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Could Tight Hamstrings Be Causing Your Knee Pain?

If you feel knee pain, tight hamstrings could be the culprit. There is a close relationship between these two parts of the body. The hamstrings help support the knee, so these muscles play a key role in protecting your knees from injury.

The Anatomy of the Hamstring

anatomy of the hamstring

The hamstrings are a group of three muscles that run down the back of the thigh from the pelvis to the knee. They consist of the biceps femoris (which runs the most laterally on your leg), semitendinosus and semimembranosus (which both run medially on your leg) , which form prominent tendons medially and laterally at the back of the knee. 

All three hamstring muscles cross the hip joint on one end and the knee on the other end, and hold a primary function to flex the knee and extend the hip when the quadriceps (thigh muscle) contracts. These functions enable you to complete tasks and activities such as walking, running, and jumping. 

When flexing the knee and/or extending the hip, your hamstrings act as a stabilizer, similar to brakes on a car. The function of slowing down or decelerating is known as an eccentric movement, whereby you are increasing the length of the muscle while under tension instead of initiating an action. 

Any eccentric load, such as walking downhill, landing from a jump, or when trying to stop quickly after running, forces the hamstrings into action to prevent yourself from falling or being out of control.  

What Causes Tight Hamstrings? 

soccer player with tight hamstrings and knee pain

Tight hamstrings can be caused by several different factors, depending on your activity level and lifestyle choices. 

For those that engage in intense exercise, tight hamstrings can be caused by poor running form, not enough recovery time, lack of glute/quad strength, and more. 

Tight hamstrings can also be caused by sitting too much, as sitting with your hips and knees flexed for extended periods does not let your hamstrings engage in full ranges of motion, sort of like being unable to breathe for long periods of time. 

There are several other potential causes of tight hamstrings, including poor posture and being overweight. 

Try this test at home to see if you have tight hamstrings - 

  1. Grab your Yoga Strong Strap, and lie on your back with your right leg straight out touching the floor.
  2. Bend the knee of your left leg and bring the left foot toward you. Wrap the Yoga Strong Strap around the arch of your left foot and hold on to each end with both hands.
  3. Straighten the left leg out in front of you, pulling back slightly with the strap to keep the tension in the leg. Make sure to keep the back of your head, shoulders, lower back, and your right leg in contact with the floor or mat.
  4. Raise the left leg up as high as you can, trying to form an L shape with your legs.

If you manage to get your leg up between 70 and 90-degrees, your hamstrings are in the normal range. Any less than 70-degrees and your hamstrings are tight. If your hamstrings are tight, you can try some hamstring yoga poses to relieve the tension. 

Tight Hamstrings and Knee Pain

tight hamstrings and knee pain

You’re only as strong as your weakest link, and having weak hamstrings can dramatically impact the way your body moves and feels. Even worse, not building strong hamstrings can lead to injury, such as knee pain. 

Tight hamstrings can also indicate a bigger problem with your quads or glute muscles. Since tight hamstrings can often signify that those muscles are overworking, it usually means that another muscle in your kinetic chain is underworking.

As a result, the relationship between tight hamstrings and knee pain only becomes more significant. 

Can Tight Hamstrings Cause Knee Pain?

knee pain from tight hamstrings

Yes, tight hamstrings can cause knee pain. Since tight hamstrings can affect your everyday life, from the way you sit to the way you walk and move, any level of hamstring tightness can usually result in knee aches. 

Let’s use the bottom of a squat as an example.  If the hamstrings are too tight and do not allow full hip extension, the quadriceps will start to work extra hard to make up for the tight hamstrings.

As a result, the quadriceps can’t handle the load and the knee starts to say OUCH!

Tight hamstrings also usually mean WEAK hamstrings. Muscles can feel tight in particular circumstances because of nutrient deficiencies or overexertion, but if your hamstrings chronically feel tight, they are most likely not strong enough to perform their functions effectively. 

If your hamstrings cannot perform their functions effectively, they will tighten up to signal that you’re asking too much from them. And if your tight hamstrings are left unresolved, knee pain often follows. 

Other Possible Causes of Your Knee Pain

When it comes to knee pain, never make assumptions. It’s important to assess, don’t guess! Besides tight hamstrings, there could be other possible causes of your knee pain, including but not limited to the following:

  1. Tight or Weak Hip Flexors: Your hip function is directly correlated to the function of your knee, so when your hip flexors are tight, they can negatively affect each other.The knee can start to compensate for a lack of hip mobility and your risk of injury increases.
  2. Ankle Tightness: If your foot and ankle are unable to absorb your body’s weight with each step you take, your body will attempt to stabilize from a different joint, most likely your knee. If your knee cannot accept the load that is being passed from your ankle, the knee will start to hurt
  3. Poor Posture: Sitting for extended periods of time in awkward positions can result in poor posture and put pressure on your knees. Poor posture from workplace conditions can exacerbate the pressure on your knees if your workspace is not positioned at the correct distance and height. You may resort to sitting in awkward positions, such as with your legs crossed or bent underneath you, which can further produce knee pain. 
  4. Sports Injury: Sports and many forms of exercise require cutting, twisting, squatting, jumping, and other movements. If your body is unprepared for these movements, either due to lack of efficient warm-up, or you pushed beyond your body’s threshold, or suffered a collision, the knee is a vulnerable joint for sports injury due to its function to stabilize the lower body and its position between your hip and foot. 
  5. Arthritis: As you age, the cartilage in your knee, which acts as a shock absorber, can start to wear down and produce knee pain. When the cartilage is worn down, there is nothing to protect your bones from rubbing against each other and cause you to develop arthritis.
  6. Sciatica: Knee pain and sciatica are closely linked, because the sciatic nerve travels all the way from your toes up to your lower back. Since this nerve travels through the knee, trouble with the sciatic nerve can lead to knee pain.

