Ever wish you could touch your toes? Ever wonder why all the stretching you’re doing doesn’t seem to get your fingers any closer to the floor? If you’re like most guys (and some ladies), you probably find it ridiculously hard to get your fingers to even brush your ankles, let alone the floor. Even after years of yoga, you may find that you still can’t touch your toes, and your back hurts. So let’s look at what you’re doing wrong and what you can do about it.
First of all, let me address the sexism in that first paragraph. Guys generally have tighter hamstrings than women. That’s just how it is. You know it, and I know it. In fact, you’re probably a man reading this, so I don’t need to tell you that the next time you need someone to do a graceful kick up to the ceiling, ask a woman unless you have an extremely well trained man with a background in gymnastics or circus performance.
Now, as for you and your tight hamstrings, you’ve probably been doing forward folds over and over again, straining, grunting, and attempting to will yourself to the floor. That’s great because it shows your dedication. It’s crappy because you’re almost definitely doing it wrong. This very poorly lit video I shot a while back briefly explains the issue:
Essentially, those forward folds are just giving you an opportunity to flex your spine too much. The result will be a disc herniation. Or shoulder rounding that leads to impingement or rotator cuff injury.
The other hamstring stretch you may be doing is the classic seated runner’s hamstring stretch.
Both of these don’t work unless you pay close, close attention to the way you’re moving your body. If you’re like most guys, you don’t and/or you can’t control your body enough to do this stretch properly. Even the two women in these pictures are doing the stretch in a way that flexes their spines. The more the spine flexes, the less focus is on the hamstrings.
Your hamstrings need to learn to allow the pelvis to roll forward (like the motion of an anterior tilt). If the hamstrings don’t allow that, your spine will flex. So to make sure your spine doesn’t flex, we have to put you in a position where spinal flexion feels unnatural and unhelpful.
And that, my friend, is why you’ll be lying on your back for two very simple stretches to help train your hamstrings for more extensibility (I am phrasing it that way instead of saying “lengthening your hamstrings” because you really aren’t physically lengthening a muscle when you stretch…but that’s a subject that I don’t care to beat to death here).
Just like the seated hamstring stretches shown above, we’ve got a one-leg and two-leg version. Here’s a picture of the two leg version. Basically, you get your butt as close to the wall as possible, get your feet up on the wall, then straighten your knees. Pull your toes back, and enjoy the stretch. If your butt comes up off the floor, you’re too close for how tight your hamstrings are and are itching for a back injury. Your pelvis is being pulled into a posterior tilt so much that your body’s lifting off! So back away from the wall until you can keep your butt down and feel the stretch all the way down the back of your legs.
Now, I find the next version, the one-leg hamstring stretch to be the most fun because it really focuses the stretch on one leg and minimizes the posterior tilt that may occur as a compensation for super tight hamstrings. You slide into a doorway, put one leg up on the door frame so that your knee and foot are perpendicular to the wall and put the other straight through the doorway so it’s flat on the floor with the knee and toes pointing up. Pull your toes back on both feet and pray that you reach Nirvana soon. If your butt twists or lifts off the floor or you can’t straighten the knee, you’re too close. Back off and find your “nice stretch” zone.
Both stretches can be held for up to 3 minutes and no less than 30 seconds. If you go longer than 3, your feet and legs will probably go numb (which will probably not do any lasting damage), and if you go shorter than 30 seconds, you’re just wasting your time.
Start working these stretches in twice a day and see how your hamstrings respond over the next two weeks. If you’re a super tight guy, it may take you months. If you’re one of the lucky ones, you may start feeling your hamstrings “loosening up” within a matter of days. Enjoy the stretches without your spinal flexion, and have fun touching your toes!