Length versus Strength in the Hamstrings

Stretch, stretch, stretch. That’s what we have been conditioned to recommend when a client wants to lengthen their hamstrings.  But what if that was all a myth?  Well, it is.  There are many studies and papers and articles (this one on livescience.com explains the misconception particularly well) that delve into the detail of why stretching is neither good for the muscle fiber, nor will it make the muscles permanently longer.

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The illustration that is used over and over again (as Jules Mitchell of California State University, Long Beach does in the above mentioned article) is the rubber band. If you stretch out a rubber band to the point that it is permanently longer, what happens?  It loses its durability and elasticity.  That’s not what anyone is going for!

So, what’s the solution? Strength.  A lot of perceived “shortness” in the hamstrings can be attributed to an imbalance of strength between the heavy-lifting quads on the front of the thigh and the hamstrings at the back.

Pilates has so many ways to approach the rebalancing of this strength dynamic.  To get started on the mat, try bridging with a greater than 90-degree angle behind the knee and/or the feet perched on a box (use like the foot bar on the reformer).  Bridging on the reformer adds an extra element of challenge, particularly with light spring resistance, as you challenge clients to keep the carriage in the “home” position throughout the entire movement.

A multitude of Pilates movements is likely popping into your heads as you read this – go with them. Pick some of your favorites that work the backs of the legs and add them into your regular repertoire.  See if, over time, your clients make more progress towards a proper long-sit position with the legs straight than they did with traditional “stretching.”