by Geoff Rand
September of 2003 is a month I’ll never forget. While at work, I ended up being T-boned by a vehicle that failed to stop at an intersection without power to its traffic lights. I wasn’t seriously injured, or so I thought, but after being cleared to return to work, I noticed that something wasn’t quite right with my knee. Standing, walking, and especially running on it became difficult. I could suffer through a mile run, but I was out of commission the rest of the day. Sometimes even driving was hard. I often had to resort to pushing down on my accelerator knee with my hand in order to drive with all the pain I was experiencing. Doctors told me nothing showed up on MRIs and that I should just take it easy, limit lifting anything heavy, and avoid squatting too deeply. I suffered for 9 years with that knee pain until a friend finally convinced me that even with an injury I could still workout, and maybe even resolve the pain through CrossFit.
I walked into CrossFit Frederick in 2012, skeptical, but willing to give it a try. Amanda and Dave asked me a bunch of questions about the pain I was experiencing and developed a mobility plan that consisted largely of rolling out my hamstrings. This puzzled me at first, as I had no pain in the back of my leg, but I started to see improvement after only a few days into their program. Gradually, the knee started to feel better, squats became not only possible, but felt good, I stopped wearing the brace I had on, and just a few months later, I ran my first sub 7 minute mile ever. Soon, I began to forget all about my “bad knee” and I now consider myself fully healed from that injury so long ago.
But why did loosening up my hamstrings assist with my recovery?
Our bodies are wonders of engineering and as you’ve seen through other Blog posts and instruction by our coaching staff, everything is connected to something else in the body. If we have weakness or limitation in one area, somewhere else compensates for it, but usually not in the best way for our health and fitness.
Likely, years of sitting in a police cruiser had tightened and shortened the range of motion of my hamstrings, and this, coupled with me avoiding working on that mobility issue after experiencing the trauma to it, along with avoiding any exercise that would potentially strengthen the muscles and tissues around the knee, caused the continued pain. Other muscles were forced to pick up the slack, and due to them not being the ideal mechanism to effect the movements they were being asked to perform, further pain and damage was caused.
You may not have experienced an injury due to tight hamstrings, but neglecting their mobility can lead to poor performance and eventual injury in other areas.
The hamstrings are made up of several muscles at the back of the leg that each have a varying length and angle as well as tie in points to different bones. These muscles attach to the hip, thigh, and glutes, and run down to the back and top of the shinbone. They are responsible for allowing us to pick up heavy objects from the ground, and function anytime we flex the knee or extend the hip. Strong and flexible hamstrings are essential to maintaining a strong and stable lower back and help form a solid base for many of our lifts.
One key reason to have flexibility in our hamstrings is the tendency to lose our lumbar curve in our squats due to hamstring tightness. When the hamstrings are tight, they pull your hip and back out of alignment and you lose the ability to maintain that flexible yet sturdy lumbar curve, causing the butt wink. Your chest also starts to drop, pulling everything else out of line. At best, this is going to limit the weight you can lift, and at worst, it is going to cause injury to your back and knees as they struggle to compensate.
Fortunately, the hamstrings are easy to mobilize. Here are a few movements to work into your mobilization/stretching routine.
1. Hamstring roll. Sit on a lacrosse ball on top of a box. Relax your foot and roll side to side from the crease of your butt to the back of your knee. If you find a particularly sensitive spot, spend some extra time there.
2. Good mornings. With a PVC pipe, and maybe eventually an empty barbell, lean forward at the waist with the pipe behind the neck and across the shoulders, keeping your legs and back straight. Stop when your back starts to round and return to standing upright. If you’re tight at first, limit the range of motion but move quickly up and down to warm up the hamstrings. Eventually they will start to loosen and you’ll be able to achieve more range.
3. Glute Ham Raises. You can do these on a GHD machine. These probably fall more into exercise than mobility, but they definitely target the hamstrings. This video shows how to do them.
4. Supine Hamstring Stretch. Lie on your back with one leg on the ground. Place a band across the middle of your other foot and pull back as you keep that upward leg straight.
The takeaway from my experience is this. Never assume pain is caused only by something local to the area in which you are experiencing it. Mobility and strength go hand in hand. Regular maintenance is essential to maintaining proper body function. And, even if, or more appropriately, especially if, you are experiencing pain, get your butt in the Box and talk to Amanda and Dave about it. You might be surprised at what they can come up with to fix you.
Stay on top of your hamstring mobilization and don’t ever leave the Box without stretching. They are such an important muscle group and keeping them happy will benefit you literally from head to toe.