Oh Those Hammies! Hamstring Info Part 1

Do you have tight hamstrings? Do you stretch them only to find that you're not any closer to the suppleness that you desire in those posterior hip extenders? Do you feel they're tighter than Gringotts Bank Security?

Thieves Beware...

Have you tweaked/pulled your hamstring (due to your tightness maybe?)? Today, we'll go over some of the reasons why the hamstrings might be tight and in part 2 we'll go over some of the prevention/rehabilitation techniques to deal with hamstring tweaks. You may be surprised to find that your tight hamstrings are not actually tight... That sounds like something Professor Dumbledore might say.

Ok, so here's some of the causes of "tight" hamstrings. (You'll see why I put "tight" in quotation marks at the end.)

1. Protective tension.

This is when the brain is telling the hamstrings to remain "on," for one reason or another, and it creates a sensation of tightness when the hamstrings are stretched. Why does this happen? I'm actually a good example of this. I have congenital laxity (meaning my joints are loose and I'm fairly flexible) but for a period of about 3 years, my hamstrings were constantly tight and I could feel them being tugged on every time I would put them in a stretched position, and because of my laxity (and a lifetime of NEVER feeling tight) this was as odd as Hagrid's love for horribly frightening beasts.

Yep. That weird.

Here's what was happening: my pelvis tilted, wildly I might add, anteriorly (forward).

The hamstrings attach to the (posterior) bottom of the pelvis (your "sit" bones) and my brain sensed the pelvic tilt I was constantly in and was desperately trying to prevent me tilting forward anymore by causing my hamstrings to fire constantly to pull me back into a neutral position. Thus, this unceasing firing of my hamstring was causing a sense of "tightness" in my hamstrings despite the fact that the actual muscles were not tight. Once my pelvic tilt (through lots of KB swings and anterior core work) was in a more neutral position... voilaThe tightness was gone. So, if your hamstrings feel tight, check our your pelvic alignment.  Stretching the hamstrings will NOT improve your flexibility in this case.

2. Neural tension.

I know this sounds similar to the above reason, but this tension generally results from an injury. The most likely answer is an injury to a lower back disc. (since the nerve for the hamstrings runs through that region.) If there's damage to a disc in the L1-S1 region, there's probably compression on the nerve for the hamstrings which could be causing mishaps in the neural messages causing hamstring tightness. Usually this type of tension is accompanied by other symptoms such as tingling, shooting pain, electric pain or numbness. Two common tests to check for spinal issues are the slump test and the heel drop test (which consists of standing on your toes then dropping to you heels. If pain occurs, congratulations! You might have a compression issue.)

3 and 4. Nasty fibrotic tissue or tendonosis in the hamstring.

Sometimes muscle fibers get junky and gunky, either from poor movements, overuse, or prior injury, which changes the length and function of the muscle. Instead of the muscle fibers running parallel and working harmoniously, they're twisted up like spaghetti noodles (and work as well together and a plate of spaghetti). Soft tissue work such as SMR or possibly work by a professional is in order to help restore the tissue quality.

Not the way muscle fibers should be...

5. The hamstring muscles are truly short.

Yep, you're one of those people who either because of your genes (not your jeans. Ha!) or a surgery where the hamstring was immobilized in a shortened position (though this is not common), your hamstrings are actually shorter than they should be. This can happen in folks who sit down a lot during the day because the pelvis is tilted posteriorly (tucking your butt under) which does shorten the hamstrings a bit. However, this probably isn't the main source of tightness since they are only short at the very end range of motion.

So what have we learned? If your hamstring is tight, it's not necessarily it's fault nor will endless hamstring stretches change anything (even if you're drew the genetic short stick. Stretching won't do that much. Sorry.).  Soft tissue work in the hamstrings, adductors, and glutes as well as some dedicated anterior core work and glute training (*cough* swings *cough*) can help to solve some tight hamstring issues.

Hamstring issues, begone!

Check back in tomorrow for some hamstring injury causes and care.

Pills? Shots? How 'Bout a Little SMR?

Happy New Year everyone! Ready for 2013? I am! (I've also had a lot of coffee this morning.)

Yes please!

I had a conversation with a friend of mine the other day and she recounted a saga of back pain to me. She had some back pain that just wouldn't go away so she went to the doctor to get the appropriate MRI and x-rays (nothing was found to be structurally wrong). Then, he writes her several prescriptions for muscle relaxers and pain killers, none of which helped. He also told her to get an epideral.. which also did nothing. She then went to another doctor who sent her to physical therapy... which proved, once again, to be a somewhat unhelpful (she said that the PT was great, but by the time she had started making progress with my friend, the prescribed number of sessions were over.). Then, as a last resort, she asked a trainer at the gym she attends who has training in a method called Egosque (a school of thought focused on postural realignment), and within a session or two, bam. No more back pain. For her, she was merely a little out of alignment.

It's an obvious answer in retrospect; kinda like disarming Voldemort with a simple Expelliarmus charm.

