Have you been stretching the heck out of your hamstrings for years with no improvement?
Most people think that when we are stretching, we are lengthening the muscle. Unfortunately, that is not true. What we are doing is creating the neurophysiological response to convince our nervous system that we are safe in a new range.
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What is actually happening when you stretch?
When we are stretching too far, especially in the case of hamstrings, you have proprioceptors in the muscle fibers that signal to the brain to tell it, “Hey, this is a vulnerable position.”
We also have a stretch reflex that functions as a protective mechanism that you’re going too far. So when you begin to have this pain, irritation, or a sense of discomfort when you’re stretching, that means that you are not making a change. We have to think about changing our nervous system, so let’s get into how to do that.
Let’s use the classic toe touch test as our example. When we are touching our toes and reaching down, what ideally happens is that the pelvis shifts backward which allows for a uniform curve in our spine.
Most people that can’t touch their toes will see all of their motion is coming from their spine and there is no motion coming from the pelvis. That means that they’re not getting a natural sequencing in flexion, or forward bending, pattern. To change that pattern, we have to think about how is the pelvis and trunk sequencing with the rest of the body.
One of the most basic things from a biomechanical standpoint is to look at the position of the pelvis. Ideally, in a neutral position, we have our rib cage stacked over top of our pelvis. If our pelvis is tilted forward, an anterior pelvic tilt, or it’s tilted backward a posterior tilt, this changes the length of our hamstrings.
Our hamstrings, just like any other muscles, contract, relax and lengthen. When they are in the lengthened position, it might present as a tightness but doesn’t mean they are tight, and in fact, might need to be strengthened.
Essentially when we have one of these pelvic positions, then that means that our deep intrinsic stabilizing system, our pelvic floor, diaphragm, and our deep stabilizers of our core are not sequencing well.
If they’re not doing their job, including the deep stabilizers of the hip, then our glutes can never really produce the appropriate amount of force. We have to have enough stability to be able to generate force through our glutes.
So what happens if we’re not using our glute and we’re not using our core properly? Then, the hamstrings present as tight because we’re having a global tightness or facilitation from our nervous system. Our nervous system is saying “Hey, I have to tighten up something to create some stiffness somewhere.”
So what can you do?
Reestablish your breathing and pelvic position. Using a diaphragmatic breath, breathing into the base of the abdomen, all the way into the pelvic floor, and getting that ribcage stacked over the pelvis. It is important to do this in a variety of different movements and patterns. Everything from standing, sitting, quadruped, and lying on the ground; establishing this and integrating it into all of your movements and activities.
Here are a few things that you could do, most importantly reestablishing new movement patterns, especially a posterior weight shift of the pelvis. Allowing for proper sequencing in the pelvis reinforces that your nervous system isn’t in protective mode all the time, using hamstring stiffness as a way to protect your body.
3 Exercises To Establish New Movement Pattern
Here are some exercises you can perform to help you establish this new movement pattern.
1. Rock on Forearms
To perform this exercise, place your elbows and knees wide on the ground. Inhale as you rock back, only bending from the hips and keeping the spine straight. Exhale as you return slightly over your shoulders.
2. Hip Hinge
For the hip hinge, place a dowel behind your back touching your pelvis, middle of your shoulder blades, and your head. Inhale as you go down, hinging in your hips backward and allowing the knees to bend softly. Exhale as you come up.
3. Toe Touch Progression
For the toe touch progression place a block between your thighs and start with your toes elevated. Inhale as you reach up, and exhale as you reach down to touch your toes. Then you’ll reverse the direction by putting your heels up on the board and toes down, and performing the same thing. This creates a natural posterior weight shift in the pelvis and activates the deep core.
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