Stretching the hamstring muscles is one of the most common topics when it comes to flexibility exercises. Almost everyone agrees that to be flexible, you have to be able to touch your toes or not; you can say that you are tight. And for this common belief, the hamstring has to carry the flexibility tester hat.
Though it is a very popular stretch, improving the hamstring’s flexibility is still not fully understood by most. That is one of the common reasons why you see the same people trying to touch their toes in the park after a run and still at the same level of flexibility after years of trying. Trying to touch your toes with your back rounding just wouldn’t work on getting your hamstrings more flexible.
The best way to stretch your hamstrings is to hinge from the hip joint while keeping the knees’ angle in a fixed position and the spine neutral the whole time while bending forward. The eccentric phase of the movement should be done slowly, making sure the movement originates only from the hips.
What is Hip Hinge?
Hip hinge movement is literally hinging at the hips as you bend your body forward. This exercise is mostly done in a standing position. The movement is only coming from the hip joint. The surrounding joints, especially the lower part of the spine, should remain rigid as you do the hinging movement. Once your lower back rounds even a little bit, your hip hinge movement is already compromised.
Hip hinging can be done on both legs or on one leg, where the other leg can be placed behind, resting on the floor or off the floor. Common examples of hip-hinging exercises are deadlifts and good morning exercises.
But what we are going to cover in this post is using the Hip hinge to effectively stretch the hamstring muscles.
Why is Hip hinging very effective in stretching the hamstrings?
When you look at a properly done hip hinge exercise, as the body bends forward, the pelvis moves with it, which means the upper part of the pelvis is lowered down with the body, and the lower end of the pelvis is raised up during the movement.
The lower end of the pelvis is commonly known as your sit bones (Ischial tuberosity) is where your hamstring muscles originate. Thus, the hamstrings are stretch effectively when you do a hip hinge movement as long as you don’t bend your knees more as you hinge forward.
How do you properly hip hinge to stretch the hamstrings?
There are two factors that will affect the effectiveness of the hamstring stretch during the hip hinging movement.
- Your spine has to remain in a rigid or neutral position from start to finish. When you start rounding your spine, the hamstrings will stop elongating, and the stretch will transfer to the spine, most likely in the lower back area.
- The degree of knee flexion - the best way to stretch the hamstrings in a hip hinge is to lock it straight but some degree of knee flexion can be allowed, especially if the hamstrings are very tight. As long as your knee is not progressively bending as your body bends forward.
What is the hip hinge good for?
The Hip joint is a large joint at the center of our body and almost any movement that we do that involves the whole body will have to rely a lot on the strength and flexibility of our hips.
According to the “Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies,” that hinging from the hips when rising up from a sitting position or lifting a heavy object will protect our back. And this is especially true if the person has acute low back pain or sciatica.
So, in simple terms, working on the hip hinge will help us to be more efficient in most of our daily activities and minimize the risk of straining our spine.
Practicing this movement will also help us become more aware of our spine and how to position it when we are moving. In terms of exercises, becoming more aware of our spine will improve the form; thus, we will progress faster toward our goal.
As for this article, learning how to hinge the hip better will increase the effectiveness id doing hamstring stretches.
How do you increase hip hinge flexibility?
Increasing the hip hinge flexibility is synonymous with just doing the hip hinge movement better. Make sure you understand how hip hinging works and practice it regularly.
Once you know that you are doing it correctly, all you need to do is just go deeper with the movement.
But there will be some instances where it is still very hard for you to progress with your flexibility. In this case, you can try bending your knees a little bit more so you can bring your body close to horizontal.
This will give you a bigger range movement which is important for you to experience to understand the stretch better.
Why can’t you hip hinge?
A few reasons why you can’t do a hip hinge properly.
- Lack of awareness in your spine - if you don’t know how your spine is moving through space, no matter how much you try, you will never get it right. One way of working around this is to stand with your side facing the mirror and slowly do the hip hinge.
Try to see where you start rounding your spine, and make sure that you put more focus the next time you go closer to that angle. Here is an article about daily spine stretches that you can do, and do the exercises of this article regularly to increase your awareness of your spine.
- Your hamstrings are too tight - if your hamstrings are naturally tight since you were young, you may need to modify the hip hinge movement to still feel the stretch even if your range is very limited. The best way to modify this is to bend your knees more.
You may have to work on other stretches for your hamstrings to compliment the hip hinge exercise. Here is a Pilates Mat exercise article I wrote that discusses in detail the Pilates Spine stretch exercise, which is also a good hamstring flexibility drill.
- Lack of strength in your back - though hip hinge is a very simple movement, it actually requires a minimum level of strength in your back extensors to do it properly. A weak lower back can be a limiting factor in doing hip-hinging exercises. Here is another Pilates Mat article called the Pilates Swimming exercises, a very effective drill to strengthen your back extensor.
Modifications for Hip hinging
Nothing is wrong with going straight to hip hinging exercise, especially if you have decent awareness in your back and your hamstrings are not overly tight.
But a better way to do hip hinges is to teach the body a series of progressions so you can learn each component of the exercise.
The Seated hip hinge
This version is perfect for both first-timers and experienced practitioners alike. This will reinforce the sensation of your spine on how it is moving as you bend the body forward.
Start in a straddle sitting position, preferably on a bench that doesn’t have a backrest so you can open your legs freely as you sit down facing one end of the bench.
Keep your arms open to the side in a letter T position and slowly bend your body forward until you can’t go any further without rounding your spine. Rise back up to the upright sitting position.
Your aim is to touch your belly to the seat of the bench.
The loaded seated hip hinge
The back extensors of your spine need to be engaged fully to do the hip hinge correctly, but sometimes, it is just very hard to activate these muscles if you are not used to working on them.
A good solution is to carry a small weight on your chest or over your upper back to engage the back extensor muscles. This makes it easier to hinge properly, and at the same time, the added weight will also force the range to go deeper. You can start with a 2.5 kg plate and work your way up to 10 kg. But take note that the weight of the plate is more of an accessory to help you do the exercise. It doesn’t make the movement any better if you lift a heavier plate with a compromised form.
Standing Wide straddle hip hinge
Once you have developed enough awareness of your spine, it is a good time to progress with the standing versions. The wide straddle version will be easier on your hamstrings but will stretch the inner thighs with it. The same rule applies here, keep your knees straight or in a slightly bent position and the spine neutral at all times as you do the stretch.
Narrow straddle hip hinge
Another standing version is in a narrower stance which will target the hamstring muscles more and very little in the inner thighs. This will be more challenging if hamstrings tightness is your limiting factor.
Seated Straddle hip hinge with straight knees
Start sitting down on a box or on a thick folded mat around 12 inches high or more. The higher the seat, the easier the stretch is. Open your legs as wide as you can with your knees straight and slowly bend your body forward while still keeping the spine in a neutral curve. Your aim is to get the body in a horizontal line before you progress to lowering down your seat.
Straddle hip hinge on the floor
Also known as the Pancake stretch - start in a straddle position but this time on the floor. Bend the body forward, aiming to touch the floor with your belly. Try to keep the spine as neutral as possible and hold the lowest angle.
In conclusion, to effectively stretch the hamstrings, you have to learn how to do the hip hinge properly and follow the progressions of hip hinging exercise to have a good gradual progression in improving your hamstring flexibility.
It is also good to develop the strength of your leg muscles so they will be able to handle a deeper stretching routine as you progress. Here are some basic Calisthenics Leg exercises that I wrote in this article.