If you spend an appreciable amount of time in a gym setting, you start to hear many of the same phrases, especially concerning pain, discomfort, and even injuries. “Man, my hip flexors are so tight,” “my back needs to be cracked,” and “my hamstrings are so tight/not flexible.” Most people have these same problems and symptoms. However, when it comes to fixing these issues, there are many strategies.
The human body is infinitely complex. Yet, in a way, it’s simple. “Stretch what’s tight, strengthen what’s weak” is what one of my professors always said in physical therapy school. While that’s not always entirely true, it’s usually a good strategy that puts people on the right path. It’s a good place to start trying to fix dysfunctions.
As mentioned earlier, one of the most common aches and sources of discomfort in people is their tight hamstrings. Now, what’s interesting about the hamstrings is that they directly attach to the pelvis. Truly tight hamstrings will pull the backside of the pelvis down, resulting in a flat low back. A flat low back is a compressed back, which commonly causes low back pain, another extremely common complaint for people. And guess what? The primary hip flexor muscle (the psoas) is directly connected to the low back, which can cause feelings of tightness—connecting the dots here? The body is complex yet pretty simple in its connectivity. Fixing tight hamstrings can fix things like low back pain, tight hips, hip flexors, and many other issues. This doesn’t mean that loosening the hamstrings is a cure-all to your aches and pains, but it may be worth a shot.
So how do we loosen the hamstrings? There are three common types of stretching methods to improve the range of motion to muscle groups: myofascial release (foam rolling), static and dynamic stretching. A recent study in Germany looked at how to improve hamstring flexibility most efficiently between these three methods. Here’s what they found.
Spoiler alert, they all worked. Plenty of research proves that all three methods can improve flexibility in a muscle group, improving a joint’s range of motion. The issue is that sometimes that increased range of motion causes the associated muscles to lose their mojo, their strength. Research shows that myofascial release techniques such as foam rolling can reduce the strength and power of a muscle, which makes sense. Imagine getting a massage. Massages are so enjoyable because it relaxes muscles. Relaxed muscles don’t perform well on an athletic field. Extensive foam rolling has its place, but probably not right before a competition or a workout. The German study also revealed that foam rolling had the smallest range of motion improvement to the hamstrings among the three methods.
When you think of stretching, static stretching is probably what you think of. An example is the classic bend over and touches your toes for 30 seconds. Holding a stretch for a period of time is a static stretch. And that’s exactly what the athletes in the study did, reaching for their toes for 30 seconds, which led to a 4 degrees increase in hip range of motion, which is significant. In contrast, foam rolling increased it by two degrees.
Like static stretching, dynamic stretching also led to an average 4-degree increase in range of motion. However, research, unfortunately, shows that prolonged static stretching can reduce strength and power output. Again, not something you want before a workout or game. Conversely, dynamic stretching is proven to IMPROVE strength and power with no detrimental effects.
That should settle the debate right there. There are many ways to improve the range of motion and improve flexibility. They all work, but dynamic stretching stands above the rest. And there’s a good reason for it. Both static stretching and foam rolling are passive in nature, meaning something is doing the work for you. The foam roller digs into muscles, causing them to relax rather than stimulate them. Static stretches typically utilize walls, chairs, the floor, or other body parts to artificially create a stretch. Again, this also causes the muscles to relax and does not prepare the body to perform at a high level. Dynamic stretching does not passively use equipment or body parts. Dynamic stretching uses your body’s natural mechanics, contracting muscles in the correct balance to achieve a good stretch.
This balanced effort leads to stretching the muscle while simultaneously stimulating them to turn on and perform at a higher level. As I said before, improving the range of motion in the hamstrings can lead to resolving other issues, such as back pain or hip tightness. Here’s a great video example of how to use dynamic stretching to stretch out the all-too-commonly tight hamstrings. Give this routine a shot!