Mar 7, 2022
Pain & Injury

Is Foam Rolling Not Helping Your Tight Hamstrings?

Is Foam Rolling Not Helping Your Tight Hamstrings?

Have you been suffering from tight hamstrings that don't seem to be getting any looser? Foam rollers, stretching, and massage are the most commonly recommended treatments. However, they may provide only temporary relief.

If you've constantly been foam rolling or stretching your tight hamstrings with no long-term relief, it's likely that you haven’t been addressing the root cause of the hamstring tightness to begin with. Perhaps it is time that you try to release your tight muscles using sustained, direct pressure.

Yes, the hamstrings can be released, but there are two other muscles that you should consider releasing as well to achieve the best long-term results to relieve your tight hamstrings.

Tight Hamstrings: Causes and Symptoms

The hamstrings consist of three muscles that run up the back of your thigh and include the biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus. The hamstrings are large, powerful muscles that help to flex the knee, extend your hip, and support your bodily movements like jumping, walking, and running.

These muscles need to be relaxed because tight hamstrings cause stiffness and limit your mobility, making your daily activities and movements more challenging. Tension in the hamstrings negatively impacts the muscles ability to contract or stretch, which can make you more susceptible to a hamstring injury (such as a hamstring strain or a hamstring tear).

Causes of Tight Hamstrings

Common causes for tight hamstrings include:

  • Participating in sports or other strenuous forms of exercise that use the hamstring muscles a lot (such as running, sprinting, deadlift, etc.)
  • Sitting at your desk for many hours or being inactive for a longer period of time
  • Starting a new workout routine after not working out in a while
  • A previous hamstring injury
  • Weak or underactive glute muscles
  • Overstretching your hamstrings
  • Poor posture and misalignment of the pelvis

You can see that you may experience tight hamstrings whether you are someone who is active or inactive. Many of us may tend to be both because we sit all day at work and then like to workout or be active in our free time. If we don’t take care of our muscles properly and let them recover, this presents a nice opportunity for your hamstrings to become tight and stay tight.

Poor posture as a potential cause for tight hamstrings deserves its own callout because you might not have considered this in the first place. When you sit a lot, the hip flexor muscles and lower back muscles become tight because they are constantly working to help hold your body upright when sitting. This can cause the pelvis to rotate forward into an anterior pelvic tilt.

The hamstrings attach to the bottom of the pelvis and, when the pelvis is being held in an anterior posture, the hamstrings are actually longer than their ideal position. This over-lengthening of the hamstrings can create a tightness sensation at the back of the thigh and even up near your sit bones.

anatomy illustration of anterior tilt causing tight hamstrings

Common Symptoms of Tight Hamstrings

The most common complaint from someone with tight hamstrings is a feeling of stiffness and being less flexible, such as when bending down to touch your toes. The stiff feeling comes about because tight hamstrings affect your bodily movements.

Other symptoms of tight hamstrings include: cramping during exercise, tenderness in different spots throughout the muscle (such as trigger points), inflammation and pain, and possibly some swelling or bruising if there has been an injury. Tight hamstrings may even contribute to stiffness or aches and pains felt elsewhere in the body, such as the lower back, knees, and feet.

Using a Foam Roller for Tight Hamstrings

Foam rolling your tight hamstrings can have several benefits. Foam rolling may help relieve your muscle tightness, inflammation, and soreness. It also helps ease muscle pain and increase the joint range of motion. Foam rolling can even help with muscle recovery following a tough workout by lessening muscle fatigue and soreness.

What if foam rolling is not helping hamstring tightness?

If you’ve used a foam roller on your hamstrings and have found that the results were only short-term, then that’s an indicator that there is another piece of the puzzle that you have yet to uncover. The tightness in your hamstrings may actually be just a symptom of another issue. In this case, foam rolling is not a permanent or long-lasting solution for improving your tight hamstrings because it does not directly address the underlying root cause of the muscle tension in the first place.

Understand that this doesn’t mean foam rolling the hamstrings is “bad” and that you should completely avoid it. You may choose to continue to use a foam roller for short-term relief or to help get warmed up before a workout or activity, but you should also consider focusing more attention on the root cause to achieve more effective results, helping save you time and frustration from tight hamstrings.

What could be the root cause of hamstring tightness?

As we referenced earlier, an underestimated potential root cause of tight hamstrings is poor alignment of the pelvis (anterior pelvic tilt) that results from tightness in the hip flexor muscles, also known as the iliopsoas.

The iliopsoas is your body’s main hip flexor muscle and is actually made up of 2 separate muscles – the iliacus and the psoas. The iliacus muscle is connected to the pelvic bone and then blends with the psoas muscle, forming the hip flexor.

Tightness in these areas causes the anteriorly tilted position of the pelvis, which ultimately places the hamstrings in an over-lengthened state. The hamstrings become engaged in this game of “tug-of-war” and become tight to prevent the pelvis from tilting forward even more.

By foam rolling or even stretching the hamstrings in this state, you are essentially helping the hip flexors win the “tug-of-war” short-term, after which the tightness in the hamstrings returns shortly thereafter.

Releasing tight hip flexors helps relieve tight hamstrings

Because the hip flexors are short & tight and the hamstrings are long & tight, releasing tension in the psoas and iliacus muscles can help rotate the pelvis back into more of a neutral position, and this also helps the hamstring muscles return to a more optimal length. This finally puts an end to the game of “tug-of-war” and the hamstrings will function better, where they can contract (engage) and relax (lengthen) much more efficiently.

Can a foam roller be used to release the hip flexors?

No, a foam roller is not an effective tool for releasing the hip flexors. Think about the shape and size of a foam roller – it is large and bulky. Those characteristics make it best for targeting larger muscles that are at the surface of your body (like the hamstrings).

The psoas and iliacus muscles that you need to release are smaller muscles (relative to the size of the hamstrings) and are located deeper within your core and pelvis, so we’ll need to consider a foam roller alternative. You would need a different tool, one that is still tall enough to reach the muscles yet small enough to be able to change angles and press into the hip flexors with precision.

Seeing a physical therapist or massage therapist can be great because they could release these hip flexor muscles for you using their own fingers. The only potential downside is that this can become expensive if this is a recurring treatment that you need to relieve tension.

More and more self-release tools are becoming available for at-home use that you may consider. A tool like the Hip Hook is among the best hip flexor release tools because it is the only one that targets both the psoas and the iliacus muscles. It helps get into these harder-to-reach areas to provide an effective release of tension in the hip flexors, which can help reduce the tightness in your hamstrings long-term.

If you’ve been foam rolling your hamstrings and haven’t seen true results, it’s time to start addressing this potential root cause of your tight hamstring problem (your tight hip flexors) using the Hip Hook.


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