Tight hamstrings are one of the most common complaints that I hear from athletes. Usually, tight hamstrings if pretty noticeable after a day of strenuous exercise, especially ones that consist of heavy posterior chain work, like RDL’s, SLDL’s, Bucks, Ball Leg curls, and Glute Hams, etc.
It’s a common misconception that the tight feeling in sore hamstrings was normal after these types of leg-heavy training sessions, but this is far from the truth.
Hamstrings seem to retain their tightness like no other muscle – often, they feel sore and short weeks after workouts and training, even when all other areas of flexibility are great.
Often, it is easy to dismiss any ‘wrong’ feelings in the hamstrings – especially when the muscle’s range of motion was seemingly normal.
Generally, athletes who complain of a tight sensation in their hamstrings also have poor glute muscle function, i.e., they lacked the ability to completely fire or fully activate their glutes.
This phenomenon isn’t just limited to elite athletes – it is found throughout the normal population too.
Why Is Proper Glute Firing Important?
The condition of ‘gluteal amnesia’ is most commonly caused by overactive hip flexor muscles.
When the hip flexor muscles (called the iliacus, rectus fermoris, and tensor fascia latae) start to get tight (which occurs from poor training, bad form, and/or prolonged sitting activities) their antagonistic muscles, which is primarily the gluteus maximus, tend to weaken.
This happens through a mechanism called reciprocal inhibition, where the muscles on one side of a joint become too tight, which changes the joint kinematics and shuts down the antagonist muscles on the other side of the joint.
A consequence of having tight hip flexors is that they can create a greater lumbar curve, which then leads to weak glute muscles.
How Does This Affect The Hamstrings?
Although up to this point, we have spoken a lot about hip flexors and glutes, as the body is an incredible interconnected system, this does have a huge impact on the hamstrings.
The body will find ways to accomplish movements, regardless of whether some muscles aren’t able to fire to their full capacity. This adaptation occurs through compensation in other muscle groups to accomplish particular tasks.
If glutes aren’t working properly, the bosy will use synergistic muscles to step in during tasks that involve both hip extension and hip external rotation, as well as deceleration of hip flexion and hip internal rotation.
The synergistic muscles that assist the glutes with these movements are the hamstrings and the adductor magnus. Connecting all this information up, it is clear that the hamstrings are forced to work far more than they usually would if the glutes aren’t able to function properly.
Generally, the role of the hamstrings is to flex the knee and to extend the hip. However, by the nature of where they attach to the skeleton, they aren’t the best hip extensors.
Although they will do the work of the glute muscles, they aren’t suited to it, and it can cause all kind of issues, both on the pitch, and pain-wise.
When they have more work to do, synergistic muscles don’t get to rest, which leads to a higher incidence of injuries.
Inactive glutes can cause pulled hamstrings, patellofemoral syndrome, piriformis syndrome, ACL tears, lower back pain, and even shoulder injuries.
Read on below to discover how to start to activate your glutes, get them firing properly, and banish any tension or tight feeling in your hamstrings, and hopefully avoid any of the injuries listed above.
What to Do To Retrieve Tight Glutes – Step By Step
Note – This plan must be undertaken in the specific listed order to reap all the benefits and achieve the greatest results.
Getting the glutes to activate and fire is rarely based on strength, but rather it’s more commonly a neural issue. This is because the glutes are not receiving the neural drive from the central nervous system (CNS) and as a result, the muscles have become inactive.
The best way to deal with inactive glutes is the following steps, done in each training session.
1. Inhibit – the goal of this step is to inhibit the overactive muscles. With hamstring dominance, this is the hip flexors, hamstrings and adductors. Inhibition can be primarily done through the use of foam rollers, to achieve self myofascial release.
2. Lengthen – during this stage, we lengthen the areas that we have just inhibited. This is achieved through static stretching of the antagonists. With hamstring dominance, these are the hip flexors and adductors. I recommend the lateral squat stretch, hip flexor stretch and rectus femoris stretch.
3. Activate – here, we try to activate the muscle that has been shut down due to inactivity. With hamstring dominance, that is the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and hip external rotators.
Exercises to turn on these muscles are primarily done in non-functional (lying down), low load bearing positions to ensure that you can totally focus on the muscle that you’re trying to make fire, whilst also trying to minimize the patterns of compensation.
- Glute bridge (for the gluteus maximus) – lay face up on the floor, with knees bent and soles of the feet flat on the ground. Lift your backside off the ground until your knees, hips and shoulders are all in alignment. Squeeze your glutes hard, and keep your abs drawn in tight to prevent overextending your back and causing injury.
- Clamshells (for the exteral rotators) – lay on your side, with your legs stacked and knees bent at a 45-degree angle. Rest your head on your lower arm. Engage your abs by sucking your belly button in, to stabilize your back and pelvis. With your feet still touching, raise your upper knee as high as you can without shifting your hips/pelvis. Pause, and then return your upper leg to the ground. We suggest 20 reps on each side.
- Jane Fondas (for the gluteus medius) – position your body on your side, and raise the top leg away from the bottom leg, to around a 45-degree angle.
4. Integrate – relearn how to use the muscles and integrate them into a functional (standing) exercise, so as to use it in both sport and daily function.
- Mini-band walk – put an exercise band round your ankles, and walk laterally. Knees should be bent slightly with the backside, back and chest up.
- 1-leg 3-way MB reach – stand on one leg with a medicine ball in your hands. Bend your knee slightly, and reach as far forward as you can, and then stand up. Alternatively, reach inside as far as you can, and then return to standing position.
5. Reinforce – continue to reinforce the popper motor pattern through the rest of the training session. This is usually primarily done through proper coaching, through verbal, visual, and tactile cueing. Cue your athletes so that they always contract their glutes at the top of their squats, deadlift, RDL’s, SLDL’s. Step-ups, lunges etc.
Use this list to refer back to and plan workouts. Pick 1 or 2 exercises from each category, to be done as a warm-up.