Your hamstrings are a group of three large muscles running down the backs of your thighs. They’re some of the most important muscles in the lower body; keeping them strong will lead to big bang-for-your-buck benefits. Many of my older clients tell me they have tight hamstrings, often caused by sitting for long periods of time. Tight hamstrings can ultimately reduce the mobility of your pelvis, which then puts strain on your lower back.
Regularly strengthening your hamstrings with resistance exercises means you’ll perform better in your chosen sports (cycling, running, hiking, racket sports, golf), prevent falls later in life, improve your posture and increase bone density, which helps prevent osteoporosis.
Here are two exercises for strengthening your hamstrings, followed by a flexibility move to release tension from your muscles.
1. Stability Ball Hamstring Curl
This is a challenging strength exercise that many of my older clients appreciate because it’s relatively easy on the knees. Lie face-up on the floor with your ankles and feet on a stability ball, arms at your sides. Raise your back and hips off the floor, squeezing your glutes. Your body should form a straight line from your chest to your ankles.
Pull your heels toward your glutes. In this contracted position, just your heels will be in contact with the ball. Straighten your legs back to the starting position, keeping your hips elevated at all times. Start with 10 repetitions and work your way up to 20. Once you can complete 20, try this move with one leg. (Lift your non-working leg off the ball.)
2. Dumbbell Single Leg Deadlift
Many of my older clients with arthritis or lower back pain prefer this move to regular deadlifts. It challenges the hamstrings with a lighter weight and reduced load on the back. This exercise also improves balance and strengthens core muscles.
Stand with arms at your sides, holding a dumbbell in each hand, with your left foot a few inches off the floor. Keeping your right knee slightly bent, lean forward onto your right leg, raising your left leg behind you and reaching toward the floor with your hands. Your entire upper body should be rigid; don’t round your back. Reach the dumbbells halfway down your shins, pause for a second and slowly return to the starting position.
Aim for three sets of 10 repetitions with a weight that feels challenging after about seven reps. Complete the reps, then switch sides. If you’re new to strength training, start with light weights (five pounds), and work your way up to 25 pounds or more.
3. Active Lying Leg Extension Stretch
Flexibility is largely dependent on the elasticity of connective tissue. As we age, connective tissue becomes more rigid and our joints become stiffer. This leads to a decreased range of motion in the joint. Counteract these effects by performing some hamstring flexibility work after your resistance training. This mobility exercise stabilizes your spine and pelvis, and engages your core muscles as well.
Lie on the floor with your legs straight. Actively press your lower back and left leg into the floor, and bend your right leg so your knee and hip are both at 90 degrees. With both hands, grasp your right leg behind the knee to stabilize it. Then extend your right lower leg toward the ceiling until you feel a stretch. Slowly return to the start position and repeat for 10 repetitions, then switch sides.
You might be surprised to hear that the common “bend over and touch your toes” stretch is one of the worst moves you can do, and typically does more harm than good. We tend to round our backs doing this stretch, which puts tremendous strain on the lumbar spine (low back area). So, ditch that stretch and try the active lying leg extension stretch instead.