Struggling with sore hamstrings after your workouts? Think you might have a pulled hamstring? If it feels uncomfortable to walk around or straighten your legs, there are a few things you can do to alleviate the pain and prevent future discomfort.
Here are some tips for dealing with sore hamstrings, plus a few hamstring stretches you should consider adding to your workout routine.
What Causes Sore Hamstrings?
The short answer is muscle damage, but the longer one is slightly more nuanced. “Whenever you challenge yourself in a workout, you’re going to cause microscopic damage to your muscle tissue,” says Trevor Thieme C.S.C.S. and Openfit’s senior manager of fitness and nutrition content.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. “It’s completely normal and it’s what stimulates the repair and adaptation processes that allow you to build muscle and grow stronger,” he explains. “But when you push yourself too hard or significantly switch up your routine, you can cause enough micro-damage to feel it.”
That brings up an important point: Soreness has nothing to do with workout quality or effectiveness. “It just means that you overdid it,” says Thieme. “So while it’s only a big deal if it inhibits workout performance, it’s also not something to chase or celebrate.”
Bottom line: Despite the common trend of people boasting about how good their leg day was because it resulted in them not being able to walk up the stairs, building muscle and having a good workout doesn’t have to result in soreness at all. In fact, it shouldn’t.
How Do I Prevent Sore Hamstrings?
If you’re new to strength training, muscle soreness is all but inevitable. “You’re challenging your muscles in ways that they’ve likely never encountered before,” explains Thieme. “Plus, it takes time to get a sense for how hard you need to push yourself to optimize results without getting sore.”
But that doesn’t mean you’re doomed to a constant hobble and chronic discomfort. Follow these tips to reduce the severity of exercise induced muscle soreness—and perhaps even prevent it from occurring in the first place.
1. Warm Up Dynamically
“Never skip your warm-up,” Thieme says. “Performing dynamic stretches before you exercise primes your muscles for action, boosting workout performance and reducing your risk of experiencing severe soreness and injury.”
2. Avoid Overtraining
“It’s important to challenge yourself every workout, but not to excess,” Thieme says. “If you can’t complete all of your reps and sets with good form, you’re lifting too much.” So, if you can’t walk the day after a workout, you should think about decreasing your reps or weights the next time you go to exercise.
3. Cool Down with Stretches
Compliment your workout with a cool down that lowers your heart rate and stretches out tired muscles. Although research shows that stretching doesn’t help with muscle soreness after a workout, it does help make your muscles more pliable and less susceptible to pulls and strains.
4. Foam Roll
While stretching might not have a direct effect on relieving muscle soreness, studies have found that foam rolling can help ease sore muscles after a tough workout. Making foam rolling a part of your cool down routine can help not only your hamstrings, but the rest of your muscles, too.
Tips and Stretches for Sore Hamstrings
Proper hamstring care includes passive and active stretches, foam rolling, and strengthening. Here are a few tips for safely stretching and taking care of your hamstrings.
Seated forward fold with both legs straight
Let gravity do some of the work with this classic hamstring stretch.
- Sit on the ground with both legs extended in front of you.
- Keeping your back flat, abs engaged, and legs straight, reach for your toes until you feel a stretch.
- You may not be able to touch your toes and that’s ok. This stretch should feel challenging, but never painful.
Single leg extension
This passive stretch uses a strap to achieve a full hamstring extension.
- Lie with your back flat on the ground and both legs extended straight.
- Bend your right knee, placing a resistance band around the arch of your right foot.
- Straighten your leg up toward the ceiling, holding the other end of the band in both hands.
- Use the band to gently pull your leg toward your head while keeping your leg straight. Only go as far as you can without discomfort. To enhance the stretch, squeeze your quadricep and flex your toes back.
- Repeat on your left side.
Leg swings (front and back)
Challenge your balance and give your hamstring a dynamic stretch with this move.
- Stand on your left foot and swing your right leg forward and backward. Your left arm should move in tandem with your right leg, but hold onto a stable surface for balance if necessary.
- Use your natural range of motion, don’t try to force your leg to go higher than it’s able.
- Do all of your reps, switch legs, and repeat.
High kick with toe touch
Get a slightly deeper hamstring stretch with this kick variation.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and raise your arms out to your sides so that your body forms a “T.” This is the starting position.
- Keep your right leg straight as you swing it up and touch your toes with your left hand.
- Return to the starting position and repeat with your left leg and right hand.
- Continue alternating sides.
Knee lift to walking lunge
This lunge variation will strengthen your hamstrings while also warming them up.
- Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart.
- Raise your right knee as high as you can and step forward, lowering your body into a lunge position (front knee bent 90 degrees, rear knee hovering an inch or two above the floor).
- Push off with your left foot and bring it forward to return to a standing position.
- Now raise your left knee and step forward into a lunge position.
- Continue alternating legs as you “walk.”
Hamstring foam roll
Give yourself some self-myofascial release by foam rolling your hamstrings.
- Sit on the floor with your legs straight and a foam roller under your thighs. Place your hands on the floor on either side of your butt. This is the starting position.
- Lift your butt and use your hands to move forward and backward, rolling the entire length of your hamstrings—from just below your butt to your knees.
Sore Hamstrings vs. Pulled Hamstrings
For many people, it can be difficult to differentiate between standard muscle soreness and a pulled hamstring.
“Soreness results from excessive micro damage and the resulting inflammation that occurs when you push yourself too hard during a workout,” says Thieme. “A pulled hamstring is a different beast: It’s a tear in the muscle tissue that results from overstretching, overuse, or excessive stress, such as trying to lift a weight that’s too heavy too quickly.”
How can you tell the difference? It’s all about how it feels. Sore hamstrings will feel tender, tight, and stiff. The soreness typically peaks within 24 to 48 hours, but usually only lasts a few days. A pulled muscle elicits a deep, stabbing pain that is often accompanied by noticeable swelling. Depending on its severity, this type of injury can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to several months to heal, and it’s important that you get it checked out by your doctor.
Sore hamstrings often accompany a strong workout. On the other hand, no one wants a pulled hamstring. Proper hamstring care, warm-ups, and cool down stretches can help reduce the risk of a pulled hamstring and after-workout sore hamstrings.