7 Great Hamstring Stretches

The hamstring muscle group, which starts at the bottom of your pelvis and running along the back of your thigh to the back of your knee, is partly responsible for a well-aligned pelvic position. But what does this have to do with your low back?

The hamstrings are one of the many muscles that attach both to the pelvis and on the upper portion of the bones of the lower leg. When the hamstring muscle group contracts, it can cause a posterior pelvic tilt, or the tipping of the tailbone down towards the back of the thigh.

The exact direction (i.e., forward toward the front of the thigh, backward toward the back of the thigh, down and toward one side, etc.) depends on where that muscle lives. In the case of the hamstrings, the pelvis is brought toward the back of the thigh, because that’s where the hamstrings are located.

You can likely see from this explanation that hip muscles, hamstrings included, have the capacity to alter—and in some cases correct—the position of the pelvis.

Young active woman stretching her hamstrings in a park
Take a Pix Media / Getty Images

The Case for Hamstring Stretching

But the question still remains—what does all this have to do with back pain? Well, the spine is anchored in between the two hip bones in back. (The two hip bones together comprise the pelvis.) The pelvis and the lumbar spine tend to move together because of their joint articulations.

When your hamstrings are chronically contracted they keep the pelvis pulled down in back. This, in turn, pulls the low back out of alignment by flattening its normal lordotic arch, which can overstretch and or weaken your back muscles.

Without a balanced position of your pelvis and proper support from the muscles in the area, low back pain is possible. Chronically tight hamstring muscles can play a role in other back problems as well.

With that in mind, let's look at a few ways to "stretch the strings," whether you're a beginner or an accomplished athlete.


Toe Touching

Jogger Touching Her Toes
Steve Prezant / Getty Images

One way to stretch your hamstrings is with good old toe touching. While standing, bend forward at the hips to try to touch your toes with your fingers. There are a few pointers to make this safer and more effective.

First, to release longstanding hamstring muscle tension, don't bounce. Bouncing activates a mechanism called the stretch reflex which, to make a long story short, can result in more muscle contraction, not less.

Instead, hold the stretch for about 30 seconds at a comfortable, pain-free level where it feels like something is "happening." (You can apply this to all the hamstring stretch variations in this article, as well.)

Secondly, yoga informs us to lift the sitting bones toward the ceiling while we're in this position. This elongates the hamstring muscles.

Third, make sure your hips are directly over your feet. Don't allow your bum to be positioned behind your feet. This is a mistake often made when you may not be aware of their alignment, but it hinders the success of the stretch.

And finally, if your core muscles are on the weaker side, you might consider substituting a prop, such as a table, to help you come back up to standing.

A rule of thumb for your safety: Only go as far as you can without back pain or a feeling of insecurity.


Supine Hamstring Stretch

Reclined Big Toe Yoga Pose

Siri Stafford / Getty Images

Another way to stretch your hamstrings is to lie on your back and bring one leg straight up. This common version can be found in yoga, at the gym, and in fitness studios.

No matter what the move is called or which system it's associated with, the truth is you’re taking the lower extremity into the opposite position in which muscle work happens. In other words, the leg up position puts that hamstring muscle on a stretch and takes it out of contraction.

The ultimate goal is to bring your leg up high enough so that you can touch your toes, or even bring your straight leg towards your head. But you don't have to get this far to get a good stretch.


Beginners Supine Hamstring Stretch

Silhouette of woman stretching hamstrings by grasping ankle of straight leg while lying on her back.

summerseason / Shutterstock

As mentioned previously, a common way to increase hamstring flexibility is lying on your back and bringing one straight leg up towards your head, with the ultimate goal of touching your toes.

But not everyone can reach their toes. That's OK. A number of variations exist for dealing with the initial stiffness that can get in the way of a fruitful hamstring flexibility plan.

One comes from yoga, where you'd use a strap or belt around the bottom of your foot to extend the area available for grasping the extremity and bringing it towards you.

Another variation is shown above, where instead of going for your toes, you aim for the level of your leg you can comfortably reach. Notice that the model has her other leg bent. This helps stability which in turn can help you keep a nice alignment of your trunk as you perform the stretch.


Standing Hamstring Stretch

Woman doing standing hamstring stretch
SolStock / Getty Images

For whatever reason (maybe you're pregnant, injured, or in pain, for example) you might not feel comfortable getting down and up from the floor to do your hamstring stretches. What to do?

There's the toe touching exercise described earlier, but as we discussed, to do this one well, you need to address a few alignment points as well as know when and how to modify the experience for your safety.

But if you're just an ordinary exerciser, you can perform a one-legged hamstring stretch from a standing position. Simply extend one leg out, and keeping your back straight, bend from your hip joints to bring your chest toward your thigh. The leg that's not being stretched will also bend at the knee.

You don't have to get all the way there to feel a stretch. Go only as far as you can without pain, strain, or shakiness. If you need extra support, hold onto a piece of furniture or a wall.


Easy Hamstring Stretch for Athletes

Woman runner stretching leg on bench in autumn park overlooking lake
Hero Images / Getty Images

If you are active, one great way to really "get" the hamstrings is to put the heel or ankle of one leg on something that is about waist height or a little lower and bend at your hips to bring the front of your trunk towards your thigh.

Keeping your back straight will get you the best results while at the same time provide some safety for your spine.


Advanced Hamstring Stretch for Athletes

A female athlete does an advanced hamstring stretch while squatting.

If the previous hamstring stretch for athletes isn't challenging enough, you might try doing it while in a one-legged squat, which also challenges your balance.


Partner Hamstring Stretching

One woman helps another to further her hamstring stretch.

fizkes / Shutterstock

And finally, a great way to enhance your hamstring stretch is by getting a friend (or bodyworker) to help you. Be sure to give them verbal feedback as to how much pressure you can take. The ideal intensity is between comfortable and challenging.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What muscle group are hamstring stretches for?

    Hamstring stretches are used to improve flexibility of the three muscles on the back of the thigh called the semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and biceps femoris. Located between the hip and the knee, these muscles are responsible for flexing the knee, rotating the lower leg when the knee is bent, and extending the hip when the trunk is fixed.

  • What do hamstring stretches do?

    Without stretching, the hamstrings are in a constant contraction to take up slack caused when the core muscles cannot stabilize the hips. This can lead to tightness and an increased risk of a pulled hamstring. Stretching helps avoid hamstring injury, increase joint flexibility, improve posture and stability, and optimize performance.

  • Can hamstring stretches relieve lower back pain?

    If your hamstrings are tight, you tend to use your lower back to initiate movements rather than the hips. By stretching the hamstrings regularly, the hips are better able to stabilize your core and, in turn, take over the responsibility of bending (flexion) and straightening (extension) the upper body.

  • Can hamstring stretches relieve knee pain?

    If your hamstrings are tight, the muscles in front of the thighs (called the quadriceps) take over, placing excessive stress on the tendon that connects the quadriceps to the knee. Stretching the hamstrings not only helps prevent injury before sports but may also ease knee pain by transferring the responsibility of knee flexion to the hamstrings.

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3 Sources
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  2. Poudel B, Pandey S. Hamstring injury. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Updated August 11, 2021.

  3. Iwata M, Yamamoto A, Matsuo S, et al. Dynamic stretching has sustained effects on range of motion and passive stiffness of the hamstring muscles. J Sports Sci Med. 2019 Mar;18(1):13-20.