Q&A – Hamstring Inflexibility

Hey Justin,


Basically, I have poor hamstring extensibility.
The test I have used for this is to put my feet together lock my back in lumbar extension and bow forward with my knees locked. I get to just above 45 degree from the horizontal.


I am concerned that this may be causing problems with my DL and Squat. I was missing a few DLs, usually with my back losing extension in later reps. Also on squats I buttwink, but also I really don’t feel the bounce at all, which could be another problem all together.


The short run would be: is poor hamstring extensibility a big deal? Do you find it inhibits your trainees DL & squats? Are things like barbell assistance (RDL, SLDL) exercises better than good ol’ stretching?

I appreciate any words you can muster.


Regards


Cormac

Hamstring extensibility is the same thing as flexibility. A good definition of flexibility is
having sufficient range of motion (ROM) around major joints to meet the demands of every day activities as well as any other activities that are participated in. This means that flexibility is relative to the individual and what they do. For example, I like to strength train and compete in Olympic weightlifting, therefore I should be sufficiently flexible for both. I am not, however, a gymnast/dancer/ninja, and therefore do not need the flexibility to do a split for any reason.


The hamstrings are a group of muscles on the back of the thigh that always get a bad rap of “being tight”. While it’s true that it is farily common to have inflexible hamstrings, it isn’t as big a problem as it has been made out to be. The squat (AKA low bar back squat to those of you who aren’t familiar with Starting Strength) is a wonderful exercise to stretch the hamstrings.


The hamstrings attach at the ischial tuberosity (on the bottom of the pelvis) and wrap around the knee (condyles of the tibia, head of the fibula, etc.). When you squat properly (reference the squat chapter of Starting Strength), you set your knees by pushing them out, which angles the femurs parallel with the feet, and then you sit back with your hips so that the hamstrings (and adductors) are stretched out. These are requirements for the “bounce” to occur out of the bottom of the squat. Each time you do a full ROM squat, it is like a PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretch. A PNF stretch is essentially placing a muscle in a position in which it will elongate while intermittently contracting the muscle to improve flexibility (for more).


The problem is that you must do the squat correctly and through a full range of motion, and not everyone is capable of teaching themselves this complex movement (it is one of the hardest lifts to master). If you consider yourself to have poor hamstring flexibility, then you need to first think about shoving your knees OUT and then sitting BACK. If it feels normal, then you’re doing it incorrectly. If you have never felt a full stretch on your adductors and hamstrings, you should know the first time you do.


Another factor with squatting/deadlifting and hamstring flexibility is that it may take you a few sets to get the muscles warm enough to go through the correct ROM. In such a case, you should make sure to incorporate a general warm-up and extra warm-up sets into your training session.


I’ve never had a problem with getting anyone to do a full ROM squat the first time that I teach them, and Rip has always said it is never a problem at all of the seminars he has done over the past few years. The best solution is to find someone that can coach you whether it be at a gym locally or at a seminar (the Starting Strength Seminars are utilized for reasons like this all the time).


Until you have squatted correctly, it is a waste of time to try anything else to loosen up your hamstrings. The squat will not only improve hamstring flexibility, but it will also (re)teach the hamstrings how to undergo a stretch reflex and also strengthen the muscles throughout the full ROM.


As for Cormac’s lack of extension in his back on his deadlifts, I don’t have enough information to have an opinion. He could be using bad form, is really skinny, attempting too much weight, or is doing everything correctly and having the natural curvature of the back on a heavy set of five. However, judging from his seeming hamstring inflexibility, I place the fault on the form on both his squat and deadlift.


The butt wink he references is over-hyped, and this is probably due to the CrossFit community branding it in their “air squat”. A butt wink is not that big of a deal assuming the squat is otherwise done correctly. It may even be anthropometry that looks like a butt wink — people that have a long pelvis and short torso will appear to be rounding their low back when it is actually the iliac crests of their pelvis. Besides, if the butt wink exists because of inflexibility, proper squatting will make it subside and disappear over time.


Again, a proper warm-up and squatting can cure common hamstring inflexibility and trying anything else is a waste of time until these are addressed. Barring any limiting pathology, the inflexible will become flexible.

26 thoughts on “Q&A – Hamstring Inflexibility

  1. CRAC stretching, a variation of PNF, has solved my hamstring shortness. For me, the problem is largely neurological. A side effect many of us have from sitting chairs our whole lives.

    Three rounds of CRAC increased my ROM. I can get each leg to vertical with a straight knee while lying on my back. Before that it was about 60 degrees from the floor.

    You can perform this stretch by yourself by lying on your back and propping your heel up against a door frame while your other leg lays flat.

  2. @justin

    I don’t know if you’re reading through yesterday’s discussion when there’s a new post, so I’m also pasting this here:

    you mentioned 3 phases during the athletes routine: Off-season, Building to the season, and During the season.

    How would you build up to the season? (I’ve added 30kg to my squat during the Off-season)

    I see all posts on the site in chronological order, so I did see your post.

