I like the title of this article – Can Tight Hip Flexors Cause Tight Hamstrings? It is sort of like a riddle, isn’t it?
I was working with a client recently that is knowledgable and understands anatomy fairly well. He came to see me for several reasons, but high on the list was “my hamstrings are tight” followed by a poor attempt at touching their toes. His hands were about 3 inches from the floor with his knees bent! He added, “I don’t know why I can’t touch my toes, I have been stretching and working on my hamstrings for months!”
After spending time assessing him from head-to-toe, I shared with him that I thought his hamstrings were “tight” because his hip flexors were tight. He thought about it for a second and then tried to call BS, stating “If my hamstrings are tight, shouldn’t my hip flexors be loose?”
My answer was “I don’t think your hamstrings are tight.” At this point, he was about ready to leave the session, thinking I was the craziest person in the world, stating “but I can’t touch my toes?!?”
How Tight Hip Flexors Can Cause Tight Hamstrings
I bet you’ve had clients like this in the past. They know just enough to be dangerous. The answer to my riddle is more semantics than anything else. Yes, hamstring tightness can limit your ability to touch your toes, but that isn’t the only cause.
We have actually done a great job understanding this concept over the last several years. People like Gray Cook, Lee Burton, Brett Jones, and others have done wonders teaching many people that sometimes there are other reasons why you can have a limited toe-touch, specifically because of poor motor control and core stabilization.
However, hip flexor tightness can be a contributor as well, as backwards as that seems. Again, it comes down to semantics. I am actually talking about anterior pelvic tilt limiting your ability to touch your toes.
Here is an interesting an example. Which hamstring is shorter in the below image?
If you answered the left leg, you are guessing! Without a comprehensive exam, you are just guessing. What if his left pelvis was anterior tilted? This would cause the proximal attachment of the hamstring to move superiorly and look just like a tight hamstring, such as in this example:
Whenever someone appears to have tight hamstrings or can not touch their toes, I look first at pelvic alignment to see if they are in excessive anterior tilt. Everything revolves around assessing your starting point.
As you can see in the example below, if you are starting in a large anterior pelvic tilt, then you are theoretically starting with the hamstrings long. I used the simple math numbers of 45 degrees and 90 degrees, which is pretty excessive, but you see what I mean. In a large anterior pelvic tilt, your normal starting position in this example would already be close to 45 degrees!
So, can having tight hip flexors cause tight hamstrings? I’m not sure about that. But I know that being in anterior pelvic tilt can limit your ability to touch your toes. Again, it always comes down to:
Assess, Don’t Assume
This is one of my major concepts from the Functional Stability Training for the Lower Body program. Assess alignment before you just start treating. Resist the urge to just foam rolling, massaging, and stretching your hamstrings without truly assessing if this is the reason why you can’t touch your toes. Sometime having tight hip flexors and an anterior pelvic tilt can limit your ability to touch your toes just as much.
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