Woman does a hamstring stretch while outdoors

The 6 Best Stretches to Loosen Up Tight Hamstrings

Give your lower body some relief while helping prevent injury.

By Sara LindbergDecember 22, 2023


Tight hamstrings are something most runners, cyclists, and weightlifters will battle at some point in their fitness journey. That’s because these back-of-the-leg muscles are activated when doing any kind of physical activity involving the lower body. They’re also prone to injury and some serious soreness if they get irritated, overstretched, or strained. The good news is with the right exercises, including specific hamstring stretches, you can keep these three posterior thigh muscles in tip-top shape. 

We talked to three experts to get their take on the best stretches to combat tight hamstrings plus why it’s important to stretch this muscle group and the benefits of adding hamstring stretches to your daily routine.  

What Causes Tight Hamstrings?

While it might seem like one nagging issue is causing your muscles to scream in agony, it’s actually a combination of several factors that contribute to tight hamstrings. But before we jump into the reasons why, let’s get a better understanding of where these posterior leg muscles live and what functions they perform. 

The hamstrings are a collection of three different muscles: the semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and biceps femoris. These lower-body muscles run down the back of your leg, with a starting point of your hip and inserting to the back of your knee. Together, this group helps you extend your leg straight back and bend your knee.  

As to why the hamstrings are often tight, Theresa Shoemaker, PT, DPT, physical therapist at the Lander clinic at Teton Therapy, says tight hamstrings can develop from doing office work, sitting for extended periods of time, and simply not adequately stretching the muscles. 

Tight hamstrings can also stem from weakness or imbalances in the muscles around the hamstrings, such as the quadriceps or hip flexors. You may also experience stiffness in the back of your legs from participating in activities that put excessive stress on the hamstrings, such as running or heavy weightlifting, especially if you’re not doing a proper warm-up or cool-down that includes dynamic and static stretching. 

And finally, if you’re dealing with a chronic hamstring injury, you may have scar tissue formation, which can lead to decreased flexibility, and the increased risk of reinjury, according to research

The Benefits of Regularly Stretching Your Hamstrings

“Flexible hamstrings offer a multitude of perks,” says Taylor Pfeifer DPT, CSCS, and multiunit owner with FYZICAL Therapy & Balance Centers. First, they can enhance your performance by improving your range of motion during workouts. “This increased flexibility can also contribute to better posture and reduced muscle tension, making day-to-day movements smoother such as squats, lunges, or hip hinge patterns,” he says. Plus, Pfeifer says flexible hamstrings might help alleviate some common aches and pains, especially in the lower back and foot. “Studies show that tight hamstrings can change the mechanics of the foot, leading to plantar fasciitis or Achilles tendinopathy,” he adds. 

What’s more, Shoemaker says improving your hamstring flexibility may also lead to improved power. “For example, a cyclist will be much more powerful if they’re able to fully use their hamstring length to propel themselves, versus the cyclist with tight hamstrings who just may rely on their quadriceps to power their pedal stroke. A runner will have better performance if they have their full hamstring length through improved power in their gait,” she says. 

For injury prevention, Shoemaker says hamstring flexibility allows full range of movement. “When our hamstrings are overly tight, you will rely too much on other muscle groups, which can leave the hamstrings prone to injury through strain and promote injury to other muscle groups through overuse,” she says. This carries over into daily tasks such as vacuuming, shoveling snow, and raking leaves. 

“With limitations in hamstring flexibility or length, you also risk direct hamstring injury or indirect injury through strain to the hips, lower back, or knees,” she adds. Runners and cyclists can also cut down on exposure to injury if they engage in regular hamstring stretches to improve flexibility. 

When to Do Hamstring Stretches

While it might be tempting to stretch your hamstrings whenever it’s convenient, there’s a science to when it’s best to put your muscles to the test. Before a workout, focus on dynamic stretches that help increase blood flow, warm up the hamstring muscles, and prepare them for activity. Peloton instructor Hannah Corbin says she also likes to foam roll the hamstrings before a workout. 

Static stretches are best saved for the end of a routine when your muscles are warm. This type of stretching can help improve hamstring flexibility and range of motion, while also reducing muscle soreness. “I always encourage people to be very gentle with their post-workout stretches because we’ve asked the muscles to perform for us and they need a little patience,” Hannah says. 

If you have a desk job or spend long hours sitting, take breaks to stretch your hamstrings. Prolonged sitting can contribute to tightness, so incorporating stretches throughout the day can be beneficial. 

Another good time to do hamstring stretches is during a regular yoga or flexibility routine. You may also find that gentle stretching before bedtime helps relax your muscles and promotes better sleep.

Just remember to perform stretches gently and gradually, avoiding any sudden, jerky movements. And if you have existing injuries or health concerns, it's advisable to consult with a healthcare or fitness professional before starting a new stretching routine.

Static vs. Dynamic Hamstring Stretches

Pfeifer says knowing the difference between static and dynamic stretching and when to incorporate each stretch is key to keeping the hamstrings flexible and maintaining top physical performance and health. 

“A static stretch is when you hold a single position for a period of time (about 30-60 seconds), and a dynamic stretch is when you incorporate active movement to stretch a muscle and do not utilize prolonged holding of a position,” he says. The goal of a dynamic stretch is to increase blood flow, get the muscles ready for activity, and improve flexibility.

Examples of static hamstring stretches include the seated hamstring stretch, standing hamstring stretch, and lying hamstring stretch. Popular dynamic hamstring stretches include leg swings, walking lunges, high knees, and toe touches with a dynamic reach.

