How should I stretch my hamstrings?

Dr. Vonda Wright, MD
Orthopedic Surgery
The hamstring stretch can be performed lying on the ground or may be as simple as raising your heel up on a stool or chair and leaning forward. I do my personal favorite variation after I run. While still out in the park or street, I place my feet a little more than shoulder width apart and lean forward with a straight back from the waist. With my knees straight, I place my palms on the ground, which gives me a great stretch in the back of my legs. To increase the stretch, all I have to do is move my feet closer together until, when I'm really flexible, my feet are together and my palms are on the ground.

Years ago, when I was a ballet dancer, I loved to do hamstring stretches in the following way:

1. Lay down with the small of your back against the floor.

2. Bend your left knee to 90 degrees to stabilize your hips.

3. Slowly raise your right leg off the ground with the knee as straight as possible. Your right hip should not rise off the floor and the motion should be coming only from your hip.

4. As your foot approaches vertical, you will feel a stretch in the back of your leg.

5. Hold your leg in this raised position for 30 seconds. As you become more flexible, your foot and knee will come past vertical and get closer to your chest and ear. (It's true. That is why I loved this stretch as a dancer.)

6. You can modify this exercise by placing a towel around the sole of your shoe and pulling your leg back toward your chest with a straight knee.

7. After 30 seconds, relax your knee and then repeat three times before switching to the left leg.

Fitness After 40: How to Stay Strong at Any Age
Eric Olsen
There are three variations to hamstring stretches. You can do them standing, sitting, or lying on your back.

Standing, with your feet shoulder width apart, bend slowly at the waist and reach down to your toes. Hold, sink further, hold again. For a more ambitious stretch, cross your ankles. (Note, if you have a hard time keeping your balance, try one of the following instead.)

Sitting, with your legs straight, reach forward toward your toes.

The third variation is to lie on your back and bring one of your knees to your chest. Clasp your hands behind your knee and then straighten your leg slowly. Hold and repeat. Then switch legs.
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An easy-to-follow programme for lengthening and improving lives. More than an exercise guide, this text is an effective tool for making meaningful lifestyle decisions to benefit long-term fitness. In...
Grant Cooper, MD
Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation
To stretch your hamstrings, stand with your legs shoulder-width apart and bend forward slowly, keeping your entire back and knees straight, and bending only from your hips. Reach out for the ground with your palms down, trying to touch the floor. Feel the stretch in the back of your thighs. Take it very slowly at first, and remember to feel the stretch but don't cause pain. (Don't sacrifice form for increased "motion.") If you bend from your lower back or bend your knees, you will certainly be able to reach lower. However, the purpose of this exercise is to stretch the hamstrings in the back of your thighs, not necessarily to actually reach the floor. Bending your knees and/or lower back will only stress these joints and will not help stretch your hamstrings.

Some people, who can't come close to the floor, find it helpful to perform a modified version of this stretch. To do this, place a chair in front of you and reach down for the chair. If you can't reach the chair without breaking form, place pillows on the chair until you can reach over and touch the pillows, bending only from the hips. As you become more flexible, you will be able to remove the pillows from the chair. Eventually, you will be able to forgo the chair and reach down to your ankles, and perhaps your feet and even the floor.

Lie supine on the floor, legs strongly extended. If your head doesn't rest comfortably on the floor, support it on a folded blanket. Exhale, bend the left knee, and draw the thigh into your torso. Hug the thigh to your belly. Press the front of the right thigh heavily to the floor, and push actively through the right heel.

Loop a strap around the arch of the left foot and hold the strap in both hands. Inhale and straighten the knee, pressing the left heel up toward the ceiling. Walk your hands up the strap until the elbows are fully extended. Broaden the shoulder blades across your back. Keeping the hands as high on the strap as possible, press the shoulder blades lightly into the floor. Widen the collarbones away from the sternum.

Extend up first through the back of the left heel, and once the back of the leg between the heel and sitting bone is fully lengthened, lift through the ball of the big toe. Begin with the raised leg perpendicular to the floor. Release the head of the thigh bone more deeply into the pelvis and, as you do, draw the foot a little closer to your head, increasing the stretch on the back of the leg.

You can stay here in this stretch, or turn the leg outward from the hip joint, so the knee and toes look to the left. Pinning the top of the right thigh to the floor, exhale and swing the left leg out to the left and hold it a few inches off the floor. Continue rotating the leg. As you feel the outer thigh move away from the left side of the torso, try to bring the left foot in line with the left shoulder joint. Inhale to bring the leg back to vertical. Lighten your grip on the strap as you do, so that you challenge the muscles of the inner thigh and hip to do the work.

Hold the vertical position of the leg anywhere from 1 to 3 minutes, and the side position for an equal length of time. Once you have returned to vertical release the strap, hold the leg in place for 30 seconds or so, then slowly release as you exhale. Repeat on the right for the same length of time.

A great way to stretch each individual hamstring will be to complete the following:

  • While standing, take one foot and bring it slightly in front of the other. Next, have the foot in front of you up on the heel. Keep the foot in front straight as you slowly bend at your hip and knee of the leg in back leaning backwards. As you do this, the hamstring of the leg in front should feel a pull, the stretch.  The deeper you sit and the deeper the stretch. Hold for 20-30 seconds per side.

Holding weights, stand with your feet more than shoulder-width apart and toes pointed to sides. Bend forward and drop both hands toward your right ankle. Relax your upper body and let your head dangle loosely, releasing the tension in your neck. Keep your legs straight; don't bend your knees in an effort to touch your toes. Hold for 20 seconds; switch sides and repeat.

There are several methods to stretch your hamstrings, for example:
  • Lie on your back in a doorway with your feet in one room and the rest of your body in the second room. With your knee straight, place the foot of the leg you want to stretch up on the wall beside the doorway. Scoot your butt toward / through the doorway until you feel a stretch in the back of your thigh.
  • Lie on your back and have someone push the leg you want to stretch up in the air, keeping your knee straight. He should push the leg up until you feel a stretch in the back of your thigh. If you do not have a partner to help, you can use a rope or towel to pull your leg up into the air.
This answer provided for NATA by Loras College.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.