An exercise to reactivate your hamstrings, reduce hip popping, and wake up your feet

Picture of Hamstrings from Wikimedia Commons

This is the back of your leg without skin and fascia.

During the dark days of my life when I was “resting” my injuries and waiting for the heavens to rain down magical healing on my head, I managed to do a number of things that made me worse off.

Without getting into the whole list, I wanted share one thing that I did that really messed up my hamstrings and what I did to eventually wake my hamstrings back up, get them working properly again, and how doing this simple exercise can make a huge difference to your hips and even your feet.

During the dark period, I was sitting a lot in front of a laptop for prolonged periods. This made me want to experiment with different ways of sitting — soft surfaces, hard surfaces, medium surfaces, etc. At some point, I got it into my head that a hard surface was the best, as I could really feel and balance on my sit bones (your Sitzknöchel, Mensch!).

And so I started sitting on a hard surface all the time. I’d even position myself to kind of massage my “tight” hamstrings to see if that would make sitting for long periods with no backrest more comfortable (yes, it sounds stupid in hindsight, and no, it didn’t make sitting for long periods more comfortable).

A few months into my experiment, my hips were feeling really stiff and weak. My knees and feet also didn’t feel so good — almost like they weren’t completely part of my body. My hips started popping every time I lifted my knees toward my chest and would feel like they were almost dislocating during various movements. I was baffled and just hoped all of it would resolve on its own.

Of course, the hips didn’t just magically recover, and my feet and knees also didn’t just magically recover. It took a long time to figure out (years actually), but after training the crap out of my glutes and paying attention to my own movement patterns and testing my ability to do exercises like lunges or doing two steps at a time up stairs, I realized that something was definitely up with my hamstrings. I had gotten a lot of fantastic changes by focusing on various glute and hamstring exercises, but I still wasn’t getting what I wanted.

Now there are a lot of different exercises you can do for your hamstrings. If you go to a regular run of the mill gym, you probably immediately started thinking of the seated or prone hamstring curl machine (you curl your ankles toward your butt, basically). And, yes, these do work your hamstrings.

If you really pay attention when you do them, you probably notice that they work your hamstrings a lot down toward the knee (the “distal” part of the hamstrings). And that’s all well and good, but I was obviously functionally weak up near the top of the hamstrings (the proximal portion), and hamstring curls just weren’t doing it for me.

The more advanced gym rats out there are probably shouting Romanian Deadlifts, Reverse Hyper, and Glute Ham Raises at the screen right now, and you’re right! You’re right! Those are fantastic exercises to get the hamstrings firing up again, but none of those exercises seemed to get into the tiny little attachments of the hamstrings where everything felt so wrong. My hamstrings definitely got worked, but not precisely enough. With low load, I didn’t feel the focus in the right area, and with high loads, my body would get the glutes or spinal erectors involved and avoid the attachments as well.

Add the equipment inconvenience of trying to do a Glute Ham Raise and the fact that I was already weak, and it just wasn’t a good option for rehabbing myself.

Then I put two and two together. I was getting lots of hip popping in an open-chain position (open chain basically means the foot is not in contact with the floor). I’d get popping very often when I lifted my knee up, and very often if I was lying down on my back and lifted my knees toward my chest. It felt like the proximal hamstrings would just go limp as I approached ninety degrees of hip flexion. So I decided to train that specific situation.

I took some light resistance bands and wrapped them around the leg of a credenza in the living room (this is what it means to live with me). Then I lay down and looped the band around the back of my ankle so that I had my knee straight and hip flexed to ninety degrees (the position where I normally felt all tension give out). From there, all I had to do was pull my foot down and away into as open a hip position as I could get, then slowly, slowly return to the start position.

Within a week (I was doing these exercises a lot throughout the day), my hamstrings were feeling very, very different, and I was able to move up to a higher resistance level (I started on the lightest – purple).
sidelying hip extension with band part 1sidelying hip extension with band part 2

As I trained my hamstrings this way, I also noticed something unexpected. Though my feet hadn’t been bothering me with pain for a long while, I noticed that my feet felt even more alive than they had in as long as I could remember. I had thought my feet were doing fine, but all of a sudden I had even more sensation in my feet, as if I’d actually only been getting 70% of the sensory feedback. My feet were warmer and just felt much more flexible and mobile. It was a nice bonus! I’ve also gotten similar responses from clients that I train, so I’m pretty sure it’s not just something bizarrely unique to my anatomy.

For those of you who have popping hips that are driving you mad, feet that hurt or feel dead, or those looking to gradually train up your hamstrings, get some bands and give this exercise a try and let me know how it goes for you. Once you get them ready for lighter exercise like this, you may find your Romanian Deadlifts, Hamstring Curls, and Glute Ham Raises feel just a teensy bit easier.


About the Author

Matt Hsu is a trainer and orthopedic massage therapist. He fought a long battle with chronic pain all over his body and won. He blends the principles he learned in his journey, empirical observations with clients, and relevant research to help others get their lives back.

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