Why I Can’t Touch My Toes and What I Can Do About It
According to Sharnee Lee Scottsenior master trainer at Lagree Fitness, many people struggle with this. Tight hamstrings are even common among those who are deeply committed to stretching-centric regimens like yoga and Lagree (a low-impact, high-intensity workout that focuses on strengthening and lengthening muscles). So what can you do about it?
Why your hamstrings might be tight
The struggle often goes back to our daily habits: sitting excessively in sedentary positions and living with poor posture, such as slouching or arching our lower back. Besides, overusing our hamstrings and forgetting to strengthen the opposing muscles (i.e. our quadriceps) can also negate our best efforts to reach our feet as they unbalance our body.
It’s also anatomical, admits Scott: “Some people just can’t touch their toes because of the bone structure and the length of the limbs.”
The best stretching techniques to relax your hamstrings
Flexibility involves three things: “Joint mobility, delaying central nervous system brain inhibitors, and strengthening opposing muscles,” says Scott. There are a few different techniques that can help achieve these goals:
Dynamic and static stretches
Scott says the best approach is to incorporate both dynamic (moving) and static (holding) stretching into your routine.
Focus on moving the legs in flexion and extension with control to the extremities – the Lagrée elevator slot with low grips, is a great dynamic hamstring stretch to consider, says Scott. (If you don’t have your own Megaformer, you can replicate this exercise with sliders or in socks.) Another smart dynamic stretch is “The Waterfall Stretch,” which a Well + Good writer says made its hamstrings “felt like butter”. And don’t forget the yoga classic: the downward dog.
Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation
Proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) alternates stretching and contraction of the targeted muscle group. To use it on your hamstrings, lie on your back and grab one leg in your hands (using a strap or towel if necessary): Begin by stretching, bringing the leg up your chest, then activate the hamstrings for a few seconds by pushing some against your hands or the strap, then release and gently stretch again for 20-30 seconds. Rest and repeat. You should find that after each hamstring contraction, you are able to bring the leg slightly closer to you.
But remember: each leg has three hamstring muscles. Be sure to play with different leg angles relative to your spine in order to hit them all, suggests Scott. “You will instantly feel the medial and lateral portions of the muscles, not just the central hamstrings,” she says. “Feel the tense points and hold them while breathing.”
Reciprocal inhibition involves tensing opposing muscles in a grip and release, to cut those you are trying to stretch. In this case, that would mean engaging your quadriceps to help your hamstrings let go. “When you tense the antagonist and hold and release, it turns the agonist off – a simple example is to do a seated wall, turn on the quads and it will relax the hamstrings,” Scott explains.
When to stretch your hamstrings
Never go straight into a hamstring stretch when it’s cold. Think of your muscles as cheese: they will be able to stretch more, without tearing, when they are warm. Run in place for about a minute or do a few jumping jacks to warm up your body first. Or wait until after your workout to focus on increasing flexibility.
Scott also stresses the need to pay as much attention to your active fitness routine as your stretching routines. “True flexibility probably can’t be achieved without the presence of strength,” she says. To combine the two, look for a workout like yoga or Lagree that focuses on stretching. “Lagree is a great example of building strength while stretching and increasing range of motion in joints, especially the hip joint,” she says.
Try this short Pilates routine for hamstring strengthening and stretching:
The key is to make stretching a daily habit. “Flexibility should be approached gradually,” says Scott. “The central nervous system has brain inhibitors triggered by fear of a joint’s range of motion.” This is how your body protects your muscles from a dangerous stretch. But you can (safely) outsmart it by repetition: “Engaging allows the brain to gain confidence and therefore sustain the stretch, allowing for greater ranges of mobility over time.”
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