    Generally put, I would shift the frequency and/or volume down (with intensity increasing) in the strength training as conditioning frequency/intensity improved. Agility/skill work is not necessarily the same as conditioning because of the skill part, so that will probably have to be maintained throughout the year, and then increased in frequency in the time period right before the season starts. In-season would be maintenance mode for strength, an adequate amount of practice, and then competition.

    –Justin

  3. I have crazy difficulty getting good depth in the squat. I agree with your sentiments on the proper warm-up though. From personal experience my squat form is MUCH better out of the gate if I’ve taken the time to warm up. And it is a complex movement that I am still attempting to master.

    I’ll try the knees/hip/awkwardness. :) Thanks!

  4. Learning to squat properly has increased my flexibility in a very short period of time.

    Since I don’t have a coach, a cheap digital video camera has been very useful. I make sure to take video atleast once a week. And sometimes I post it on the SS board for extra feedback.

  5. I have been concerned about hammy flexibility in the past but I just make sure i stretch for a little while after i work out and things seem to sort out. My only real problems are my tight R knee and Illiotibial Band being tight, which are probably the result of having poor post work out stretching routines or from skipping them some days

    Eh, it is probably caused by other stuff. Sometimes you can’t really figure out why something is the way it is, but instead you just have to treat it. IT band massages are supposed to be hell, but you can at least roll it out on foam or PVC and stretch the external rotators of your hip.

    –Justin

  6. Stonewall, I’ve had major IT band issues in the past. I find that I have to keep on top of them by foam rolling (with a PVC pipe) every night. Along with a stretch routine.

    I also do a quick foam roll session before my warm up sets of squats.

    Some people may not have to go this far, but for me, it’s essential.

  7. @Justin

    Yeah im not sure where the IT Band issues arose from but i have had tight IT Band stuff on and off since high-school 7 or 8 years ago so… But i do stretch and that seems to help quite a bit. Also, since I have read SS and relearned how to squat. Also, i have seen the foam rollers but have no idea what to do with them… actully ill just look it up.

    I’m not a “foam rolling expert”; I just use it to loosen up my back and glutes before I lift. I have seen people roll the lateral aspect of their thighs (where the IT band is) to try and loosen the area. The IT band is a thick sheath of connective tissue like duct tape, so it’s hard to work with. Rolling areas around the proximal attachment of the IT band may help too, like the glute medius/TFL area.

    –Justin

  8. Well looks like i cannot complete a thought… I was going to say that since I have learned to squat the SS way my hips/groin has gotten alot stronger and feels better generally than they have in the past.

  9. @Justin

    I’m trying to build some weekly schedule of how things should work out, 2 months prior to the season.
    Though, not really being successful.

    How would a decent transfer from Texas Method to a more specific schedule should look?

    decrease in volume: specific drills (agility\plyometrics) -> 3*3 squats on volume day -> conditioning ?

    or would it be better to just email you and get your opinion on my thoughts?

    Yeah, I’m purposely not getting into it here.

    The “volume” day would have a huge reduction in tonnage, and you could do another squat day that is based on intensity.

    –Justin

  10. Hey I have a question that has nothing to do about tight hammies… I need some lifting shoes, a belt, and some sort of knee sleeve just to keep it warm, does anyone know of some good quality stuff for a small price. I am pretty poor right now so… I know I need lifting shoes but is there a good alternative I can use until I can afford the real thing? I am thinking about putting my money into a good belt for now and then making do with what I can for the other stuff.

    I just got some cheap knee sleeves from a sport store. They are Mueller brand and were five bucks each. I only wanted a cloth (kind of like ace bandage) type sleeve to keep my knees warm. I have no idea how long these will last and I only wore them once (today). I’ll keep you updated.

    –Justin

  11. Glad this topic came up, I am currently working with my father who is in his 60′s. He has decent strength for a person his age but flexibility is a major issue. Is there a point where it’s just too late to develop flexibility or will it come slowly with time? I’ve tried box squatting, squatting against a wall, RDLs, foam rollers but he is just rigid. Serious hamstring, thoracic and shoulder girdle inflexibility. I’m stumped.

    The longer a person is inflexible, the harder it is going to be to get them flexible.

    –Justin

  12. We have a lady who’s 50 and she is also tighter than hell. She just cant seem to shove her knees out over her feet. She cant budge them pushing out with her elbows, and Ive even had her sit on the box while I pushed her knees out. She’s tighter than Dick’s hat band. (that’s a John Wayne reference, props to anyone who knows it ;). But anyways, Ive got her doing lots of stretching and squatting, trying to remedy it but man it’s slow going. Ive also suggested she go get a massage but she hasnt done it yet. Any other ideas?

  13. HomerJ
    Did you just send that guy an e-mail asking about the shoes or what. I dont want to an ass about it with him or anything. also, you you know anyone who has used the Rip Do-wins sold over at rogue fitness?

  14. Wow! I thought I had flexibility problems due to my butt caving under. I read that butt-wink as a problem was overhyped, but I’ve been having coccyx/tailbone pain since I started squatting so I was worried.

