Sayonara Short Hamstrings (LBP 021)

short-hamstrings-fullToday’s episode is a collection of my favorite outtakes from the interviews I did for the Liberated Body Guide to Short Hamstrings. Yes, I have been working on it for months, and many of you good and kind people have gotten in touch to ask when it was going to be ready and the answer is… today! Today is the day it greets the world! For real. Phew.

So for this podcast episode you will get to hear from four of the experts that I gathered together for the interviews in the guide:

  • Jules Mitchell who is a Master’s of Science Candidate in Exercise Science (biomechanics) who wrote her thesis on the science of stretching. (We also did a full podcast episode on her research in case you missed it which is here.

  • Dr. Dawn McCrory who is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Yoga Tune Up® teacher

  • Jillian Nicol who is a Restorative Exercise Specialist

  • Rachel Bernsen who is an Alexander Technique teacher

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Show notes

Brooke Thomas (BT): Before we listen to their nuggets of wisdom, just a word on why of all things short hamstrings come first in what is going to be a library of guides that are going to be dedicated to helping people to live more happily in their bodies.

I had a birth injury when I was born- a cord strangulation- the very short version of that story is that I grew up with a variety of physical and neurological issues so I grew up in a really uncomfortable body. One of the issues that plagued me were mercilessly rigid, short, tight, unyielding hamstrings.I was not the kind of kid whose body would just do what I told it to do.

It took me until I was about 30 to get them to budge. So it was actually pretty deep into my own process of rehabilitating my own body which started around age 22 ish- so it was not the first thing to change. I so wish I had known why they were so stubborn and how I could have actually affected them, I would have avoided a lot of years of painful stretching that accomplished nothing and made them even shorter actually.

As I’ve written about the issue on Liberated Body and in some of my articles on Breaking Muscle I have discovered that I am very much not alone. I always knew from my Rolfing practice that tight hamstrings were a common complaint for people, but as I’ve started writing for wider audiences I have discovered just how much short hamstrings are a plague upon our people.

“Our people” being contemporary people who do weird things with our bodies, and perhaps most significantly, don’t do many of the nourishing things our bodies need. I’ll touch on some of that in these audio clips coming up, but suffice it to say, the need for some good lovin for bound up hamstrings seemed direly needed.

My first outtake is a clip of my conversation with Jules Mitchell. You may remember Jules from the podcast episode I did with her where we talked about her science of stretching research. after that podcast interview we talked even MORE after that specifically about the hamstring problem. much of the research she was reading and evaluating was on the hamstrings, so she really got to know what does and does not work. She encountered some really surprising things in her research. The kinds of things that caused her to call into question so much of what she had been told about how stretching worked as a yoga teacher. In this particular clip she gets into what I refer to as the emergency brake pattern in the guide (oh yes, there are a few different hamstrung types!). Or she really describes why it’s the nervous system that is the limiter of yoru movement, and so passive stretching isn’t going to help things out very much, and she also touches on the importance of strength work at full ranges of motion. Here’s Jules.

Jules Mitchell (JM): Passive stretching is not going to be super helpful. The idea that if you stretch your short hamstrings they will get longer is not supported by the literature. It’s unlikely that the muscle is too short. We do increase muscle length by increasing sarcomeres longitudinally, and we do decrease them- they get shorter when we hold at a shorter position like bent knees. But it’s not significant enough to notice changes in range of motion. The science shows that just 30 minutes a day of not having your knees bent would prevent hamstring shortening. So it’s very unlikely that any loss of sarcomere length would impede your hamstring length.

JM: So the stretching is not going to make it longer. The passive stretching will simply increase your ability to withstand the sensation, or what they call tolerance. So there is some benefit, but it’s not as much as people anecdotally tell their clients it is. What really makes a difference is strengthening at different ranges of motion.

BT: So if I’m the person at home listening to this and I’m thinking that I can’t pick stuff up off the floor because my hamstrings are so tight, why is that the case?

JM: As they are bending over, their sensory receptors fire. As their body goes into this position those receptors get a stretch and send a message to the nervous system and the nervous system says, “Wait, if you go down that far I’m not sure you’ll be able to get up. I don’t remember the last time we were in that position.” So the nervous system is the limiter. And it’s the limiter for good reason. It’s controlling the tension and saying it won’t lengthen anymore. “This is where we’re going to stay because we trust it.” So if you can get stronger in those ranges of motion then the nervous system will allow you to go further over time as it begins to trust these new joint positions.

BT: If I want to get my nervous system communicating in a different way, and if I want to get stronger in different ranges of motion what would that look like?

JM: It would look like a lot of hamstring strengthening, so a lot of the traditional things like lunges and squats and the things we’ve been telling people for years. When people have this limited range of motion, we’re not strong enough there so we’re going to compensate elsewhere. Look at your typical squat, I’m not strong enough in my hamstrings, so I’m going to bend forward in the spine so I don’t have to do this work in the hamstrings. Look at the person’s limit and then increase contractility; you can even do that isometrically. So that person is now powerful at that joint range of motion.

