Five ways to lengthen the hamstrings


Hamstrings are tricky, mostly because we don't understand how interdependent they are with the back and hips.

It's like not knowing that you can engine break going down a hill and instead you lean on the breaks and wear them out.There is an easier way! Once you see how the legs are interconnected with the muscular patterns of the back, your can create a high-functioning relationship instead of one that wears you out.

1. SWIVEL IN STANDING (can be done on a hike!)

Stand. Test sliding your hands down the fronts of your legs toward the feet. STOP if you feel any pull, anywhere. That is your reference move. Note the position of the hands.

Now crouch down to lean your elbows on your knees. Look forwards. Turn to look over one shoulder, then the other. Note:

  • Do you do turn only in the neck?

  • What happens if you include the spine, ribs, shoulders, and....the pelvis?

  • What happens to the knees? Do they bend or turn?

  • Does your weight shift from foot to foot?

Continue to swivel a number of times, feeling the rotation in the back, the weight shift, the counter-weight of the head one way and the pelvis the other.

Stand and test sliding your hands down the legs again. What changed?


  • Reference move: Test sliding your hands down the legs. Note how far they go without strain.

Walk to a chair, bench, couch, bed, something you can put your hands on.

  • Movement: With your hands on the furniture, round your back by drawing your belly in. Then arch and push the belly out. Bring your head into the movement, looking up as you arch and down as you round.

Pretty simple, most likely we’ve all done this kind of thing at one time or another.

However, now add the knees!

As you push your belly out, bend your knees. As you draw your belly in, straighten them. Do this many times, gently, without strain.

Now, reverse the pattern: Draw the belly in and bend the knees, push the belly out and straighten them.

Take your time to make sure you’re doing this exact pattern, even if it’s very small. You’re differentiating the use of the back muscles with the organization of the leg muscles.

Do that many times, then go back and do it the original way a few times. Give yourself a few minutes for this process.

Now, stand and test sliding your hands down your legs. What changed?

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This is done sitting on the floor. Have a rolled towel, blanket, or roller nearby.

  • Reference move: with the legs slightly spread, lengthen them long in front of you. How high are the knees off the floor?

Now bend the knees, stand the feet in front of you. Pick a leg and wrap your arms behind the leg. Hold your forearms or elbows. if that’s not comfortable, hold wherever you can with both hands and thumbs behind the leg.

  • Movement: Bring your mouth close to the knee and leave it there. (For some people, this will be an inch or two. Doesn’t matter, just keep the mouth in a fixed relationship to the knee.)

Flex your foot and slide the heel away from you, unbending the leg, keeping your mouth in a fixed relationship to the knee. You will feel a tilt in the pelvis, and the sit bones will rock on the floor. Slide back again with a flat foot. Yes, it’s tricky, but very, very worth doing.

Flex the foot and slide on the heel. Stop when you feel strain in the back. This relationship is what we need to develop to unbend the leg! Do not pull AGAINST yourself.

  • Tip: Think of the sit bones sliding behind you, on a conveyor belt.

Continue many times, then rest.

Next movement: Unbend the leg a bit and put your rolled blanket under the back of the leg. Make it thick enough that you can rest on it. Lean down to hold the back of the leg, or wrap your arms behind the leg to the extent you can.

Now flex the heel and press down on the roller with the back of the leg to bang the heel on the floor. Press down a lot, many times! (This contracts the quadriceps.) Bang the heel, keeping the mouth close to the leg, even if it’s an inch.

Bend the leg, wrap your hands behind, lean towards the leg with the mouth and unbend the leg by pushing through the heel. What changed?

Reference move: In sitting, lengthen the legs in front of you, slightly spread. Is one knee closer to the floor?

Do the same with the other leg.


Reference move: In standing, slide your hands down the legs to see how far you go without any pulling or straining. Note the spot.

Movement: Sit on the edge of a firm chair. Lean your elbows on your knees. Slowly, round the back, making a “C” shape with the whole spine looking down at the floor about 45 degrees in front of you. Then slowly push the belly forward and gaze at the wall, just above the horizon.

Do this movement pretty slowly.

  • Feel, imagine, and sense all 24 vertebral segments doing their part. Is there some part that’s moving like a block? Go slower and imagine there’s a finger on your front pushing backwards into that place.

  • What’s happening in your sit bones?

  • What’s happening in your breathing?

  • What’s happening in you jaw, tongue, and throat?

Rest a moment in sitting. Then, lean the left elbow on the right knee. Drape the right arm on top of the left forearm to rest it. Continue the rounding and arching on the diagonal line, toward the right hip. Go slower than you think you need to.

Sensing the arc and angle and pressure of the pelvis, hip, spine, chest, head, eyes, neck, sternum, and breath is more important than rushing to complete the task.

Rest a sec, then do the right elbow on the left knee, many times.

Sit up. Stand. Test your reference movement of sliding the hands down the legs. What happened? The ability of the leg to lengthen is linked to the ability of the BACK to lengthen. Is this relationship getting clearer for you?

Tip: This move does not work well when rushed.

5. Rolling while holding feet

This is one of my favorite things to do!

  • Reference: Do the same reference of sliding the hands down the legs to see how far you go.

Then lie on the floor, bend your knees. Bring one foot off the floor and reach with that same hand (left foot, left hand) to the instep of that foot. Turn the palm to hold the foot. The thumb will be near the toes, the pinky will be near the heels.

Of course, that won’t be comfortable for some people. If there’s any strain in the arm or your head is lifting, hold another spot on the calf that’s easy. Don’t stretch or strain.

  • Movement: Slowly unbend the left knee, holding on wherever you are. Feel the back on the floor. Push the back into the floor even more as you unbend the knee. Really press the back.

Now unbend the left leg in another direction: To the right, left, headwards, whatever works. You might roll onto the side and let the right leg tilt as you do that.

  • What does you head do? Does it curl toward the leg? Does it hang back?

  • What do your ribs do? Are they folding or static? What happens if you invite them to fold?

  • What happens with your right leg, foot? Does it push into the floor?

  • What happens to your shoulder? Does it slide, fold, or stay static? What happens if you invite it to slide?

Make many experiments of unbending the leg in many directions.

Rest a moment, then do the other leg. It’s like giving your back a little massage as each time you press backwards, the angle and pressure is a little different, and the angle of the leg in relationship to the back is different. You want to give you brain many variables to play with.

Rest a moment, then stand and test the reference movement.

What changed?