Try These 3 Smarter Hamstring Stretches

January 25, 2019

All photography by Kyle Froman.

Throwing your leg onto a barre is one way to stretch your hamstring, but you’re cheating yourself out of a full stretch of the muscle, says Jennifer Green, owner of PhysioArts physical therapy clinic in New York City. “You might start stretching the back of the knee and feel it more in the ligaments there,” says Green. “But you really want to feel the stretch in the middle of the back of your thigh.”

Since ballet dancers ask a lot of their hamstrings, it’s important to learn to stretch the area thoroughly and safely. The muscles’ main role is to bend the knees (think fondu, passé, développé), but they also assist in extending the hip and eccentrically controlling hip flexion (like stabilizing your standing leg when you penché). Green offers these three stretches that target the muscles’ entire range while protecting your knee joints.

Before Class: Lying Leg Press

1. Lie on your back with both legs in parallel and your left foot on the floor. Interlock your hands behind your right knee to protect the joint from hyperextension throughout this series.

2. Slightly bend the right knee, then press it into your hands as you straighten the leg to 90 degrees, pushing your flexed heel toward the ceiling. If you’re flexible enough, straighten your left leg now for the rest of the series.
3. Then tighten your right quadriceps (think about pushing your knee further into your hands as you continue reaching your heel upward). Activating your quad helps relax your hamstring, allowing it to stretch better, says Green.

4. Keeping the quad contracted, repeat the bend-and-straighten action 5 times.

5. Still contracting the quad, with a straight right leg, do 5–8 ankle circles in each direction to loosen up the back of your leg.

6. Now, explore a larger range of motion using your own resistance. Push your whole leg down against your hands so the leg goes a bit below 90 degrees. Reverse the action, using your hands to slowly pull your leg toward your chest—into an extension of 90 to 110 degrees, not a full split—as you resist with your hamstring. Repeat the push-and-pull 5–8 times.

Repeat the series on the opposite leg.

Before Class: Bottoms Up

1. Stand in parallel with your feet slightly wider than your hips, and bend into a squat. Rest your elbows on your thighs to support the weight of your upper body. Keep a flat back with a slight forward tip of the pelvis to isolate the end of your hamstrings near the pelvis.

2. Keep your elbows connected to your thighs and the same position of your back as you straighten your knees. Think of the sitz bones reaching up toward the ceiling instead of locking your knees backwards. Only straighten as much as you can without letting your back round.

Bend and straighten 10 times.

After Class: Seated Passive Stretch

1. Sit with one leg stretched in front of you in parallel and the other folded in. Place a rolled-up pair of tights or a small towel under your knee to protect it from hyperextension. Sit up tall, directly over your sitz bones.

2. Hinge forward from your hips, maintaining a flat back. Walk your hands forward alongside your straight leg, reaching as far as you can before you feel your tailbone start to round under. Think “rib cage to thigh” instead of “nose to knee.”

Hold for 30–60 seconds on each side, repeating throughout the day once you’re warm.