BT: So we need to think less about stretching as the answer and strength being the answer.

JM: Yeah. As a yoga teacher, if you look at all those standing poses that’s what they’re designed to do. If we go to those poses- or even the classical fitness poses like dead lifts, if we look at them in the context of strength instead of flexibility you’ll see more gains.

BT: I know you are an advocate for incremental change, so before people start doing 800 lunges before bed, can you speak to that a bit?

JM: You really have to be responsible for your own loading history. You wouldn’t go to the gym and pick up a 300 lb dumbbell. Start moderate and conservatively increase the volume. We aren’t patient enough. It takes time to develop ranges of motion and strength. Connective tissue remodeling is a 2 to 3 year process. We go to the gym and in 2 or 3 weeks we see muscle tissue develop and we think that the body develops that fast. But the collagen fibers take about 2 to 3 years to remodel. Any of the instantaneous stuff is transient. It concerns me that we see results in our clients or ourselves and we think, “Wow look at that progress!”,  and it’s just a temporary response involving the nervous system and muscle tone. I don’t mean to be discouraging, but I want people to know it’s a long term dedicated process. So we have to be patient.

BT: Next up I am talking with Dr. Dawn McCrory, a Doctor of Physical Therapy and a Yoga Tune Up® teacher. In this clip she talks about things to rule out. She also talks about posture, and how what you do all day is the most important part of rehabilitating your hamstrings (or anything). In this clip she also mentions stretching, and since I can’t get to the whole interview I just wanted to point out that first of all she doesn’t do passive stretching with people, in the interview she talks abot how that is ineffective and why, she emphasized that she never does stretching with people until she’s gone over a lot of alignment and posture issues, and she also never does stretching without fascial release work first, because studies are showing how much more effective that is. Oh and we have a good long talk about waht Jules mentioned as well, about how the nervous system is the limiter of your range, and what I call in the guide the “emergency brake pattern”.

BT: One my goals in all of the guides is that people understand that there are no local problems. It’s not like your hamstrings are the problem. If you are somebody listening to this, are there some common things to look at? You mentioned the core, particularly transversus weakness, and gluteal weakness, and are there other things to look at?

Dr. Dawn McCrory (DM): A lot of it comes down to posture, but there are two big things to rule out. One is a neural tension issue- disc issues, nerve entrapment, or sciatic issue. That usually shows up unilaterally- on one side. You also want to rule out any pelvis rotation or sacral torsions, again, especially if it’s on one side. You definitely need to rule out neural tension issues.

DM: Other than that you really need to look at your posture, not just in standing. Especially that anterior tilt posture, or something that looks like that, with your hips thrust forward and a tucked under pelvis and a sway back. Also in sitting, especially prolonged sitting. People tend to slump, and when you slump you are in a posterior tilt, so the hamstrings are shortened,  and when you’re sitting your knees are also bent, so you are putting a hamstring in a fairly shortened position. If you are doing this all day there is no way you can expect to lengthen if you are going to stretch for 20 to 30 seconds. Paying attention to the way you sit, how long you sit, changing your positions…

DM: If you’re not going to work on your posture, you might as well forget about stretching or doing anything else. That’s my opinion, because what you do all day long is going to influence your body way more than spending 10 or 15 minutes stretching.

BT: Following up on that I’m talking with Jillian Nichol who is a really nice complement to what Dr. Dawn was just saying because she is a Restorative Exercise Specialist. She will be describing that in this clip, but it is very much about what is your daily movmeent life made up of and how it that affecting your patterns.Jillain was also gracious enough to give 4 videos to the guide specifically abut these issues of posture an dalignment- the how of moving your body. Are you movingi n ways that keep your hamstrings from having any ability to understand what appropriate hamstring length might be?

BT: Can you define for everyone listening what Restorative Exercise is?

(Jillian Nicol) JN: There are a lot of different ways to define it. Basically what it is is a set of movements that you can do to help put your body back into alignment. There’s one alignment for the human skeleton that allows it to function best without your parts wearing out too soon. Alignment is different than posture. Posture is how your body looks, alignment is how your body moves through space over time. RES also teaches you what’s putting your body out of alignment as well. If you’re not removing the habits that are messing up your body in the first place you’re still having trouble. We’ll teach you what it is that’s happening in your day-to-day life that is causing these misalignments. Things like footwear choices, how much you’re sitting, how are sitting, how are you standing, how are you walking, how much are you walking? The quality and quantity of your movement that you have when you’re not exercising plays a huge role.

JN: I was stretching and working out for a year and a half, I plateaued and wasn’t getting better, my stomach wasn’t getting “flatter”. I felt like I was doing all my exercises, but I was sitting on my couch at night.

