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Are your hamstrings ACTUALLY tight?

Are your hamstrings actually tight?

It’s an age old problem. You’ve heard it, I’ve heard it, we’ve all heard it. “My hamstrings are just ALWAYS tight”. Today we’re going to talk about whether or not that’s actually true.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s 100% possible that your tight hamstrings are a result of…wait for it…having tight hamstrings. I know, hard to imagine right? However, unless you’re a really stiff old man, your tight hamstrings may be a cry for help from other areas of your body.

Let’s break this down and go through a couple key factors in perceived hamstring tension.

It’s no secret that as a society we sit more than ever before. We spend 8-10 hours a day at a desk and then hit the gym for a 1 hour workout. Unfortunately, the muscular imbalances that we create throughout the workday travel with us to the gym.

The biggest cause of perceived hamstring tightness that I have found throughout my clinical career is muscular imbalance around the pelvis, more specifically Anterior pelvic tilt.

What is anterior pelvic tilt?

Your pelvis is like a bowl. Imagine you fill that bowl with water. If you hold the bowl level, the water will never spill. Now imagine you tip the bowl forward until a small amount of water spills out of the front. That’s anterior pelvic tilt!

When you do this, the back portion of the bowl moves upward so the front of the bowl can move down. Our hamstrings attach to the back portion of our pelvis. When it tilts forward, the back of the pelvis moves up, and you guessed it…the hamstrings are put in a LENGTHENED position.

You can spend weeks, months, or years stretching your hamstrings, but if they’re already in a maximally lengthened position, it’s not going to change anything.

Another important factor of anterior pelvic tilt is that it is common to find lack of gluteal recruitment and strength. This is due to the sub-optimal length/tension relationship of the glutes in an anterior pelvic tilt. Since the hamstrings are a secondary muscle for hip extension, if your glutes are not functioning optimally, your hamstrings will take up the slack. Now the hamstrings cannot focus on their primary role of flexing the knee, but are pulling double duty assisting the glutes. This can lead to increased neurologic drive in the hamstrings and perceived feeling of hamstring tightness.

So what do I do about it you may ask?

We have to address the pelvis (aka keep water from spilling out of the bowl). To do this, we need to stretch the muscles that pull the pelvis forward, and strengthen the muscles that help prevent that same forward tilt.

We can address this primarily with:

1. Targeted stretching of the hip flexors and low back musculature.

2. Isometric and dynamic strengthening of abdominals and strengthening/recruitment of the gluteals

Now there are many exercises/stretches that can help accomplish these goals. There is no “one size fits all” fix to this issue or a single exercise. There are certainly too many good correctives to dive into within this blog, but I hope the takeaway is clear. Your hamstring “tightness” is more than likely not coming from your hamstrings. If you’ve been stretching for prolonged periods without reprieve, then it’s time to try something different. Try targeting these different tissues or getting evaluated by a movement professional.

So are your hamstrings actually tight? You tell me.


Dr. Levi Kerby is a physical therapist, orthopedic certified specialist, and owner of Kinetic Performance and Rehab in Winston-Salem, NC. He enjoys fly fishing, guitar, various forms of fitness, and treating active and motivated individuals.

If you're dealing with an injury or pain, you can contact Kinetic Performance and Rehab directly below.

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