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I've been stretching my legs recently as they were feeling a bit tight. I'm doing a series of different stretches but I've been concentrating mainly on my hamstrings. I can now touch my toes for 60 seconds (longer if I wanted, yay!) however I've noticed I'm struggling with one stretch in particular...

When I stretch my hamstring by laying on my back and using a towel to pull a leg towards me I noticed it still hurts and I cant pull my leg straight yet (my left leg can go further than my right). However if I use a door frame to stretch my hamstring I can get my legs completely straight and without anywhere near as much strain on my hamstring.

I'm trying to understand why by using the towel I cant get my legs anywhere near as straight as I can using a door. Do I need to concentrate on stretching some other muscles with this?

My end goal is to be able to lift my legs straight up in the air without having to use a towel or wall. I'm 24 and female. Any advice you guys have would be great. Thanks.

  • Might have to do with the fact that in the towel stretch, you need to keep your leg extended (as you're pulling on it), so that's your quads and hamstrings tensed up. With your leg against a wall, the muscles can completely relax. Also pulling down on your forefoot tightens your calves, which in turn might yank on some ligaments. It's a good question though. – Eric Mar 25 '16 at 2:21
  • Which part of your leg hurts exactly when you stretch? Closer to the knee, or closer to the hip? The inside or the outside of the leg? – BKE Mar 25 '16 at 17:06
  • @BKE it hurts more towards the knee and on the inside. – probablybest Mar 28 '16 at 19:59
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The reason is, that when you use a towel to pull your leg, two things happen at the same time:

  • your hamstring is stretched, as you flex the hip and extend the knee
  • but it is also contracting, as the pull of the towel has to be balanced by the same amount of push from your leg, that means both your calf and hamstring will have to work

Stretching and contracting a muscle at the same time this way is a very effective way to stretch, but with a towel, it is very easy to pull just a bit too much and cause pain.

A few things you can try:

  • keep your leg straight but make a bigger loop with the towel and let your leg lower than vertical (possibly much lower) until the pain is gone
  • put the towel away and work on supine leg lifts. Lie down, bend one leg for support, straighten the other leg (the one you would like to stretch) and lift it as high as you can without pain. You can assist by pointing/flexing the foot, as shown here.
  • if you have a rubber band, you can try a few closed chain stretches as well, for example the standing split stretch and the one-legged stretch:

    split stretch one legged stretch

Note: you can also use some weight eg. a medicine ball or dumbbells instead of the band.

These are quite effective for stretching, and also strengthen the leg muscles at the same time.

  • Thanks, very helpful answer. I'll try out the other stretches. – probablybest Mar 30 '16 at 11:46
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I would like to supplement with the suggestion to implement SMR (Self-Myofascial Release) techniques to your flexibility (stretching) routine. SMR helps to release hypertonicity (tightness) in the connective tissues and muscles in the body (In Clark, In Sutton, In Lucett, & National Academy of Sports Medicine, 2015, p. 133). It helps to do SMR first and then follow with stretching, as opposed to just going straight into the stretching itself.

You can do SMR by using a "foam roller" along the targeted muscle, rolling it along until you find the tight area. You can find about 3 spots along the muscle and hold the foam roller on the spot(s) for 30 seconds, then move along to the next spot. Even if you don't hold the foam roller in one place, just rolling it back and forth along the muscle can be quite helpful in alleviating the tightness. Then you would follow through with the stretching. You might find that it allows you to have greater range of motion with the stretching afterwards.

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