage therapy are so beneficial, and how to use these techniques to improve lower body mobility.  Now in Part 3, we’ll explore how strength training not only doesn’t have to make you tighter; it can actually improve your hamstring mobility.

Strength exercises that improve mobility can be less boring than stretching for some people, and a worthwhile addition to stretching for others.  When someone does a stretch, they’ve improved their mobility for that day.  But if they follow up that stretch with a strength move that uses their newfound range of motion in those same muscles and joints, they make the flexibility gains permanent.  Strength training is like “hitting save” on flexibility improvements.

With any lower body exercises you choose, it’s important to go through the whole range of motion.  For example, if you can already do a “parallel” squat (getting your butt as low as your knees), don’t do a bunch of reps where you only squat halfway down.  Going through the entire range of motion helps preserve the flexibility you already have.

Picture of single leg deadlift start and finish 

The single-leg deadlift stretches the hamstring of the leg you’re standing on while strengthening the leg you are lifting, so it’s important to do both sides.  This exercise also helps improve balance, strengthens and firms the glutes (butt muscles), and stretches the often-tight hip flexors.  The straight leg version shown in the picture improves flexibility the most.  (The version where you bend the knee of the leg you’re standing on is also a worthwhile exercise, but it just strengthens the quads and glutes and isn’t intended as a stretch.)

1 minute video of the “Face the Wall Squat” 

The face-the-wall squat is another powerful way to work on lower body mobility.  Beginners should start a good ways from the wall.  The closer to the wall you stand when you start the exercise, the more advanced it will be.  The goal isn’t to be able to lift heavier and heavier weights, but to move closer to the wall, until finally your toes are against the wall at the top of the squat.  You can perform the face-the-wall squat with bodyweight only, but it works better with a single kettlebell. This exercise is very awkward with dumbbells because the weights would just be too close to you.  A 12-16 kg or 25-35 lb kettlebell is a reasonable starting point for most adults; some seniors may need to start with an 8 kg or 18 lb kettlebell.  Women who have only done dumbbells before tend to be shocked by these numbers.  They’re used to doing bicep curls with 5-15 lb dumbbells and can’t imagine doing anything so heavy.  But using a weight that’s too heavy for your arms to lift is the whole point: you want your legs to do the work.  And remember: if you weigh 100 lbs or more and can stand up from a chair, your legs can lift at least 100 lbs!

If you’ve never done strength training before, working 1-on-1 with a personal trainer or taking a small group class is a good idea.  The easiest way to learn proper form is hands-on.  Most people with a lot of lifting experience are more in need of accountability than instruction.  So find a friend to workout with who shares your goal of improving hamstring mobility.  It doesn’t matter if they are more or less advanced than you, as long as you can both keep each other motivated!

Missed last month’s column? Read it now:

Protecting the Spine While Stretching Your Hamstrings – Part 2
Protecting the Spine While Stretching Your Hamstrings
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