Hammies. Not the furry little creatures we all wanted as a pet when we were kids, but the group of muscles at the back of our thighs. Hamstrings (and their flexibility, or lack thereof) have come up in so many of my clients' enrolment forms that it seemed natural they should be the subject of my next post.
What's the issue?
Well clearly many people think hamstring flexibility is an issue, or I wouldn't be inundated by requests to fix it!
On a simple level, lots of us are fixated on the idea of being able to touch our toes; somewhere in our social psyche this has become important. But it does have more practical uses - such as being able to tie our shoelaces without too much effort.
Beyond this ingrained idea of touching our toes, there are also more biomechanical benefits to having decent hamstring flexibility. Most people don't realise quite how long our hamstrings are: one of the three hamstring muscles (biceps femoris, if you're interested), originates at the back of your pelvis and reaches all the way down to the lower leg.
So what? Well if your biceps femoris is shortened, the chances are it's going to pull your pelvis and lower back out of neutral and into a rounded position, particularly when you're sitting down (which, coincidentally, can be a cause of shortened hammies). This puts a lot of pressure on your lower back, and can cause things like back pain and sciatica. Hamstring flexibility therefore can help alleviate trouble with our lower back.
So I just stretch my hamstrings and I'm good, right?
Wrong. Your hamstrings aren't the only the only factor at work when it comes to touching your toes. Nor are they the only issue when it comes to back pain.
Let me explain.
I have a number of clients who can touch their toes, but who have very little hamstring flexibility. The reason they can touch their toes is because they have very good back mobility.
I also have a number of clients who have lower back pain, or poor back mobility, but who have very flexible hamstrings.
My point? You can't take any one part of the body in isolation. Though we might assume the reason we can't touch our toes is because of our hamstrings, the reality is that there could be tightness in any one part (or all) of your posterior chain (that's the back of your body) that is preventing you from getting to your pinkies.
And even your hamstrings are like elastic, you can still have tight back muscles or a lack of mobility in the spine.
So I just work on the whole back of my body then?
Unfortunately not. As I mentioned, hamstring shortening can occur due to extended periods sitting, but this is likely to come hand in hand with tight hip flexors (located in your groin, on the front of your body). A lack of hip mobility can also cause tightness in the lower back, while a weak core can lead to a rounded lower back when sitting, potentially shortening your hamstrings or giving you back pain as a result.
I give up! Just tell me what to do!
This post wasn't intended to alarm. My point is that nothing in our bodies happens in isolation, and that the oft-jumped-to conclusion isn't always the solution to our problems.
One thing that will help you, regardless, is to spend less time sitting down. Stand on the tube, leave your desk for at least five minutes every hour, walk rather than take the bus or drive. Heck, even stand at the bar in the pub.
But if you're ever going to touch your toes or eliminate back pain, you need a balanced workout that's going to help you lengthen your entire posterior chain, improve hip mobility and strengthen your core.
And that's where Pilates comes in.