About one of every three patients I see complains of “tight hamstrings.” The other two probably also think their hamstrings are tight but don’t bother to mention it. Even among the hundreds of dancers I’ve seen (who can touch their knee to their nose while balancing on the toes of one foot) most complain of tight hamstrings.
Is hamstring tightness an unrecognized medical epidemic? What about people who have a tight IT band (tightness of the outer thigh)? Is that a rampant issue too? What does it mean to have tight hamstrings or a tight IT band anyway?
The loss of free flow of movement
People talk about “muscle tightness” when they experience the internal body sensation of loss of the free flow of movement. But it’s not the same thing as what an engineer would define as “muscle tightness.”
To an engineer, “muscle tightness” would mean: if you pull the muscle from each end and try to stretch it, how much would it elongate for a given load? A better technical term for this property would be “muscle stiffness.”
The engineering definition of muscle stiffness depends only on the physical properties of the muscle as if it existed in isolation.
But muscles don’t exist in isolation – they’re connected to your brain. The brain connection is what makes all the difference.
You can stretch your hamstrings for hours each day, seven days a week, and you won’t improve your muscle stiffness more than an iota. Yet you’ll feel that you can move more freely and with a larger range of motion. What’s changed?
The target of effective stretching is the brain. With movements that extend your range, the brain gets new sensory feedback and learns to accommodate to and enjoy a wider range of movement.
That means that you don’t have to spend hours each day applying a one-dimensional “stretching force” to your hamstrings. Instead, practice a diverse range of movements in different directions, speeds, and patterns. That’s what most strongly repatterns the brain.