How to Treat Tight Hamstrings

Serious knee injuries are nothing to joke about. If you start feeling tightness around the hamstrings, then it’s best to try to treat them. We’ve already mentioned practicing yoga poses that target hamstrings, but here are some other stretches that you can try to treat your tight hamstrings: 

Lunging Hip Flexor Stretch

To do the lunging hip flexor stretch, follow the steps below:

  1. Start by kneeling on one knee. Place the opposite foot in front with your front thigh parallel to the floor.
  2. Lean forward so that your hips are stretching towards the floor.
  3. While doing step two, tighten your lower body muscles to ensure a deeper stretch
  4. Reach up with the arm that’s on the same side of the knee on the floor
  5. Switch legs and repeat

Side Leg Lift With Bent Knee

Pilates legs exercises can be great for helping with knee pain. One such exercise is the side leg lift with a bent knee. 

  1. Start by laying on your side with your forearm underneath your head for support
  2. Bend your knees to a 45-degree angle
  3. Slowly lift your top leg up. Do not rotate your hips while you do this. 
  4. Hold at the top for 2-3 seconds
  5. Slightly lower them back down to the original position
  6. Repeat this for 10-15 reps

Standing Hamstring Stretch

The standing hamstring stretch focuses on loosening your tight muscles. If you ever feel your hamstrings start to lock up, try this stretch and you’ll feel the results almost instantly.

  1. Start by standing on your right foot with your left foot in front. The heel should be on the floor with the toes up.
  2. Move forward with the hips and bend right knee slightly back
  3. Bend the right leg while keeping the left leg completely straight
  4. Hold for a minute
  5. Switch sides and repeat

Side Lunge

Start on an exercise or yoga mat of some sort. Your body should be parallel with the mat. You can also do this hamstring stretch without any mat, but using a mat is great as a reference point.

  1. Bend your right knee and lunge to your right side while keeping your left leg completely straight
  2. Keep the foot of the leg leg completely flat
  3. Place your fingertips on the floor to help keep your balanced
  4. Switch sides and repeat

Figure Four Stretch

The figure four stretch is one of the easiest stretches to do whenever you have tight hamstrings. Like the side lunge, we recommend using a mat since this stretch has your head on the floor.

  1. Lie on your back
  2. Cross your right ankle over your left knee while keeping your right foot flexed
  3. Bring your left knee forward towards your chest
  4. Once you feel the stretch on your glutes, hold the position for one minute
  5. Switch sides and repeat

Quad Stretch

The quad stretch is also an extremely easy stretch. This is a stretch that you can do on the go and it’s great for quickly stretching out the hamstring with a singular motion.

  1. Start by standing with your left side to the wall and use your left hand for balance
  2. Grab your outside foot with your outside hand and bring it toward your rear end. Keep your thighs and knees together during this.
  3. Hold for 15-20 seconds with rhythmic breathing and release
  4. Switch sides and repeat

If you don’t have a wall to balance on, you can just hold your balance on one leg. 

Hurdler Stretch

Our final stretch we'll recommend to you guys is the hurdler stretch. It's a very easy stretch and you can do the stretch while sitting on the floor.

  1. Start by sitting on your exercise mat with one leg pointing straight out
  2. Bend the other leg so that the knee is pointing to your side while the foot is placed at the opposite leg's inner thigh
  3. Extend your arms forward and reach outwards towards your toes. Bend your waist as far as possible
  4. Hold the position for 10-15 seconds
  5. Relax and repeat 5-8 times

Preventing Tight Hamstrings

stretching to prevent tight hamstrings

If you don’t want to deal with the knee pain, it’s best to try to prevent tight hamstrings from ever occurring at all. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to prevent the tightness before it even starts:

  • Warm up before doing any type of exercise or workout. We recommend a dynamic warmup that includes jogging, moving stretches, and some walking.
  • Regular stretching before or after a workout to prevent injury. Try to do at least 5 minutes of yoga before or after working out to help relieve tension.
  • Maintain a healthy diet that includes protein, carbs, minimal fats, and plenty of water
  • Consistently exercise every week

All of these things will not only prevent tight hamstrings from occurring, but they’ll also strengthen the hamstring muscles. Therefore, your chances of a hamstring injury are much lower. 

Final Thoughts

When tight hamstrings cause knee pain, they’re not fun. That’s why it’s important to try to keep your hamstrings healthy. The hamstring muscle also plays a crucial role in how the leg moves. Therefore, if your hamstring has problems, then your overall mobility might take a blow. 

Luckily, treating tight hamstrings is easy and preventing them is even easier. As long as you take 5-10 minutes out of your day to stretch this muscle group–while maintaining a healthy exercise regimen–your hamstrings shouldn’t bother you or your knees.