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So many people suffer from tight hamstrings without even realizing it. With sitting becoming increasingly more common, a lot of people tend to not give enough attention to these big muscles and don’t realize the impact tight hamstrings have on their overall wellbeing. It is crucial to stretch your hamstrings on a regular basis not only to feel good from day to day, but to prevent deterioration as you get older.
In this post, we’ll go over the best yoga poses to release tight hamstrings, and how you can modify each pose if you are feeling extra tight! By the end you will be feeling as good as new. 😉
What are the Hamstrings?
The hamstrings are three muscles on the back of the thigh between the hip and knee: semitendinosus, semimembranosus and bicep femoris.
They are essential to activities like walking (acting as an antagonist to the quadriceps), jumping, and influence our posture.
What Causes Tight Hamstrings?
Tight hamstrings can be the result of multiple reasons, many being the cause of simple day to day life or deficiencies in other areas. Here are some of the most common causes:
1. If you’ve never stretched or worked out your hamstrings, they might simply be weak.
2. If your knees are bent most of the time, your hamstrings are always in a shortened position. This leads to a limited range of motion.
3. If you workout too much without stretching before and afterwards, you don’t give your muscles the chance to release the built-up tension. As a result, they’ll stay tight and the blood flow in the muscles decreases, therefore they won’t be working at their full capacity.
4. Your body might try to compensate for the lack of hamstring flexibility by pulling on the lower back. As a result, the pelvis tilts forward – this is called posterior pelvic tilt and leads to bad posture.
Symptoms of Tight Hamstrings
If you experience pain in the back of the thigh when straightening the leg or bending over, your hamstrings are probably tight.
How to test if you have tight hamstrings:
- Lie down on your back, bend your right leg and bring the right knee in line with the hip. Your knee is pointing up to the ceiling.
- From here, try to extend your leg so that the sole of your foot points up. If you can’t extend your legs, your hamstrings might have limited range of motion.
Don’t worry, a lot of people suffer from this, and it can easily be fixed. Just by stretching for a few minutes every day, your hamstring flexibility can be improved drastically. Below we will guide you through a few yoga poses that target the hamstrings.
How to Release Tight Hamstrings with Yoga
The following yoga poses are perfect for helping you release tightness in the hamstrings as well as improve flexibility. I suggest holding each pose between 7-10 deep breaths.
The Importance of Using Props
Modifications with props are included for most of the poses- I HIGHLY suggest using them! Using a yoga strap or yoga blocks will help you maintain proper alignment and deepen the stretch in your hamstrings.
Seated Forward Fold
This is one of the most commonly known poses to help loosen the hamstrings, BUT you must make sure you are practicing with proper alignment to do so! You never want to hunch your back or fold from your waist. This causes compression and reduces the hamstring stretch.
How to do Seated Forward Fold:
- Start in seated Staff Pose with feet flexed in towards you. Sit tall, and if needed sit on a blanket, pillow, or block for posture support.
- Lift through your chest. Take a deep breath, then on your exhale fold over your front body while maintaining a straight back and reach for your toes, ankles, or shins.
- Fold deeper into the pose with each exhale.
Modification: Use a strap around your feet before you fold over to provide traction and help you get a deeper stretch while maintaining proper alignment.
Seated Head to Knee
Seated Head to Knee pose is similar to Seated Forward Fold but allows you to focus on one leg at a time, allowing you to deepen the stretch.
How to do Seated Head to Knee:
- Start in seated Staff pose with feet flexed in towards you. Bend your right leg and bring the foot in towards your left thigh.
- Inhale as you rotate your body so that your navel lines up over your left leg. Flex the foot in towards you.
- On your exhale, lengthen up through your chest and fold over your left leg, reaching for your toes, ankle or shin.
- With each inhale, lengthen, and each exhale, fold deeper.
Modification: Use a strap just as you did in Seated Forward Fold to help you maintain proper alignment and deepen the stretch in your hamstrings.
Wide Legged Standing Forward Fold
This is one of my favorite stretches because it can be combined with a nice shoulder stretch as well. You will notice it also gives you a completely different stretch than regular Standing Forward Fold.
How to do Wide Legged Standing Forward Fold:
- Stand facing the long side of your mat and step your feet out to the side. Your feet should be at about 3-4 feet distance and parallel to the short side of the mat.
