How To Use a Foam Roller on your Hamstring for Pain Relief and Flexibility

The definitive and easy-to-use guide that will show you how to use a foam roller on your hamstring, and why you should be doing this exercise every day

foam roll hamstring

Tight hamstrings are the bane of runners, sprinters, soccer players, rugby players, and really every other athlete too.  Moreover, even non-athletes suffer from tight hamstrings, especially working professionals who sit for extended periods of time.  Fortunately, foam rolling the hamstrings is an effective solution for this pesky problem.  Here’s an email we received from Alissa, in Palm Springs.

“I’m a full-time mother of three and an avid runner.  Tight hamstrings used to really be a big problem for me.  For years, my hamstrings had been tight and inflexible, making running much more difficult than it should have been.  That was, anyways, until a few years ago when I discovered foam rolling.  Since then, my hamstrings have improved tremendously.  They’re more flexible now than ever before, and I’m hitting new PRs all the time!”

If you’re like Alissa, suffering from tight hamstrings that are leading to inflexibility and stiffness, then perhaps foam rolling can be your salvation as well.

Table of Contents:

Causes of Tight Hamstrings

The most common cause of hamstring strain, without a doubt, is a previous hamstring injury.  Previous injuries can cause scar tissue, nerve and ligament damage, and a number of other issues that might be causing pain or tightness in your hamstrings.  If this sounds like you, foam rolling your hamstrings at home will definitely give you some relief, and may even get you feeling normal again!  It might not be enough though, and you may wish to visit a physical therapist or occupational therapist for additional recovery solutions.

Something that might be surprising is that often times, people who think they have tight, painful hamstrings actually…don’t.  It’s a funky conditional called adverse neural tension, where restricted bloodflow in one part of the body (like the spine) can lead to pain signals in another part of the body (like the hamstrings).

standing hamstring stretch toe touch
First, look towards your navel until you feel hamstring strain. Then look up, towards the horizon. Does the pain decrease?

Here’s a simple test to see if the hamstring tightness you’re suffering might actually be caused by adverse neural tension: bend forward and [try to] touch your toes, while keeping your head positioned so that your eyes are looking at your bellybutton.  Don’t bend so far that it hurts, just go far enough to feel that familiar hamstring strain.  Now, move your head up so that you’re looking to the horizon.  Did that decrease the pressure on your hamstrings?  If so, you’re one of a number of people suffering from adverse neural tension, rather than an actual hamstring strain.  We recommend still foam rolling your hamstrings, but also focus on foam rolling your hip flexors and glutes, as well.

Tight hamstrings can also be caused by sitting too much.  According to the National Academy of Sports Medicine, when we’re in a seated position, the hip flexor muscles are actually in a shortened position, pulling the front of the pelvis forward.  Since the hamstrings are connected to the rear of the pelvis, this will cause the hamstrings to elongate and feel tightened.  Therefore, one of the best ways to alleviate tight, sore hamstrings is to actually stretch and foam roll your hip flexors.



How To Foam Roll Hamstrings

Foam rolling your hamstrings is a simple exercise, and once you start to do it each day your tightness and pain will disappear within the first week or so.  Be warned, if you’ve never used a foam roller before, you’re going to be sore tomorrow.  These things are pseudo torture devices that we love to hate.  Give it a few days though; you’ll never have felt so good.

Here’s a great video demonstrating the most basic method of foam rolling the hamstrings.  Note that this can be performed either one leg at a time, if you need more pressure on your fascia, or both legs at the same time if you’re a little more sensitive.

To do both legs at the same time:

  1. Sit on the ground with your foam roller under your thighs.
  2. Placing your hands on the ground behind you, push up so that your weight is supported by your hands and the roller that’s under your thighs.  Tip: if you have weak or sensitive wrists, you can make fists rather than putting your hands flat on the ground.  If that’s still too much strain on your wrists, check out the next technique below.
  3. Slowly roll back and forth until you’ve identified a trigger point.  Once you’ve identified a sensitive area, maintain pressure there for about 30 seconds.

For the one leg variation:

  1. Sit on the ground with your foam roller under your thighs, and one leg bent to 90 degrees with that foot on the ground.  The other leg should be extended forward.
  2. Place your hands behind you, and gently push up so that your weight is supported by your hands and the stabilizing foot.
  3. Slowly roll back and forth until you’ve identified a trigger point.  Once you’ve identified a sensitive area, maintain pressure there for about 30 seconds.

For a more advanced version, Trigger Point Therapy – makers of the GRID foam roller – released this video on how to foam roll the hamstrings.  To perform this exercise, you’ll need a bench or seat.  Place your foam roller on top of the bench, then sit down behind the roller, with your leg draped over it so that the roller is underneath your hamstrings.  Put pressure onto the leg, and start to slowly roll.

Using either variation of these exercises will increase your hamstring flexibility greatly over the course of just a few short weeks.  It’s best to actually use these stretches before your exercise, rather than just static stretches which have been shown to reduce performance.

 

Three Best Hamstring Stretches

Below we’ve listed the three best hamstring stretches that we recommend you do every morning, right after foam rolling your hamstring.  Make it a routine.

  1. seated hamstring stretchSeated Hamstring Stretch.  AKA the toe touch.  This is the classic.  Sit on the ground with both legs together and extended straight ahead of you.  Bend at the waist, but maintaining a straight (not arched) back, while you reach towards your toes.  Make sure that you’re breathing, and that you don’t bounce or strain.  If you can’t touch your toes, don’t worry, you’ll get there someday; just reach forward as far as you comfortably can, and hold for 20 seconds.  Repeat 2-3 times.
  2. modified hurdlers stretch for hamstringsModified Hurdler’s Stretch.  Sit on the ground, with both legs forward, toes pointed towards the ceiling.  Now bend one leg about 45 degrees, placing that foot against the inside thigh of the opposite leg.  Now slowly bend forward towards the leg that is still extended, making sure to keep a straight back while you do so.  Only go as far as you comfortably can, and hold the stretch for 20 seconds.
  3. hamstring stretch with chairHamstring Stretch with Chair.  For this stretch you’ll need to use the front of a chair, or a box, or really anything else that’s a couple feet off the ground.  Place one foot on the chair and then keeping your back and knee straight, lean forward at the waist until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings.  Hold for 20 seconds, then do the other side.  Repeat twice.

Other Tips For Avoiding Hamstring Injury

Hopefully after reading this you’ll know the proper technique to foam roll your hamstrings, and you’ll begin a daily foam rolling regime.  Foam rolling every day will absolutely see you on the road to recovery.  However, here are a few other tips for avoiding hamstring injuries that we hope you’ll find useful.

  1. If you’re a weight lifter, try switching to a trap bar for deadlifts, rather than conventional or sumo deadlifts.  This will help reduce the strain on your hamstrings, as explained by Eric Cressey.
  2. Additional, switch to front squats for a while, rather than back or box squats, to take some of the load off your hamstrings.
  3. For the runners and sprinters out there, do your hill sprint repeats before doing regular sprints.  Your stride will be shorter, and the heel strike will put less pressure on the hamstrings (Gottschall, 2004).

 

References

Gottschall, J., & Kram, R. (2004). Ground Reaction Forces During Downhill and Uphill Running. Journal of Biomechanics, 38(3), 445-452.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jbiomech.2004.04.023


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