Prolonged static stretching can cause micro-tearing of the muscle, which Pfeifer says can dampen your physical performance, so it’s advised to perform static stretching following some exercise. Dynamic stretching, she says, is the go-to way to improve the flexibility of the muscle prior to exercise without creating detrimental effects on your performance. 

An easy way to remember when to perform each stretch is to be dynamic before your workout and stay static after you’re done. 

6 Best Hamstring Stretches

Heather Jeffcoat, DPT, says the best hamstring stretches are those that involve stretching in multiple fascial planes as life is not linear and involves movement in various directions. Here are two of her favorite hamstring stretches. 

Man reaches towards toe to stretch hamstring

Classic Hamstring Stretch

  1. Put your left heel on a chair or curb, keeping the spine straight, and lean forward until you feel a stretch behind the thigh. 

  2. Hold for five slow, deep breaths.

  3. Increase hold time as the hamstrings become more flexible. 

Hamstring Stretch With a Twist

  1. Get in the classic hamstring stretch position and rotate the spine to the left, feeling the stretch deepen on the outside of the hip and thigh.

  2. Hold for 5 slow deep breaths. 

  3. Go back to the starting position and rotate the spine to right, feeling the stretch deepen on the inside of the hip and thigh.

  4. Hold for 5 slow, deep breaths.

  5. Repeat the stretch on each side 2-3 times. 

  6. Increase hold time as the hamstrings become more flexible. 

Supine Dynamic Hamstring Stretch

Pfeifer’s all-time favorite hamstring stretch is a supine dynamic hamstring stretch. 

  1. Begin by lying on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.

  2. Keeping your knees bent, place your hands behind the knee on the side you wish to stretch and pull your leg towards your chest.  

  3. While holding your leg in this position, actively straighten the leg, feeling a stretch in the back of the extended leg. 

  4. Do 10 reps on each leg. 

Standing Dynamic Hamstring Stretch (aka Hamstring Frankenstein’s) 

A close second favorite for Pfeifer is the standing dynamic hamstring stretch. 

  1. Stand with both arms by your side. 

  2. Begin by reaching both arms in front of you at shoulder level. Kick with one leg keeping it as straight as possible trying to kick your hands. 

  3. Keep your hands at shoulder level, torso straight, and do not bend forward.  

  4. Repeat on the other side.

  5. Do 10 reps on each leg.

Supine Belted Static Hamstring Stretch

Props are an excellent way to modify a stretch. Pfeifer likes to use a belt or resistance band in this classic hamstring stretch. 

  1. Begin by sitting with the knee you intend to stretch straight.

  2. Place a belt or resistance band around your foot and hold on with both hands. 

  3. Lay back and begin lifting your leg up, keeping your knee straight. 

  4. Use the belt to provide a comfortable stretch behind the back of your leg and knee. 

  5. Hold for 30 seconds on each leg and repeat two to three times on each side.

Supine Wall Hamstring Stretch

Shoemaker likes the supine wall static stretch. When performed three times for one minute each, she says it can help improve the length of the hamstring muscles. 

  1. Lie down on your back and scoot your hips as close to the wall as possible. Let your arms rest by your sides with palms facing up.

  2. Extend one leg up against the wall, keeping the other leg bent on the floor or straight if that's more comfortable. Make sure the extended leg is straight and your heel is pointing towards the ceiling. 

  3. Keep both legs in line with your hips. You should feel a gentle stretch in your hamstring. If it's too intense, bend your knee slightly. If it's not enough, you can scoot your hips closer to the wall.

  4. Hold the stretch for about 30-60 seconds, gradually increasing the time as your flexibility improves. 

  5. After holding the stretch on one leg, switch to the other side and repeat the process.

Tips for Stretching 

  • Warm-up first: Always start with a light warm-up before stretching. This could include a few minutes of brisk walking, jogging in place, or any activity that increases your heart rate and warms up your muscles. You can also use dynamic stretching during the warm-up. 

  • Focus on proper technique: Pay attention to your form during stretches, which includes maintaining good posture and alignment to target the intended muscle group. Avoid bouncing or jerky movements, as this can lead to injury.

  • Hold each stretch: Hold each stretch for at least 30-60 seconds. You can gradually increase the hold time as your flexibility improves.

  • Match the activity: Jeffcoat says stretches should be in multiple planes and speed of stretching should match your activity. For example, if you’re kicking a football, you should do quick, ballistic stretches, but if you’re prepping for yoga, do slower, deeper stretches.

  • Slow and steady: If you're working on increasing flexibility, progress gradually, and don't force your body into uncomfortable positions. Overstretching can lead to injuries.

  • Stretch both sides: Whether you're stretching one leg at a time or both arms, make sure to stretch both sides equally. This helps maintain balance in your muscle development.

  • Don’t forget to stretch the surrounding muscles. “Although the hamstrings are important to stretch, you also have to release the glutes, the calves, and the feet,” says Hannah.

  • Stay consistent: Regular stretching is more effective than occasional intense sessions. Incorporate stretching into your daily or weekly routine for long-term flexibility benefits.

  • Try adding props: Yoga blocks, straps, or other props can assist in achieving good alignment and making stretches more accessible, especially for beginners. Hannah is a fan of using blocks to assist your stretching routine. “They’ll allow you to back off of the stretch, keeping your nervous system calm and allow you to actually do the stretch while your body’s not in a state of panic,” she says. “Props make [stretching] more achievable. People assume they can’t do the stretch—with a stretching block, that fear is taken out of the equation.”

  • Listen to your body: And most importantly, listen to your body. Slight discomfort is normal with stretching, especially if you’re new to it, but sharp pain or severe discomfort is not. If you have any existing injuries or are experiencing pain while stretching, consult with your physician or a physical therapist. They can help you design a program that is safe and effective. 


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