The key is to start slow.
Your lower back has been aching for weeks now, but no matter how much you massage or stretch those muscles along your spine, the pain won’t go away. This might be because the problem isn’t actually your back at all: While there are a number of things that can cause back pain, one that’s easy to overlook is tight hamstrings.
Yes, your legs could be the guilty party. To find out how to tell if this is the case, and how to stretch hamstrings effectively if it is, we spoke with Katya Campbell, a certified movement and mobility specialist, yoga teacher, CrossFit coach, and the fitness director at Mountain Trek Health Reset Retreat in British Columbia.
Low back pain can crop up when your hamstrings are so tight that they pull your pelvis out of alignment, which can strain the deep back muscles. But before blaming your hammies outright, it’s helpful to determine if they’re tight enough to be the culprit. There are a few basic tests you can do to test your range of motion, says Campbell.
The simplest is probably the passive forward fold. To do this, stand upright with your feet together (preferably with no shoes on) then hinge from your hips and reach down to touch your toes or as close to your toes as possible.
If you are within two inches from reaching the floor, Campbell says that you have “moderate flexibility,” but anything higher up could indicate excessive tightness in your hamstrings.
However, this assessment has some limitations. Namely, if you have long arms, it will naturally make it easier to reach the ground (and those with shorter arms will have a harder time). Also, Campbell points out that this doesn’t test each leg individually. That’s why she also recommends the active straight leg raise test.
To do this one, lie on the floor with both legs straight out on the ground. Keep one leg flat on the floor and raise the opposite leg into the air, keeping both knees as straight as possible. As you lift your leg, look at how far the heel is coming up towards the ceiling. Campbell says that ideally, your heel should be able to come in line with or beyond the opposite knee. “This is a great indicator of hamstring flexibility, and we can see if one leg has greater limitations than the other, which is fairly common,” she says.
Sometimes, chronically tight hamstrings are simply something you’re born with. “Genetics do play a role in hamstring length and we can’t argue our way out of that one, but there are other factors as well,” suggests Campbell. “Prolonged sitting, insufficient stretching after exercise, injury, and limited movement can all contribute to shortened hamstrings