My sister-in-law was in a similar situation. She was experiencing near-debilitating back pain for months. She saw a chiropractor, had MRIs and was prescribed various pain-killers and muscle relaxers, to no avail. Then, one day, Steve was rolling his glutes on a lacrosse ball and Jenn, being curious as to why her brother was lolling around on the floor while making pain-faces, asked what he was doing. "Just rollin' my glutes," was the reply. "Can I try?" she asked. Being the awesome brother Steve is, he passed the lacrosse ball to her and taught her how to roll on it.

Within 5 minutes (this is no exaggeration), Jenn's back pain was gone. In her case, it was just tight butt muscles that needed some lovin'. Go figure!

Last story, I was having almost daily headaches, borderline migraine levels sometimes, for a couple of months this past year. I too trucked off to the doctor and had muscle relaxers prescribed to me (I was also taking a fair amount of Motrin to ease the searing pain in my head). Nothing. The muscle relaxers made me feel sick to my stomach, dizzy and my head still hurt. Motrin, as effective as it can be, is not something I wanted to be taking long term. After several futile weeks, I went to see and ART specialist (Dr. Grove in Vienna if anyone is interested. No, I don't get any special treatment, but she's so great and has helped me so much that I'm more than happy to send folks her way!) and she immediately pinpointed my tight neck muscles and within 20 minutes, my headache disappeared. I've been seeing her once a month (to continue working on my neck) and I have had only a handful of headaches (usually when it's been 3-4 weeks since I've seen her) since August. Again, just a little soft tissue work and boom, pain was gone as fast as an apparating wizard.

Not to discount any PTs or chiropractors out there (as it may seem in the two previous stories) but sometimes the problem isn't where the pain is. (and I think that's what happend with my friend and sister-in-law, their respective therapists were perhaps treating the symptoms instead of the cause.) This is also not meant to be a post about diagnosing pain nor do I claim that I can. If you're having pain you should go see a professional, get the MRI or x-ray to rule out any structural damage and then proceed to seek out professionals that know how to administer soft-tissue work (beyond what you can do yourself with a lax ball and foam roller).

I'm relating these stories because from what I see at work and at my previous jobs (and what people tell me when they find out what I do for a living) people have a lot of nagging pains that don't go away with medication or shots. I'm not saying that those medications don't have merit, (I definitely helped keep Motrin in business!), but they only treat the symptoms and not the underlying cause. The main point is that, folks need to attack the source of the pain (none withstanding actual structural damage).  And, in my experience, digging into the soft tissue is often the simplest and most effective answer when it comes to nagging, unresolved pains.

If you have some sort of pain that just never seems to go away, I would encourage you to go see a reputable ART therapist or PT to see if they can find the source of your pain. If you don't have the time (or money) to do so, check out this website and take a lacrosse ball and get rolling!

Adductors: Caring for the Unsung Heroes of the Lower Body

This is a two parter blog on how to care for and train the adductors (inner thigh, groin muscles... take you pick of their name). We'll talk about keeping adductors healthy and happy (and hopefully prevent groin pulls/strains, I'm looking at you soccer players...) today and then in the next installment, we'll talk about how to train the adductors (ladies (and guys, I've seen a few!), get off the baby-maker machines...) Part 2 is here.

First, a little anatomy lesson just so you know what the adductors look like:

So these are the major players: Adductor magnus, add. longus, add. brevis, pectineus and gracilis. (there's also a muscle called the satoris, it usually works in conjunction with the gracilis but it's attached to front angle of the hip bone (instead of the pubis bone like the gracilis) and it helps flex the hip and externally rotate the femur: like when you sit and cross your ankle over your knee.)

All of them adduct the femur (brining it closer to the body) but that's not their only function! The adductor magnus helps extend the hip (important in understanding groin strains) along with the hamstrings and glutes. The adductor brevis and pectineus assist in breaking hip flexion (like a little extra umph in flexing the hip). Adductors are the sidekicks of the big guys: quads, glutes and hamstrings.

The adductors are also 1/3 of Team Frontal Plane Stabilization: keeping hips and femurs stable everywhere!

In case you were wondering, as I'm sure you are, the other two players are the glutes (especially glute med) and the opposite side quadratus lumborum. So, for example, if you were to lunge forward, the adductors help prevent your hips from shifting up/down and the knee from collapsing inwards.

Ok, with all the awesome-at-multi-tasking the adductor complex is, it's a area that gets really nasty. It gets clogged with knots and fibrotic tissue so it needs a healthy dose of SMR. While you can use a foam roller on the floor, it's not ideal. You can't apply a whole lot of pressure (due to the angle) and your essentially nose-on-the-floor and again, not very comfortable.

I recommend elevating your leg on a table or a bench to eliminate this issue. You can use a foam roller but I've found that medecine balls work wonders on the nasty gunk up in your adductor trunk. You can apply force over a smaller area, thus making it more effective, and it's easier to pinpoint super-nasty areas. See video below:

Notice how I go along the fibers (from knee to hip direction) as well as across the fibers (front to back). And when you find a angry bit, hang on it for about ten seconds then continue the delightful process of that we know of as SMR.

After that, drills like adductor rock backs, Cressy has a good video of standing rock backs, and static side lunges to bring the rolled-out fibers back to a desirable length.

Now, go forth, roll your adductors and be prepared on Friday to learn some ways to train the Sidekicks of the Lower Body.