A Little History & Introduction
Where did the word "hamstrings" come from? This originated in 16-17th century England when butchers would hang their piggy selections in the window. They would use the strong, fibrous tendons on their hind legs to display them for customers hence the work "ham" "strings!"
The hamstrings play a pivotal role on pelvic positioning and stability as well as provide movement and control through the knee joint. We tend to think of the hamstrings as one big muscle but in reality they are comprised of three different muscles that all have specific functions. This is why they have such a broad effect on the pelvis and knee joint. You can feel for the different hamstring muscles by bending your knee 90 degrees and pulling your heel into the ground. Feel for the tendons that pop out on the left and right side of the knee. Try tracing them up your leg and into the bottom portion of your pelvis. To better connect to a muscle it will always help to identify and palpate the muscle from origin to insertion.
A Little Anatomy Can Go A Long Way
The outside tendon is part of the biceps femoris muscle and is very active during walking and running activities. Impact exercises have a tendency to travel up through the calf and into this muscle specifically. From there force is transferred up into the gluteal muscles. There is a tendency for the outside hamstring muscle to become overactive due to excessive impact absorption and can lead to low back dysfunction and pain if not tended to regularly. If you palpate and massage this muscle with your hands you may find excessive sensitivity or intensity. This is a sign that this muscle is overactive and could be causing or lead to low back complications.
The other two muscles are the semitendinosus and semimembranosus. These two play just as important of a role as the biceps femoris but are often times inactive, weak, and tight. This is because they are active when the trunk is in a fixed position. During our dynamic lifestyle it is very rare that our trunk is fixed. To target these muscle you need to stabilize the trunk and perform hip extension and knee flexion exercises.
Overall the hamstring complex tends to be tight due to a combination of overactivity and posture. If your lifestyle calls for you to be a in a seated position throughout the day then having both knees flexed will lead to increased tension. This is because we are putting the muscle in a shortened position for hours at a time. Combine that with the impact absorption of every step and it becomes clear that hamstring tension can develop quickly.
How To Relieve Tension & Improve Flexibility
Just like every other muscle the first step towards relief is learning how to self-massage using tools like a foam roller, lacrosse ball, massage stick, or simply your own two hands. Stretching should always follow massage as we first have to calm down the neuromuscular system and eliminate any adhesions (or sticking points) in the muscle belly. Tune into the following video to learn how to foam roll and stretch the hamstrings using a few simple tools and your own body weight.