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A standing hamstring stretch is a static exercise designed to increase flexibility in the hamstring muscles on the back of the thigh. Many people can benefit from this stretch — from casual exercisers to athletes. There are many exercises that stretch the hamstrings, including ones that involve lying on the floor, but the standing hamstring stretch can be performed by virtually anyone and requires only a surface on which to prop one’s foot and no equipment other than one’s own body.
To understand how to perform this stretch correctly, it may be helpful to be aware of the physiology of the muscles being stretched. The hamstrings are actually a group of three muscles: the semitendinosus, the semimembranosus, and the biceps femoris. Because the biceps femoris consists of two sections, however — the long head and the short head — it is sometimes regarded as two separate muscles.
Spanning from the back of the thigh to the outside of the other two muscles, the biceps femoris runs vertically, originating on the hipbone in the case of the long head and the top of the femur in the case of the short head. Both sections insert at the top of the outside bone of the lower leg, the fibula, just behind the knee joint. The semitendinosus is located just to the inside of the biceps femoris and runs parallel to it, originating on the same spot on the hipbone and inserting along the inside of the tibia bone in the lower leg. Beneath this muscle is the semimembranosus, which originates with the other muscles on the hip and inserts just above the semitendinosus on the tibia.
Because the hamstring muscles cross both the hip and knee joint, they are involved in the extension of the hip, or lifting the leg behind the body, as well as the flexion or bending of the knee. They are therefore utilized in a variety of movements, from walking and running, to swimming, and climbing stairs. Also, because these muscles are in a chronically shortened position among people who sit for much of the day, they can become very tight and therefore require regular stretching. The standing hamstring stretch is recommended, then, for the very active as well as the sedentary in order to maintain proper muscle alignment.
To perform the standing hamstring stretch, one should standing facing a chair, bench, or stairs and prop one foot on the elevated surface with toes flexed, not pointed. She should then soften the knee of her standing leg and tilt her pelvis away from her extended leg, which ensures that the muscle is maximally lengthened and that the stretch is not absorbed through the low back. With the pelvis pushed back and the back as straight as possible — rounding the spine similarly diverts the stretch to the back muscles — she should bend forward slightly from the hip until a stretch is felt on the back of the thigh. In fact, the stretch may be felt without any forward lean at all if the foot remains flexed and the pelvis pushed back. The standing hamstring stretch should be held for 20-30 seconds and repeated on the other side, and it should be performed daily for optimum benefit.