Yoga for Athletes: 3 Hamstring Openers for Lower Back Relief

While getting into the preliminary training for my upcoming half marathon earlier this winter, I put together a three-part series of yoga poses intended to open tight hamstrings and their supporting muscle groups for Active Life DC. Tight hamstrings are the common culprit of lower back pain and frequently contribute to back injuries in yogis, runners and office warriors alike. Hamstrings are a finicky group of three muscles located on the backs of our thighs. Two of the muscles (semitendinosus and semimembranosus) stem from the sitz bones and connect along the inner side of the knee. The other one (biceps femoris) also originates at the sitz bones but connects along the outer side of the knee. When these muscles lose their elasticity they tend to lock the pelvis, removing the normal curve of the lumbar spine and flattening the lower back. This rigidity makes your back work extra hard to accomplish simple tasks like bending down to pick something up, let alone what I and most fitness fiends ask of our bodies on a daily basis. Without proper attention to caring for tight hamstrings you are bound to end up achy, or worse, injured.

Fret not! With daily stretching (like the yoga poses I provide in my monthly Yoga for Athletes series for Active Life DC) you can start to proactively compensate for rigidity, mend your hamstrings and ease lower back pain. Check out my favorite yoga poses for providing some much-needed TLC to your hamstrings below. All three poses are designed for all people of all abilities and all body types.Yoga for All!

No. 1: Modified Extended Hand-to-Foot Pose

 Modified Extended Hand-to-Foot Pose

  1. Stand with one leg extended onto a chair, straight but not locked out. Your heel should rest on the chair’s seat.
  2. Take a strap (or belt) and sling it around your lifted foot, holding onto either end with your hands.
  3. Square your hips to the front edge of the chair and bend forward until you feel a gentle stretch, adjusting your strap to the appropriate length. Hold and breathe into that initial feeling of tightness for 90 seconds to three minutes. With each inhale try to lengthen through both sides of the body. With each exhale slowly hinge forward millimeter by millimeter, tightening up on your strap as necessary. Ground down through your standing leg for stability.
  4. Once you’ve completed your long hold, relax and switch legs.

An important reminder—the key to safe hamstring stretching is to ease in, listen to your body for signs you might be pushing too far, and hold each pose for at least 90 seconds (and ideally a full three minutes.) Holding a pose for this amount of time allows your body’s connective tissues to open up and release.

No. 2: Supine Hand to Foot Pose

Reclining Extended Hand to Foot Pose

  1. Lying on your back, loop a strap (or belt) around your right foot and extend the sole of your foot toward the ceiling. If you know you have tight hamstrings you can bend your left knee, planting the left foot firmly on the ground and enabling the right leg to straighten out.
  2. Gradually pull the strap toward you until you feel a gentle stretch, adjusting it to the appropriate length by wrapping the loose ends around your hands.
  3. Hold and breathe into that initial feeling of tightness for 90 seconds to three minutes. Let comfort be your guide—this should feel good and if it doesn’t you’re likely pulling too hard or too fast. With each inhale try to ground down through your rest leg and length through the heel of your extended leg. With each exhale slowly pull your leg closer to your torso, little by little, cinching up on your strap as necessary. Make sure you stabilize both hips on the mat—perhaps even draping a heavy blanket across your belt line—to keep the stretch in your hamstrings.
  4. Once you’ve completed your long hold, relax and switch legs.

No. 3: Supine Bound Angle Pose

This third pose (also known as Reclining Butterfly) focuses on the supporting cast of tight hamstrings and an achy lower back: the adductor group. Adductors, or inner thigh muscles, and groin muscles are closely linked to stiff hamstrings. When big muscles like the hamstrings or quadriceps get overworked as they often do, adductors and abductors are left underdeveloped. This common imbalance can lead to injury. The muscles of your inner and outer thighs play a crucial role in stabilization and movement of the legs and pelvis. One of the key functions of adductors for athletes is that they pull your legs in toward the midline so that as you run your weight stays balanced on your planted foot and your gait doesn’t bow outward, which can lead to rolled ankles and stress on outer knee ligaments. Since they help keep you upright as you stride from left to right, they’re also key to getting maximal power out of each and every step. What athlete doesn’t want a little extra oomph wherever they can get it?

Amy Rizzotto_Reclining Butterfly

  1. Lie down on your back. Bend your knees bringing the soles of your feet together and allowing the knees to fall open to either side.
  2. Add a pillow under each knee or wrap a strap around your ankles as depicted to enable yourself to remain comfortable and feel supported in this pose as you hold for 90 seconds to three minutes. Your arms can rest by your side, or atop you hip bones if you’re using a strap. Be sure your elbows relax to the mat and you release any tension in your shoulders, neck and jaw.
  3. When you’re ready to let go of the pose draw your knees into your chest, give them a strong hug and take Happy Baby pose to neutralize the spine and feel some nice compression on your hip-flexors.

Head over to Active Life DC to view the full articles on therapeutic hamstring opener poses 1 (Modified Extended Hand-to-Foot Pose), 2 (Supine Hand to Foot Pose) and 3 (Supine Bound Angle Pose), or revisit my Daily Dozen Yoga Poses for Post-Athletic Recovery.

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