Loosening the hamstrings takes dedication. I don’t know how old you are but at the time of this writing I am 29 years old and I’m literally trying to undo 29 years of never-stretching-my-hamstrings. I’ve been wanting (but not really trying) to touch my toes without bending my knees for about 10 years. It wasn’t until a couple months ago when I was able to finally do that.
The main reason why our hamstrings are tight in the first place is that we spend most of our lives with our hamstrings in a contracted position (i.e. we spend a lot of time sitting on a chair).
You have to stretch them FREQUENTLY. Once a week isn’t going to cut it. And neither is fruitlessly trying to just reach for your toes, bouncing and yanking on your back (please don’t do that). At minimum, I would say 3-4 dedicated stretching sessions a week. If you could stretch every day, even better. However, you shouldn’t push yourself to the absolute limits each time. You need to just get into your end-range and learn to BREATHE and calm down in these uncomfortable situations. It’s not all about pushing and pulling and contorting! You need to respect your body and understand that this is a PROCESS. This is one of the reasons why I practice Yoga. It’s really boring to just sit there and stretch, but yoga is what made it bearable for me and taught me tremendous lessons. It’s not only a great practice that ramps up your self awareness and increases flexibility, but becomes a moving meditation if you get in the flow of it.
I used to do Yoga (for about an hour), twice a week, once on Tuesday and once on Thursday. After Thursday’s session I would be quite limber and notice some progress, but by the time next Tuesday rolled around, I’d be back to square one! Those 4 days of not-stretching over the weekend reverted and undid everything!
Everything changed for me when I started to do yoga at a minimum of 3-4x a week so that my body didn’t have time to revert back.
So you have to stay consistent, dedicated and determined. Don’t be dismayed because you think it’s going to take a lot of time to do this. All you have IS time, feel me?
Memorize the sun salutations
These are one of the first movement flows you will learn in yoga and it is a very thorough, full body warm up. Esther Ekhart has a beautiful youtube channel and this is her sun salutations video with very proper instructions. If you are well versed in sun salutations just forward to 4:25.
After you have warmed up with some Sun salutations… check out Esther’s Yoga for Hamstrings video. She utilizes a tennis ball to loosen the bottom of your feet. She utilizes a strap as well. Straps are a godsend for people with tight hamstrings (you and I!). If you don’t have a cotton strap, you could use a regular belt or rope.
You might ask: “Why should I do these sun salutations? I just want to work on my hamstrings!”
When people think of stretching, they often think of only the muscle anatomy and only that target muscle. But you are not just muscles. You are also nerves, fascia, joints, etc. All of these are functioning together all as one and the sun salutations tackle many parts of the body at once. When you are stretching your muscles, you are not just moving muscle but also moving nerves which must glide freely to give your mobility. These nerves originate out of your spinal column and travel all the way and innervate your limbs and torso. People think of nerves as tiny fiber-optic-like cables, but they’re actually very significant in size. Your largest nerve, your sciatic nerve which extends from your lumbar/sacral spine down the length of your leg (and very much involved with the hammys) is almost an inch thick!!!
So anyway, the nerves are not set in stone. These nerves must glide freely to be able to give you more mobility. Believe it or not but tightness in the neck and in the bottom of your feet can and do affect the flexibility of your legs.
Your muscles are not too short.
Your flexibility has nothing to do with the length of your muscles. They are not physically too short. The length of them is absolutely fine. The reason you can’t stretch past a certain point is because your nervous system sends the message to CONTRACT THE MUSCLE once it reaches a certain point. The nerve may be getting compressed and not able to glide freely and sending the signal to STOP RIGHT THERE. But it’s doing it for good reason: to prevent injury. Never try to force the stretch like crazy, ESPECIALLY IF YOU ARE NOT WARMED UP. Remember to take your time.
Interestingly enough, if you were put under anesthesia, I could lift your leg up and without any resistance, slowly bring your shins to your forehead. In other words, you’d be able to do the splits if your mind and nervous system was set out of the way.
This is very much symbolic of life, right? You reach your comfort zone, your ego holds you back and tells you to not go beyond it. Because that’s what’s helped you survive all these years, right? But we don’t want to just survive. We are equipped with glorious minds that want better than that. We want to expand our lives and feel freedom. That’s why there’s that saying: Life starts at the edge of your comfort zone. Or as Bob Marley sang, “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds.”
Which brings me to my last points: Breathing and your Mind. Stretching is very much a mental thing as well. The same way you are not just muscles, you also have this consciousness that is not separate from your corporeal body as well (I guess, unless if you’re under lots of drugs, haha!). When you reach your limits, your mind also anticipates what the limit is. Without progress this limit becomes habit and set in stone (in your mind). But it doesn’t have to be that way. What helps you extend your limits is to focus on your breathing. We tend to hold our breath when we are put in a stressful situation. Just breathe, man. Try to deepen the stretch only when you are exhaling. Exhale and go deeper. When you inhale, relax. And then relax even more on the exhale. Feel me?
tl;dr: stretch often to undo all that sitting, take a yoga class or use the power of youtube to do it at home, don’t hold your breath, exhale, stretch your entire body, you are not just muscles.