Hamstring Flexibility and Pike Compression
Most adults are so inflexible in their hamstrings that they cannot even touch their toes. This is a serious deficiency, and one that is limiting them in a wide variety of movements. Moreover, the gymnastic pike position requires active compression of the hips, and a poor pike position will make press handstands, mannas, and many tumbling drills much harder to achieve.
First, the term “hamstrings” actually refers to a family of three distinct muscles. These muscles cross both the hip and knee joint, and thus are involved in both hip extension (“opening” the angle of the hip) as well as knee flexion (“closing” the angle of the knee). Problems arise when, due to a culture of sedentary living and lack of exercise, many adults move their hips through a full range of motion so infrequently that their hamstrings become excessively inflexible and tight.
Consider, for instance, a hanging leg lift. This is a basic beginner progression on the way towards L-sits and Mannas in the GymnasticBodies Foundation Series. When many trainees first attempt hanging leg lifts, they find they can barely lift their legs at all! Now this problem is two-fold: their anterior (front of the body) core muscles are too weak, and their posterior (back of the body) leg muscles and fascia are too tight. Fortunately, the GB courses have plenty of exercises and stretches to take care of both issues.
Many athletes, however, only focus on strengthening their anterior core through “ab” exercises. Even when done properly through the use of V-up and hollow body progressions, this is only half of the picture. Imagine trying to drive your car with the parking brake on: while your engine is working hard to spin the wheels forward, the brakes are working just as hard to keep them in place! Unfortunately this is how a lot of people train: their hamstrings are so inflexible that it requires much more strength and energy to reach certain ranges of motion.
The pike position is one of the most common ranges of motion with which people with tight hamstrings will struggle. A basic pike just means that your body is bent in half at the hips, and it is most often performed standing or seated. Active compression of the hips takes it one step further, and rather than just letting gravity passively fold your upper body over your lower, you actually lift and “compress” your legs to your torso. Think the bottom position of a press handstand or the top position of a manna… that is active pike compression.
So how do you go about increasing your hamstring flexibility and pike compression? One important realization is that it is not just your muscles that are restricting your motion, but also your fascia and connective tissues, which can be very tough and stiff. Movements like Jefferson curls and other weighted stretches can help gradually loosen up fascia by providing the body with a bit more stimulus for adaptations to take place. Specific stretches focused on the achilles and calves can also help target especially inflexible areas, and be sure to check out the Front Split Series for more.
One method of gaining flexibility that does not receive enough attention is partner stretching. Awaken, the GB Master Affiliate in Denver, utilizes partner stretching in almost every class to help reach new ranges of motion safely and effectively… plus it’s fun! Something as straightforward as a seated pike stretch with your legs together in front of you on the floor can be much more rewarding simply by having a training partner apply pressure on your back, typically just below the most rounded portion of the spine.
Now that you have a few tools for increasing passive flexibility, let’s discuss a few drills for developing active compression. The seated pike lift begins, as the name suggests, in a seated pike position on the ground. Reach your hands out in front of you just outside your knees, shines, or ankles, depending on your current level of flexibility. From this position, maintain the amount of forward lean from your torso, and actively lift your legs off the ground with straight knees. Do not lean back! Variations include holding this static position for time, or pulsing your legs up and down for reps.
Take these principles into the gym with you for your next training session, and get more flexible!
- Most adult trainees are prohibitively stiff in their hamstrings, causing them to expend more energy than is needed to perform relatively simple movements like hanging leg lifts.
- Develop passive flexibility through weighted stretches like Jefferson curls or partner stretches like the seated pike.
- Build active pike compression for movements like press handstands, mannas, and tumbling progressions by seated pike lifts and pulses.
A. “Partner WOD”
30 Cleans, 115/75
30 Bar Facing Burpees