    But now that you mentioned that it should not feel normal when I shoved my knees out, I tried a squat just now focusing on the knees out, and I have felt that hamstring stretch reflex for the first time of my life now!

    Indeed when I do not shove the knees out enough, it feels very comfortable going down, but although I thought I was bouncing up, I think it might have been bouncing on my knees. By shoving the knees out a lot more, I definitely feel the hamstrings becoming fully stretched and I now understand what the hamstring stretch reflex really implies.

    I think.

  15. StonewallWells,

    yeah I just emailed him and he knew exactly what I was talking about. I did the transaction over the phone and had the shoes in about 5 business days.

  16. Two comments for the field:

    1. Flex: If you are working with “inflexible” clients, check for for hip and ankle mobility problems before you chalk it up to tight hammies. Often you can put a board under a person’s heels and he’ll drop right into position. That’s an ankle issue. Get him some shoes and get him stretching.

    2. ITBS/IT band tightness: If you’re a cyclist, you’ve dealt with this. It can be caused by activity, gait, shoes, etc. Once it has set in, stretching isn’t enough. Keep reading.

    3. SMR/ART: Self-myofascial release and active release techniques are great. But not all types are equal. You should have, at the minimum, a foam roller and some kind of firm spongy ball (lacrosse or shiatsu/ART ball). The key here is to have something SPONGY, not just a piece of damn PVC (in a pinch, I have used kettlebells, billards balls, and golf balls).

    If it hurts, you need it. When it stops hurting, you don’t need it anymore. Continuing to do it (especially with PVC, which will eventually cause bruising or other soft tissue injury).

    If it’s acutely painful, you have an injury and should stop doing. Wait until it only hurts, then proceed.

    Read:
    http://www.izzostrengthtraining.com/Foam_Rolling__How_Hard_.html

  17. I love telling people that performing the barbell lifts correctly will produce enough flexibility… then i touch my toes and they’re like WTF! and with a few more demonstrations the actually begin to believe me….also got a guy in the gym who can damn near do a split with a 650+ squat

  18. Justin, I emailed you about the programming issue following to our discussion here.

    thanks in advance, I’m more than interested hearing your opinion about it.

    I’ll get to it.

    –Justin

  19. I really have to disagree with you about the butt wink and your opinion that it is not a big deal.

    I watched all the Rip vids in the Crossfit Journal. Then after watching a vid where he smacks the lifters in the low back and says “focus here”, I went and did some 5×5 squats. I pushed my hips out and sat back as I got below parallel my butt tucked under. As I came up I felt something shoot down my leg. I had herniated my L4-L5 disk.

    After researching this injury, I found out the reason it is so critical to avoid the “butt wink”. The amount of load the spine and disks can support is less than half when it is under flexion. The top scientists that study spinal strength say the easiest way to blow out the disks is to put the spine into flexion while it is under a vertical load. I wish I would have known that before I went through a year of horrible pain before having a microdiscectomy.

    The surgery was about 4 weeks ago and the horrible pain is gone. But I have a weak disk and I’m not going to be able to get 70s big because I let my butt tuck under at the bottom of a squat.

    I don’t blame Rip or Crossfit or anyone but myself for being uninformed. But to say that spinal flexion in the bottom of a squat is no big deal is just wrong.

    With that out of the way; I’m sure there are a lot of herniated disks in this sport. Have you guys seen people come back and not get re-injured? What should I do now?

    Were you being coached when this happened? Do you have a recent MRI before hand? How much weight was on the bar? I’m not calling your integrity into question, but herniations aren’t just flying around every where, especially with people who have this dreadful “buttwink”.

    And you mentioned CrossFit, which is totally random.

    Besides, a buttwink has to do with the pelvis, not the lumbar spine (where a herniation would occur).

    –Justin

  20. I was not being coached but I was going off of the instructional vids that Rip was doing for the journal. Those vids are a good resource. They embody the philosophy of Rip and CrossFit so that’s why I brought it up.

    I didn’t have an MRI before the bad squat. I had injured muscles in the low back in the past but until the day of the injury, squatting and deadlifting for a few weeks for the first time in a long time had me pain free. I was really feeling good. It was 5×5 squats so maybe 85% of 1RM. which at that time was probably around 200 lbs.

    I agree that the pelvis is a where the buttwink occurs but I was under the impression that since the proximal end of the ham connects to the ischial tuberosity on the pelvis, that is why tight hams pull the pelvis under. I am also under the impression that the lumbar spine was pulled out of extension by the pelvis.

    Do you have any thoughts about what else may have caused my lumbar spine to come out of extension? Weakness or improper activation of the spinal erectors? Poor mobility in another area?

    Do you have anyone at your gym that has had to get a microdiscecomy?

    I think it’s improper coaching or a lack of coaching. Read the active hip article by Rippetoe. I bet if you had shoved your knees out, then there wouldn’t have been any anterior impingement between your femur ans ASIS, which is something that can cause lumbar flexion. Nobody that comes to our gym ever has any problems with keeping their lumbar locked, and I have coached every new person for the last year and a half, and all existing members who squat.

    –Justin

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