- Inhale and bring your hands to your hips and on an exhale fold forward. You can place your hands on the floor or hold on to your ankles if it is accessible.
- After ten breaths, inhale to come halfway up, place the hands on the floor in front of you. With an exhale, bring your hands to your hip and on the next inhale come all the way up.
- If you would like to add the shoulder stretch, interlace you hands behind your back and fold forward with your hands interlaced.
Modification: Instead of bringing your hands to the floor or to your ankles, use blocks to help you keep a lifted chest while still getting a deep stretch.
Side Lunge/ Ninja
Side Lunge, also known as Ninja pose, is a deep side stretch that provides deep tension release in the hips and hamstrings. This is a great active pose to practice by moving between another pose such as Wide Legged Standing Fold or Goddess in order to warm up the legs and sink deeper.
How to do Side Lunge:
- Start in Five Pointed Star, standing with your feet as wide as your shoulders.
- On your exhale, lengthen and fold into Wide Legged Standing Forward Fold.
- From Wide Legged Fold, place your hands or fingertips on the ground and begin to bend your right leg and use your hands to sink into your right side, straightening the left leg.
- Do not let your chest collapse in this pose. Engage your core and continue to lift through your chest as your sink to the right side. You should feel a deep stretch in your left hamstring.
Modification: If you have tighter hips, keep your heel lifted and balance on the ball of your right foot. You can keep your hands on the ground for balance support or bring them into prayer for a challenge.
Ragdoll Forward Fold
Ragdoll is a less intense and more relaxing variation of traditional Standing Forward Fold. Rocking back and forth between your heels and toes in this pose is a great way to release tightness in different areas of your legs, including the hamstrings.
How to do Ragdoll Pose:
- Start with your feet at hip width distance apart.
- Lift your arms up on an inhale, on an exhale bend forward from your hips.
- Hold on to the opposite elbows and gently sway from side to side. You can also gently shake your head from left to right to release your neck or gently move your weight from your heels to your toes, back and forth. You should feel a stretch in your lower back and your hamstrings.
Downward Facing Dog
Downward Facing Dog is one of the most well known yoga poses, and offers benefits for the entire body. This pose is excellent at improving hamstring flexibility and with the use of a simple prop, you can get an even deeper stretch.
How to do Downward Facing Dog:
- From Tabletop (hands under your shoulders, knees in line with your hips), start walking your hands slightly forward and tuck your toes.
- Push your hips up and back and your chest towards the legs so that your head is in one line with your arms. Spread your fingers and press the base of your thumb and index finger into the floor.
- Keep your knees slightly bent at first- if you don’t feel any discomfort straighten both legs and reach the heels towards the ground. To stretch your hamstrings, bend one leg and if possible, straighten the other, then switch sides.
Modification: To get an even deeper stretch in your hamstrings or if you feel wrist discomfort when practicing this pose, place a block under each hand.
Triangle Pose offers a great stretch in your hamstrings as well as a deep side stretch to release tension in the hips, hamstrings, lower back, and calves.
How to do Triangle:
- Start in Mountain Pose, then step your feet 3-4 feet apart. Turn the left foot out 90° so that your toes are pointing towards the front of the mat, your right foot points to the top left corner of the mat at a 45° angle. The right and left heel are in one line.
- On an inhale, lift your arms up and with an exhale reach your left arm forward as far as you can and your right arm back. Then slowly lower your hand all the way to your right shin, ankle, toe or ground. Reach your right fingertips up towards the ceiling as you lift up through your chest.
- If it doesn’t hurt your next you can look up to your right hand. Stay here for ten breaths, then come back up on an inhale.
Modification: you should be completely linear in this pose to the point where you can fit your body in between two walls, meaning your back should be straight and folding laterally. If you find your back rounding while your left hand reaches to the ground, use a block for support.
This pose is also know as “Intense Side Stretch”. Pyramid Pose is great for the lower back and the hamstrings, which makes it a great stretch to improve posture.
How to do Pyramid Pose:
- Start in Mountain Pose, then step your right foot back about 6-8 inches. Your right foot should be turned on an angle, similar to feet positioning in Triangle Pose.
- Square your hips and lift your arms up with an inhale.
- Start folding over your left leg with a straight spine until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings. Hold the pose for ten deep breaths and change the sides.
