5 Easy Hamstring Stretches to Help Your Knee Pain

Pain or tightness around your knee can be from poor hamstring flexibility.  Research proves tight hamstrings contribute to knee pain.  However, many people struggle with how to best stretch their hamstrings.  Do you find it painful to stretch?  Or are you stretching day after day and see no improvement?  This article will show you how to do hamstring stretches that are easy and proven to work.

Proven Hamstring Stretches 

Several different hamstring stretches are proven to improve flexibility and knee pain.  A 2020 study published in the journal Sports Health looked at 46 people with knee pain.  One group performed strengthening exercises and a traditional seated hamstring stretch held for 15 seconds.  The other group did the same strengthening exercises but different dynamic hamstring stretches.  These dynamic stretches are described below (active hamstring stretches).  After 12 weeks, people performing the dynamic stretches reported 3x more improvement in knee pain.

Hamstring exercises
Active Hamstring Stretching in Supine

There are other proven methods to improve hamstring tightness.  These include foam rolling, proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) stretches, and sciatic nerve stretches.  These methods are different than traditional static stretching exercises.  Static stretches improve flexibility in the short-term but do little to sustain gains over time.  Instead, try any of the 5 hamstring stretches outlined here.  This will give you more lasting pain relief and mobility.

Active Hamstring Stretch in Supine

The active hamstring can be done easily on the floor or in your bed.  Lie flat on your back.  Grasp the back of your thigh with both hands.  Hold your thigh so it is pointing straight up to the ceiling.  You want your hip flexed at a 90 degree angle.  Then, actively extend your lower leg until you feel a mild to moderate stretch.  Only hold this position for 1 second.  Perform 3 sets of 15 stretches once per day.

This is our preferred way to stretch your hamstrings.  When you actively straighten your knee with your quadriceps muscle, you are relaxing your hamstring muscle on the other side of your thigh.  This will allow you to stretch with greater range of motion.  It will also retrain your hamstrings and quadriceps to work together.  This results in longer lasting improvements in flexibility.

Active Hamstring Stretch in Standing

If you don’t like the lying stretch, try this one.  Stand holding on to a chair or wall for balance.  Tighten your abdominal muscles so your low back doesn’t round.  With your knee straight and toes up, raise one leg straight out in front of you.  You want to feel a mild to moderate stretch in the back of your thigh.  Only hold this position for 1 second.  Perform 3 sets of 15 stretches once per day.  You don’t have do both the supine and standing stretches.  Choose whichever you prefer or alternate each day.

Hamstring Stretches with a Foam Roll

Sit on the floor with a foam roll under one thigh.  Support yourself with your hands.  Move your body up and down so the foam roll contacts the length of your hamstrings.  Apply pressure from your buttock down to the back of your knee.  If you find a tender or tight part of the muscle, spend a little more time there.  Perform 3 sets of 30 second bouts on each leg.  Longer durations do not lead to any additional benefits.  Also, there is no need to be overly aggressive or beat yourself up with crazy versions of foam rolling.  Keep it simple.

Contract Relax PNF Hamstring Stretch

Lie flat on your back.  Wrap a stretch-out-strap, belt, or towel around your foot.  Hold an end of the strap in each hand.  Next, passively raise your leg with your knee straight.  Hold the stretch when you feel a mild to moderate pull in the back of your thigh.  Then, contract your hamstrings by gently pushing your leg back down towards the floor.  Push your leg into the strap as you resist.  Your leg does not move.  Hold this muscle contraction for 6 seconds. Relax for a few seconds.  Then pull your leg up a little bit further holding for 10 seconds.  Repeat this sequence 5 times on each leg.

This stretch works better when you have a partner or your physical therapist to assist.  It is challenging to really relax your hamstrings when you are by yourself.  Give it a try on your own and let us know if you need more help.

Slump Slider and Tensioner

The sciatic nerve stimulates and travels close to your hamstrings.  When you stretch your hamstrings you are also stretching your sciatic nerve.  However, you can bias the stretch to move or pull on your nerve more.  This influences the blood flow to the nerve.  Changes in nerve blood flow can cause the muscles it supplies to relax.  It is amazing how this can cause profound changes in hamstring flexibility very quickly.

We recommend starting with the slider technique in this video.  If your improvements start to slow down, mix in the tensioner.  However, if you have a history of back pain, be very gentle with the tensioner.   We recommend you do 3 sets of 10 to 15 repetitions once per day.

How to Get Started with Hamstring Stretches

Let’s face it, stretching is boring. Holding stretches for 30 seconds or longer takes time and often leads to only short term improvements. The 5 hamstring stretches included in this article are dynamic and take much less time.  Even better, research studies prove they are effective for decreasing knee pain and improving flexibility.  You don’t have to do them all.  Try a few and pick the 1 or2 you like the best.  If you are unsure about which hamstring stretches are best for you, give us a call.  Our doctors of physical therapy will perform an examination and help you develop a plan to move without pain.


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