Hamstring Stretch to Release Your Back

Tight hamstrings can affect your back by pulling the pelvis down and decreasing the amount of lumbar curve. Fortunately, the answer to this is simple in most cases—stretch. Here are instructions you can follow if you're a beginner or your hamstrings are super tight.

And if your hamstrings are very tight you will need a towel big enough to fit around your thigh about one and a half to two times.

Woman laying down on bench in gym stretching
Peter Cade / Getty Images

Hamstring Stretch Start Position

Lie on your back (supine), either with both knees bent and your feet flat on the floor, or one knee bent and the other leg extended straight. This version may also stretch your hip flexors, which for many of us can be a very beneficial thing, but don't attempt it if it gives you pain.

Place the center of the towel at the back of your thigh, and hold the ends. Note: you can adjust the degree of thigh pull by using different hand placements. The closer to your thigh you hold the towel, the more intense the stretch will feel. If you are a beginner, you have really tight hamstrings, or you have pain from a back, hip, or knee injury, hold the towel pretty close to the ends to start.

If you're not that tight, or you've worked with the towel and your flexibility is improving, experiment with moving your grip on the towel incrementally closer to your leg. And if you're flexibility is good, consider skipping the towel altogether; instead, place your hands behind the back of your mid-thigh.

Slowly lift the leg with the towel behind it off the floor, flexing at the hip joint to make that happen. Take your leg up so that it is perpendicular to the floor (or come as close as you can without harming yourself). When your thigh is in the correct start position, your leg (or your knee if you choose to keep it bent, which is easier, by the way) will be pointing toward the ceiling.

Begin the Stretching Action

Pull the towel towards your body. This should bring the top (front) of your thigh toward the front of your trunk, and it should increase the degree of flexing (bending) in the hip joint. Take care not to allow the bottom of your pelvis to ride up in response to the leg pull. Minding that detail helps to put your hamstring on a stretch.

As to how far forward you should pull your leg, take it to the point where you can feel the stretch but it’s not terribly painful. This represents an edge where changes in the muscle occur. In other words, move your thigh to the place where you can tolerate the pain but you still feel that something is happening in your hamstrings.

Stay in this position for 5 to 30 seconds. (Thirty seconds is best if you can manage it.) Keep the stretching sustained; in other words, no bouncing. Bouncing while stretching (called ballistic stretching) is generally regarded as counterproductive, if not outright risky. Breathing deeply and fully may help you deal with any intensity or pain arising from a sustained stretch.


After 5 to 30 seconds, place your foot back down on the floor. Repeat the sequence 2 or 3 times on the same side. Then after a short break, repeat the whole exercise with the other leg.

Stretching your hamstrings every day may be good for your back, and if your hamstrings are super tight, as they tend to be with flat low back posture, stretching twice or even 3 times per day may the way to go.

Progressing Your Hamstring Stretches Safely

A theraband or tubing can be used in lieu of a towel or if you just want to switch things up a bit. And, as discussed above, once your hamstrings are looser, consider not using any aid at all. This, of course, will be more challenging than using a towel or theraband, so start easy and progress over time.

Remember, this hamstring stretch is for the beginner. As your flexibility improves, you can progress to more challenging versions. For example, you might try a seated hamstring stretch when you are ready to give up some of the support the floor offers you in the supine position.

By Anne Asher, CPT
Anne Asher, ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, and orthopedic exercise specialist, is a back and neck pain expert.