Modification: You want to make sure you keep your spine straight in this pose and your hips square to get the proper stretch. Try using a block on either side and adjust the height of them until you are able to maintain proper alignment while folding.
Half Split, also known as Half Monkey Pose, is similar to Pyramid Pose in the sense that is also provides a deep, intense stretch. Keeping a straight back and squared hips is also super important in this pose, so we showed two modifications below.
How to do Half Split with a Strap:
- Start in a kneeling position with you torso lifted upright. Step your left foot forward.
- Straighten your left leg and flex the foot in towards your body. Wrap a strap around the foot and grab onto both ends.
- Inhale as you lengthen up, then as you exhale, pull back on the strap to provide traction as you fold forward only as much as you can while keeping squared hips and a straight spine. You will feel a very deep stretch in your leg. Breathe deeply and release the tension with every exhale.
How to do Half Split with Blocks:
- Start in a kneeling position with you torso lifted upright. Step your left foot forward. Place blocks on either side of your hips.
- Straighten your left leg and flex the foot in towards your body.
- Inhale as you lengthen up, then as you exhale, fold forward only as much as you can while keeping squared hips and a straight spine. You will feel a very deep stretch in your leg. Breathe deeply and release the tension with every exhale. Adjust the block height to suit your needs, making them taller or shorter to maintain proper alignment.
Not only is Standing Split a great pose to release tight hamstrings, but it is a great glute toner and helps release tension in the glutes, hips, and lower back.
How to do Standing Split:
- Start in Pyramid Pose with your left leg in front, folded over your front leg.
- Walk your hands slightly forward until your front leg is perpendicular to the ground and lift your right leg up into the air as high as you can.
- It is important to keep your hips squared in this pose to get the proper stretch. Focus on the deep stretch in your hamstrings and hips in this pose rather than how high you can lift your leg.
- Keep lifting your pose and folding forward in this pose, going deeper with each exhale.
Modification: Use block in this pose if you find in difficult to maintain alignment while reaching your hands towards the floor. This will also make the stretch more gentle and allow you to adjust accordingly with the blocks.
Gate Pose is often known for it’s wonderful ability to release tension in the side body, but it provides a great stretch in the hamstrings as well.
How to do Gate Pose:
- Start in a kneeling position with your bottom and torso upright.
- Step your left foot out the the side so it is in line with your hip and ground your left foot.
- Inhale as your reach your arms up towards the sky, and exhale as you fold laterally over to the left and reach your left hand towards your left ankle or shin. Continue to reach your right fingertips towards the left side of the room.
- Keep your spine straight and lift through your chest. Fold deeper laterally with every exhale.
Reclined Big Toe
This is one of my favorite yoga poses to practice when I feel tightness in my hamstrings. This version is a lot more accessible than the standing Hand to Toe version because you don’t need to worry about balance.
How to do Reclined Big Toe Pose:
- Lie down on your back and bend your right knee to your chest.
- Hold on to your right thigh or calf, whatever feels most comfortable (your shoulders should stay on the ground).
- Begin to straighten your leg up into the air and towards you until you feel a comfortable stretch.
- For a deeper stretch, bring your leg across your body to the right, and then to the left. Repeat on the other side.
Modification: This will be very difficult to practice with a prop when first starting out. Try using a strap around your foot instead to lengthen and allow you to keep your shoulders on the ground while keeping your leg straight.
Does sitting cause tight hamstrings?
It won’t tighten your hamstrings, but the muscles connected to it. Too much sitting without stretching causes tight hip flexors, which leads to an anterior tilt in the pelvis, pulling on the back muscles. This tightness on the surrounding area of your hamstrings might make it feel like your hamstrings are tight, too.
Can tight hamstrings lead to back pain?
Absolutely. The anterior tilt of the pelvis pulls on the back muscles, and this continuous strain leads to back pain.
Why are my hamstrings and calves tight?
Many runners suffer from tight calves if they don’t stretch them properly before and after running. If your hamstrings are weak, your calves will try to compensate, working harder than they should and therefore tightening up. Both muscle groups work together, so if your calves are tight, your hamstrings are also more likely to tighten up. Wearing high heels very often can also lead to tight calves.
After completing her teacher training in India, Franziska started writing about and teaching yoga while traveling. Having her mat with her always makes her feel more at home, no matter where she is. Yoga has improved her life in many ways, and she’d like to share the numerous benefits of yoga with others.