The Hamstring: Oft Ignored Buttress Of Balance And Wellbeing
The hamstrings are located between the back of the knees and the buttocks on the backside of the legs. There are actually three separate muscles that comprise the hamstrings. These muscles are mainly responsible for flexing the knee and pulling the knee backwards, extending the hip joint so that the hips can pull the torso from a stooped position, and to support the pelvis on top of the femur bones. While there are many other functions of the hamstrings, students of Pilates are made aware of a combination of weak and tight hamstrings that prevent his or her ability to perform certain exercises. Many of these exercises are representative of daily activities such as sitting, driving, or bending over to pick up objects. Strengthening and stretching the hamstrings are an important focus in Pilates as strong and flexible hamstrings aid in achieving good posture, using the abdominals correctly, and in stretching and releasing tight lower back muscles.
Tight hamstrings are weak hamstrings. Tight hamstrings can cause the pelvis to tuck. The upper connection of the hamstrings becomes weaker as that connection becomes tighter, preventing its proper function in keeping the pelvis properly aligned. A tucked pelvis leads to a stooped or rounded upper body which can involve a misalignment of the spine as the trunk cannot be properly supported from below. Shoulders are unable to sit squarely over the hips and, as a result, abdominals cannot be properly engaged in daily activities let alone Pilates exercises.
Further more, a tucked pelvis will also cause the lower abdominals to be compressed and prevent their successful engagement. A body with weak, tight hamstrings will develop a compensation pattern that strengthens the quadriceps (on the front of the legs opposite of the hamstrings) ultimately creating a muscular imbalance in the legs. One of the most extreme symptoms of weak, tight hamstrings is compression in the lower spine, typically between L5 and S1 and sciatica. Aside from its connection in the L5 /S1 area, the sciatic nerve also intersects the middle hamstring muscle, Semitendinous.
Many of us have had the experience of attempting a Teaser on the long box, the Cadillac, mat or chair and feeling like: “I just can’t straighten my legs.” With every attempt to straighten the legs, one may experience the burning sensation of a stretch in the hamstrings, a pulling stretch in the lower back, or the inability to pull the upper body into an upright position atop the hips. Essentially what is happening is a tug-o-war between the hamstrings and lower back muscles, the pelvis being the fulcrum between the two forces. The answer: work on increasing the strength and flexibility of the hamstrings and work on strengthening the lower abdominals.
Exercises like Tree on the Short Box, Short Spine on the Reformer, Ballet Stretches on the Ladder Barrel or Cadillac, Going Up Front on the Chair, Leg Springs, and Push-Through on the Cadillac not only work on increasing the strength and flexibility of the hamstrings, but also focus on balancing the push-pull effect on the pelvis caused by the imbalances between the hamstrings and lower back. This push-pull effect can often be felt with the effort to square the shoulders on top of the hips. How could such a simple exercise be so challenging and cause such discomfort? Blame poor ergonomics and body patterning: hours spent in a car, sitting at a desk, or years of squeezing Gluteus muscles in an effort to make the butt smaller.
Even the most athletic can fall victim to an imbalance in the hamstrings as often the easiest way to go from point A to B is to use what is easily accessible. A runner will typically have strong Quadriceps and weak Hamstrings as pulling from the front side of the leg and not fully rolling through the foot with each stride will cause one to run with a tucked pelvis using mostly the front part of the foot and therefore the front part of the leg.
The shoulders will round forward as a result of the pelvis being tucked and the lower abdominals being compressed and weak. The most successful athletes will train to balance the musculature of the body, strengthen the abdominals, and pattern the body to perform with structural integrity.
The three dimensional movement of Gyrotonic can also aid in balancing the hamstrings. With large circular, diagonal and lateral movements, the legs are able to complete movements allowing the femur heads to fully express their full natural range within the hip sockets. A weighted cable pulley system allows for traction and resistance making for a perfect balance between stretch and strength. As the bones are tractioned from their sockets, the pelvis is decompressed and the hamstring can lengthen and engage, providing for a safe environment to expand the hamstring muscles to their full capacity. Gyrotonic can feel like you are literally scrubbing out the joints and creating space which provides relief from compression and an overall sense of muscular balance from front to back, side to side.
It is all too common that Instructors at reFORM see clients that complain of lower back discomfort, herniated discs, tight hamstrings, and weak lower abdominals. It is easy to expect that these issues can be easily remedied with some stretching and a few lessons; however, the reality is that keeping the hamstrings strong and flexible takes commitment and dedication as the cascading effect of imbalances in the legs usually means that greater structural imbalances exist within the body. Educating the body and creating new awareness allows the body to unwind and find its natural balance promising a greater sense of wellbeing.