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How to stretch a pulled hamstring safely (and what else can help)

You must be careful when stretching a pulled hamstring.
Maryke Louw
Maryke Louw
Dec 19, 2023
Medically reviewed by
Kim Van Deventer
If you've pulled your hamstring muscle, it may feel tight and in need of a good stretch. But stretching too soon or incorrectly can actually worsen your injury.

In this article, you’ll learn why it’s best to delay hamstring stretches initially, what stretches are best, and other ways to boost your recovery.

Why it’s best to delay pulled hamstring stretches

After a hamstring pull or strain, your body needs some time to start the healing process properly.

That’s why an effective way to kickstart your recovery is to simply avoid stretching your injured hamstring too early.

Here are 3 reasons to delay hamstring stretches:

1
Your hamstring is already sensitive to stretching
A hamstring strain is usually caused by overstretching, leading to some muscle fibers tearing, losing strength, and becoming painful and sensitive. Stretching already overstretched, sensitive, or weakened tissues can worsen your injury by further tearing or aggravating the injured fibers.
2
Stretching doesn’t help with what’s causing the tightness
The initial tightness you feel after a hamstring injury is due to swelling, bruising, and protective muscle spasm in the area of the tear. Stretching doesn’t help resolve these issues. Fortunately, the tightness usually subsides as your injury heals.
3
Stretching can interrupt the initial healing process
During the initial injury stage, your body naturally removes and repairs damaged muscle cells while creating and laying down new ones. Stretching a newly strained hamstring can disrupt the healing process, slowing your recovery and impacting the new cell growth.

Next, we’ll discuss the best hamstring stretches for a pulled hamstring, their differences, and how to incorporate each into your rehab safely.

Struggling with a stubborn hamstring strain? The Exakt Health app is a trusted, easy-to-follow rehab tool designed to get athletes and active people back on track after injury. Get the expert support you need now and get back to what you love sooner.

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The best stretches for a pulled hamstring

Active hamstring stretches are more effective than passive stretches for a pulled hamstring.

However, both can play a helpful role in hamstring injury rehab as long as you use them correctly.

Understanding the differences between active and passive stretching can help you choose the correct stretches during your recovery.

Below, we highlight what each stretch entails, how it impacts your hamstrings, and when and how to do it for optimal results.

The type of hamstring stretch you choose must match your injury's stage of healing.
The type of hamstring stretch you choose must match your injury's stage of healing.

Active vs. passive hamstring stretches

Active hamstring stretches

What they involve: Active stretches involve gentle repetitive movements in and out of the stretch position.

Their effects: These dynamic movements improve blood flow to the area, reduce bruising and swelling, and help the injured hamstring tissue heal without putting too much strain on it.

When to do them: Wait at least 48 hours after a hamstring pull before you start with gentle, active hamstring stretches.

Passive hamstring stretches

What they involve: Passive hamstring stretches involve holding the muscle in a stretched position for a sustained period (usually 30 seconds or more).

Their effects: They may help to relax your muscles and temporarily improve flexibility. But, when you have a newly torn hamstring, holding it in a stretched position can overwhelm the injured tissues, potentially aggravating your injury.

When to do them: It’s best to leave passive stretches for later in your hamstring recovery. We recommend avoiding passive stretches at least until you can perform a deadlift exercise through the full range of movement without pain.

Looking for more specific guidance on stretching for your hamstring injury? Download the Exakt Health app for personalized rehab plans tailored to your recovery stages, offering expert advice on the most effective stretches during each phase.

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Woman using the stretches in the Exakt Health app to manage her hamstring strain.

Although hamstring stretches can help your recovery, it shouldn't be the sole focus of your rehab.

For effective recovery, it’s essential to improve your hamstring function and the muscles that impact it.

Beyond hamstring stretches: What else can help a pulled hamstring

Hip and thigh stretches

Some research shows that if the muscles in the front of your hips and thighs (iliopsoas and quadriceps) are tight, it can affect how well your gluteal muscles (buttocks or glutes) work.

Tight hip flexor muscles may prevent the gluteal muscles from working properly.

Your glutes help support your hamstrings while running. So, if they don't function properly, your hamstrings have to work harder, increasing your risk of injury.

Regularly stretching your hips and thighs can enhance the range of motion and balance the forces in your lower body. This helps prevent hamstring overload and reduces the risk of injuries.

DON'T start too early

These stretches are best introduced later in the rehabilitation process because they’re performed in positions that can irritate a newly strained hamstring.

Examples of hip flexor and quads exercises

Eccentric exercises

While passive stretches can make your muscles feel more relaxed and less tight after you’ve done them, they can’t increase hamstring flexibility permanently.

That’s because they don’t change the actual structure of your muscles or tendons.

On the other hand, eccentric exercises, which involve your muscles lengthening under tension, stimulate the body to create longer muscle cells and fibers – leading to a more permanent improvement in how flexible and mobile your hamstrings are.

An example of an eccentric hamstring rehabilitation exercise is the lowering down part of a deadlift.

An example of an eccentric hamstring contraction is the lowering down part of a deadlift.
An example of an eccentric hamstring contraction is the lowering down part of a deadlift.

The added benefit of eccentric exercises is that they strengthen your muscles while stretching them, which helps improve your overall muscle power and control.

As a result, eccentric exercises are more beneficial for recovering from hamstring injuries than just stretching, as they provide longer-lasting improvements and help lower the risk of future injury.

We've previously discussed specific hamstring strain strength training exercises and how to include them in your rehabilitation program.

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Conclusion

Stretching can be helpful for a pulled hamstring when used as part of a well-rounded rehab plan.

To optimize your recovery, here are a few key points to remember with stretches:

  1. Wait at least 48 hours before starting gentle active hamstring stretches.
  2. Avoid forceful stretches - overstretching can worsen your injury.
  3. Include hip and thigh stretches in the later phases of your rehab.
  4. Incorporate eccentric exercises into your routine for longer-lasting effects on flexibility, strength, and injury prevention.

Recover smarter and bounce back stronger with the Exakt Health app. Download it now and unlock access to effective rehab plans proven to help you regain strength, flexibility, and confidence after a range of running injuries, including hamstring strains.

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Woman using the Exakt Health app to manage her hamstring strain.
Maryke Louw
Maryke Louw
Maryke Louw is the Medical Lead at Exakt Health and a chartered physiotherapist. She has a BSc in Physiotherapy and an MSc in Sports Injury Management and has been working with athletes of all abilities and ages for more than 20 years. Maryke combines her extensive knowledge of sports injury treatment with the latest research to provide effective injury treatment and prevention advice.
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