This is Joseph Pilates going through some of his exercises and there is a lot of work using the legs and the hamstrings - the large group of muscles at the back of the thighs. Pilates invented his exercises from his knowledge of anatomy, how animals moved in the wild and from his fitness background.
WHAT ARE THE HAMSTRINGS?
These are a large group of muscles at the rear of the upper leg:
The Hamstrings originate from the hip or 'sitting bones' and end behind the knee where the main muscles join.
WHAT DO THE HAMSTRINGS DO?
They help the pelvis to rotate,
They are used for walking, running and jumping,
They flex the knee,
Extend the hip when starting to walk,
They are the drivers of the Quadricep muscles at the front of the thigh
Control knee extension,
extend in the sitting position due to their origins in the hip.
Assist in the working of the gluteal muscles to extend the hip
WHAT CAUSES TIGHT HAMSTRINGS?
Sitting for long periods
No warm up or cool down
Some people are naturally predisposed to short hamstrings and have to work hard to keep their hamstrings strong and flexible.
Sprinting, football, tennis, dancing and running are the main sports that require explosive bursts of movement through the propulsion of the Quadriceps. The hamstrings are the drivers of the Quads and have to do a lot of work to get them going and need support from the surrounding muscles - the gluteals - in particular. If these muscles become underdeveloped or stop working, the hamstrings takes over and get bigger and tighter.
SITTING FOR LONG PERIODS
The hamstrings have to extend for the sitting position and if this happens for long periods then the hamstrings have to work harder to support the pelvis, back and knees. Eventually, the hamstrings get short and tight because the Gluteals are inhibited due to lack of use.
Any injury to the lower spine, hip or knee can cause an instability throughout the lower body, aggravate the sciatic nerve, affect the mobility of the hip joint or cause instability to the lower back. In order to compensate the hamstrings - due their connection to the hip and the knee - became the main stabilisers as well as mobilisers (their main job) and get bigger and tighter. Eventually, the hamstrings get too big and cause the pelvis to rotate backwards, flattening the lower back leading to further back problems.
The brain recognises that there is an injury or threat to the body and will force a 'tightness' to protect a damaged disc in the back for example.
NO WARM UP OR COOL DOWN AFTER EXERCISE
A warm up before any exercise is important so that the muscles receive the right amount of glucose (energy) for sustained movement. If there is no warm up the brain releases hormones to utilise emergency glucose ('fight or flight') which can cause stress and damage to muscle fibres. The brain then recognises that there has been some stress to hamstrings and will inhibit any further movement until the injuries have healed. This cycle will continue if the muscles are in continual use until the brain accepts defeat, the hamstrings take over the job of the surrounding stabiliser muscles and over develop.
Cool down is very important using stretching to release carbon dioxide build up, improve flexibility and overall muscle strength.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN HAMSTRINGS GET TOO TIGHT?
Range of motion in the pelvis is limited and alignment is affected.
Stress occurs across the lower back causing lower back problems
Posture is affected
Prone to injuries - torn hamstrings
TESTS FOR TIGHT HAMSTRINGS:
CAN YOU TOUCH YOUR TOES?
RAISE YOUR LEG TO 80 DEGREE ANGLE ON YOUR BACK?
If you can do either of these then your hamstrings are not tight and there is could be another issue.
STRETCHING THE HAMSTRINGS
There are many stretches for hamstrings that provide temporary relief from tightness but they don't do much to create lasting changes in flexibility.
SUGGESTED PILATES EXERCISES TO TRY:
Start in a sitting position with your legs as flat as possible on the mat - hip distance apart with feet flexed upwards. If you cannot do this then start off with slightly bent knees.
Inhale as you fold over imagining that you have a beach ball in front of you that you have to fold over your hips.You should feel a stretch in your lower back, back of the thighs, knees and ankles. Exhale as you reach either your toes or ankles, pause and return back to the starting position.
Repeat this exercise every day.
WIDE LEGGED SAW
Similar position to the Spine Stretch but the legs are wider - right angle to the hips.
Start with spine in natural 'S' curve position with arms extended from shoulders in a straight line. Inhale as you start to rotate from the waist whilst bringing left hand to outside of right foot and exhale. Inhale you return back to starting position. Remember not to hunch the shoulders on rotation and fold from the waist, not the ribs or shoulders.
Try to do this twice a week - increasing rotation and leg width.
SHOULDER BRIDGE/HIP CURLS
Start by lying on your back with legs hip width apart, hands to the side of the body. Inhale as you lift up your pelvis in a slow rolling motion, drawing your ribs against your hips as you roll up. Exhale at the top of the move, squeezing the buttocks then inhale and start to roll back down to the mat and exhale as your drop your hips onto the mat.
Repeat this eight times a couple of times per week.
EXERCISES FOR THE GLUTEALS
This is a great exercise to strengthen the buttock muscles - gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus which tend to get neglected.
The secret with this exercise is to place your hand on your bottom and try to feel the larger muscle working. You may need to shift your legs and feet around so that your body is perfectly aligned along the edge of the mat.
Inhale as you lift the top leg slowly, rotating the hip upwards, inline with the knee. The aim is get your knee pointing to the ceiling. Exhale as you bring the leg back to meet the other knee.
Repeat this eight times on each leg several times a week.
Hamstrings run from the hip to the knee and mobilise the muscles in the thigh, flex the hip and extend the knee.
Tight hamstrings can be caused by lack of warm up and cool down putting the body under stress.
Explosive action sports can cause stress on the hamstrings causing them to over compensate and become bigger and tighter.
Sitting for long periods can cause the hamstrings to over extend.
Test your hamstrings by touching your toes or extending your leg to 80 degrees
Pilates exercises such as the Saw, Spine Stretch and Shoulder Bridge work by building the muscles around the hamstrings so that they can be released to mobilise the knee and hip.