As many of you know by my previous post, I went to a pretty phenomenal seminar the other weekend. During the portion of the seminar discussing the hamstrings, Dr. Spina mentioned how he didn’t like typical hamstring stretch and proceeded to discuss why, and I wanted to share that with you all. First, let’s look behind the knee and discuss what’s there superficially (closer to the surface). We have the hamstrings coming off of the ischial tuberosity as one tendon, which then starts to separate into the three hamstrings about a third of the way down. As you get closer toward your knee, the hamstrings sort of head in opposite directions so the semitendinosus can blend in with the pes anserine on the medial side, the semimembranosus will blend in with the knee capsule, and the biceps femoris will attach to the fibular head on the lateral side. If you look at this as a triangle of sorts, the gastroc will make up the bottom of that triangle. The middle of that triangle right above the knee line in the back is where you’ll find the popliteal fossa. Here’s a picture that basically shows what my word-vomit is trying to describe:
Do this for me real quick: with your knee bent at a 90 degree angle or so (if you’re in a chair, just scoot forward in your chair so the back of your leg is exposed near the knee). Take both of your hands and grab the hamstring tendons on either side of the triangle. The big tendon(s) you feel on the inside of your leg is the semi brothers (and gracilis), and the tendon on the outside of your leg is your biceps femoris. I demonstrate what I mean in this video:
Sweet socks, I know.
Go right between those two tendons and sink a little deeper into the popliteal fossa until you can feel some dense connective tissue, but be careful, there’s some arteries and veins of importance in there. That dense, cord-like tissue you may be able to feel is your sciatic nerve (before it splits to become the peroneal and tibial nerve down the lower leg).
Ever wonder what that burning feeling is right behind your knee with a typical hamstring stretch? Yeah, that’s your sciatic nerve. As with any connective tissue in the body, your sciatic nerve can adapt over time (SAID principle), but does that mean you’re effectively stretching the hamstrings if you’re feeling your nerve getting irritated instead of the belly of the muscle pulling tight? I am reconsidering the effectiveness of a typical hamstring stretch based on what Dr. Spina presented. So what is a more effective stretch? Slightly unlocking the knees while keeping a lordotic curve in your lumbar spine as you bend forward. Then you want to drive your butt away from your knee while trying to keep your chest tall. This should allow you to actually feel the stretch in the belly of your hamstrings instead of behind your knee, which we have now determined is just an irritation of your sciatic nerve (but that doesn’t mean you’ll eliminate that burning feeling right behind your knee if you’re really tight).
Here’s Dr. Spina with a 2 minute video showing his version of the hamstring stretch, which I will probably start adopting as the version I use on myself and with my clients. Give it a shot and let me know how this slight adjustment helps the effectiveness of your stretch.