Pulled Hamstring? Try These Stretches

The third installment of our 2014 injury series continues with a malady many have experienced at one time or another: a pulled hamstring.

Symptoms of a pulled (strained) hamstring are tightness and pain when you apply pressure to it or the associated muscle group. The hamstring is really a group of three muscles that originate at the ischial tuberosity and run along the back of the leg until they connect with bone just above the knee. The ischial tuberosity can be thought of as the part of the pelvis you feel when you sit down. Because the muscle group spans both the hip and the knee, the hamstring responds to two sets of forces from top to bottom, serving both hip extension and knee flexion.

The section of hamstring near the hip (the proximal hamstring) and the lower section near the knee (distal) both have poor blood supplies. The middle section has excellent blood supply and therefore heals much more quickly. The complicated infrastructure of the hamstring muscle set necessitates that it and the muscles supporting it remain strong and flexible to reduce injury risk.

A hamstring strain usually means you've pushed too hard and often can mean you've ignored various pain cues. When you feel hamstring pain, stop. It's not a good idea to try and push through it. Rest the muscle group and ice aggressively, four to six times per day for 15 minutes at a time if possible. After two or so days, gently begin working through the following stretches:

Standing Hamstring Stretch

Place your right foot on a bench or secure chair. With your right leg completely straight and left leg slightly bent, stand tall with your hands on your hips. Without rounding your lower back, bend at the hips and lower your torso until you feel a comfortable stretch. Bending the planted leg more increases the stretch at the hip; keeping it straight increases the stretch at your knee. Rotating the toes of the stretched leg outward works the inner hamstring; rotating toes inward works the outer portion. Hold the stretch for 30 seconds on each leg, then repeat twice more.

Lying Glute Stretch

Lie face-up on the floor with your knees and hips bent. Cross your left leg over your right so the left ankle sits across your right thigh. Grab your left knee with both hands and pull toward the middle of your chest until you feel a comfortable stretch in your glutes. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the opposite side. Repeat two more times for a total of three sets. As with the standing hamstring stretch, you can do this stretch several times a day if you're really tight.

An American Journal of Sports Medicine study found that seven out of 10 athletes with recurring hamstring difficulties had muscle imbalances between their quadriceps and hamstrings. After correcting this by strengthening the hamstrings, every person in the study went injury-free for the duration of the 12-month follow-up. All the muscles of the lower body work together and must remain strong, flexible and balanced. Strengthening only your hamstrings, therefore, is as ill-advised as neglecting them. Preventing hamstring injury can involve stretches like the following for your glutes, hip flexors, quads, core and the hamstrings themselves:

Reverse Hip Rise

Lie chest-down on the edge of a bench with your hips hanging off. Lift your legs together until your thighs are in line with your torso. Squeeze your glutes as you lift your hips. Pause, then lower to the starting position. A variation of this exercise involves lying on an exercise ball with your hands to the floor for stability

Back Extension

Hook your feet under the anchors of the back extension station and, keeping your back naturally arched, place your fingers on the back of your head and lower your upper body as far as you comfortably can. Squeeze your glutes and raise your torso until it's in line with your lower body. Slowly lower your torso back to the starting position.

Dumbell Step-up

Holding a pair of dumbbells at your sides, stand in front of a bench and place your right foot firmly on it. The step should be high enough that your knee is bent 90 degrees. Press your right heel in and step up until your right leg is straight and you're standing on one leg. Lower your body back down until your elevated left leg touches the floor. Repeat for 10 to 15 reps with the right leg, then move on to the left leg.

The Athlete's Book of Home Remedies by Jordan D. Metzl, MD, 2012, Rodale, New York, NY, pp. 60-65 

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