BT: For those who don’t know, because you mentioned Katy earlier, Restorative Exercise was developed by Katy Bowman [she was interviewed on the podcast in last week’s episode] who is a biomechanist. To recap some fundamentals of the RES approach: alignment- what’s optimal for the human body, and alignment is not posture, how environment and environmental things like footwear and couches, etc. And environment like living in a culture we don’t walk.

JN: It’s sad.

BT: Right I know!

BT: Last but not least, here’s a little hamstrings insight from Rachel Bernsen who is a teacher of the Alexander Technique. She gets into a couple of key patterns at either end of the hamstrings- butt gripping and knee locking- and how they affect hamstring lenght and create an inability for the hamstrings to “take a deep breath”. She also gives nice insight into how Alexander approaches thing generally in the body. She talks about how uncomfortable we can get with ease in our bodies. It sounds counterintuitive, but we get so used to holding ourselves together that we have  a level of amnesia and the ease and support we can have, so I’ll let Rachel take it away with that:

BT: A couple of other common cultural movement patterns are butt gripping and knee locking which are getting at both ends of the hamstrings.

Rachel Bernsen (RB): Yeah butt gripping but also tucking the butt. That’s another way we become undifferentiated. Squeezing the butt is squeezing the tops of your hamstrings. Those sits bones get squeezed together, so they can’t fully elongate into movement. If you’re doing a mundane activity like sitting or walking it is likely that you will carry those habits over to stretching. So that you’re meaning to release the hamstrings, but you are tightening to do it. It becomes the set point for your hamstrings, and if you’re micro-gripping or even mega-gripping your butt all the time the hamstring length gets habituated to be shorter. So then even when you’re trying to stretch you are still working against yourself, you’re still promoting the tightness, you are just exercising your habits

RB: And it’s an important point that your hip joint is a three dimensional joint, so the separation of the sits bones from the back of the leg is just as important as the folding forward at the front of the hip when you’re doing something like sitting.

RB: Going back to the hamstring crossing both joints, it also crosses through the back of the knee and ends right below your knee. If you are locking your knees, it’s another way that you are creating more tension in the hamstrings. People often lock themselves in to a position when they are standing. I often work with my students not to actively bend the knees, because that can create other hamstring issues, but to think of softening their knees and creating more space in the joint as a way to release the knee without bending it. For a lot of people it feels bent, especially those who are hyperextended. That release of the knee does release the hamstring. That’s an important thing to think about when stretching, but also while doing mundane daily activities.

BT: I think a lot of times people think they need to bend their knees if they are locked and it’s just different effort.

RB: Our tendency is to actively do something else to change our patterns. In Alexander we are really thinking about undoing our patterns of tension; Just simply doing less. That has a wonderful whole body effect.

BT: I think when a lot of people her that they imagine they are going to collapse on the floor, and in reality you are releasing into your innate support.

RB: The property of muscle is that when you release it, it lengthens. It doesn’t become a puddle of Jell-o. It lengthens into support. It can feel a little scary sometimes because kinesthetically it can feel like we’re not doing enough. Like for me as a dancer, it took me a long time to really be ok with that feeling that I wasn’t doing very much, because I was really used to that feeling of my muscles really firing. That feeling of ease is not necessarily something that we are used to, so it’s a kinesthetic reeducation too- getting comfortable with that level of ease in your system.

BT: What better way to end the short hamstrings podcast than with Rachel describing the kinesthetic reeducation of discovering ease in our bodies? Big gratitude again to Jules Mitchell, Dr. Dawn McCrory, Jillian Nichol, and Rachel Bernsen.

These interviews covered a few perspectives, in the guide we also go over plenty of other options whether they are resources for self-care, or how to find a teacher or practitioner and I advocate for a combo of those things. But to give you an idea of the other goodies in there, there is also wisdom from the worlds of

There is goodness from the worlds of Feldenkrais, Ki-Hara Resistance Stretching, Functional Movement Systems, Neurokinetic Therapy, the Core Walking Program, The MELT Method, Acupuncture, Rolfing and Structural Integration, whew, and more. You can check out the guide at liberatedbody.com by clicking on the guides tab in the header and you’ll see it there. You can also, of course, follow the link to it via the show notes as well. Here’s to nice, happy, appropriately lengthened hamstrings that allow us to move in the ways we wish to!

Home play!

The common recurring theme for Liberated Body is noticing when and how might we be at war with ourselves. So if you are someone who has short hamstrings or some other issue that is persnickety for you, can you think about how your body must be trying to help you out, and are you trying to bully it into submission or are there ways you can find more ease. And that might not be discovering something that makes you magically better, it might be the idea to seek out a teacher or practitioner. You don’t need to magically solve all of your own problems with insight, but I do think that if you can go looking for more ease, the more you will find it.

Resources

The Liberated Body Guide to Short Hamstrings

Jules Mitchell

Jules Mitchell episode on the Liberated Body Podcast

Dr. Dawn McCrory

Jillian Nichol

Rachel Bernsen

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