We're About to Go HAM(strings): Part 2

If you’re just tuning in, we are helping Leonardo DiCaprio finally win an Oscar. Well, not literally…but in so far as Leo represents your hamstrings and Matthew McConaughey represents your quadriceps. While your quads are being overtrained (and winning Academy Awards), your hammies are often neglected because we sit so much, under-train our posterior chains, and, frankly, just plain forget them because they’re behind us. Check out Part 1 to get up to speed, and then come back to Part 2 where we will talk about how to train and maintain your hamstrings, and avoid catastrophic injury during athletic competition.

LET'S GET ECCENTRIC

Let’s start with eccentrics (and no, I don’t mean your weird old neighbor who walks his cat). There are three types of muscle contraction: concentric, isometric, and eccentric. Concentric contraction occurs when the muscle shortens under contraction—like your biceps muscle during the lifting phase of a dumbbell biceps curl. Eccentric contraction occurs when the muscle lengthens under tension—like your biceps muscle during the lowering phase of a biceps curl. (An isometric contraction happens when the muscle is contracted but there is no joint movement, and for this discussion isn't super relevant.) An eccentric contraction is essentially a deceleration of the joint during a movement: in a biceps curl, your biceps muscle is working to control the slow lowering of the dumbbell, applying a brake to what would otherwise likely be a quick and violent lowering phase. This eccentric phase of muscle contraction helps protect your joints from potential damage and keep movements smooth and controlled.

The hamstrings function eccentrically during the Terminal Swing phase of your swing leg, to prepare your body for the next stride.

The hamstrings function eccentrically during the Terminal Swing phase of your swing leg, to prepare your body for the next stride.

Physiology blah blah exercise science blah. Let’s bring it back to the hams, specifically: every time you sprint, run, or jog, your hamstrings act to decelerate the swing phase of your leg during your gait—meaning every time you sprint, run, or jog, your hamstrings are working eccentrically. And because eccentric training can cause more DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) than concentric training alone, this is why your hammies might feel RATCHET after sprints or a tempo training run. (Mine are feeling pretty ratchet indeed right now from my sprints yesterday, thank you very much.) But here’s the good news about getting eccentric: eccentric training has been shown to both protect muscles from injury and effectively rehabilitate weak or injured muscles. In other words, incorporating eccentric hamstring exercises into your training program can help prevent and even heal hamstring tears. IT’S A STRENGTH-TRAINING MIRACLE. It totally makes sense to train the hamstrings eccentrically, since that’s how they function while running—but it helps to have some serious research studies backing it up with data on data on data.

The problem here is that most training programs do not incorporate enough eccentric hamstring work. Like I talked about in Part 1, if your quads are stronger than your hamstrings you are cruisin’ for a bruisin’—and a good strength and conditioning program will ensure that your hamstrings are getting just as much, if not more, attention than your quads in the weight room. A squat without a deadlift is like a kite without a string: pretty darn useless when it comes to performance. If you’re training on a Volt sports program (insert shameless plug), you can rest easy: all Volt programs make use of eccentric hamstring exercises to keep our athletes healthy. If you’re not currently training your hamstrings eccentrically, keep reading to learn how.



A TALE OF TWO TENDONS

You should know by now that the hamstrings cross two joints, at the hip and at the knee. At the distal or lower end the hamstrings flex your knee, and at the proximal or higher end they extend the hip. You can see why they are so essential to basically all sports movements: any time you bend your knee or straighten your hips, you need your hamstrings. This is also why sitting, as we discussed in Part 1, can be so dangerous to your hamstring health because it lengthens the proximal end while shortening the distal end of the muscle. To keep your hams happy, you have to address your hamstrings at both ends, at both their tendinous attachments. This is where proper strength training exercises come in.

This illustration only highlights the long head of the biceps femoris, one of your 3 hamstring muscles. The hamstrings originate at the ischial tuberosity (or "sitz bone") and insert at either the tibia or fibula.

This illustration only highlights the long head of the biceps femoris, one of your 3 hamstring muscles. The hamstrings originate at the ischial tuberosity (or "sitz bone") and insert at either the tibia or fibula.

Think about a leg curl machine, the kind you sit in. It provides resistance against which to flex the knee, thus working the hamstring—but it leaves your hips unaffected, so it does not work the entire muscle. If you rely on single-joint exercises like this for your hamstring work in the weight room, you are missing half the muscle—which can lead to injury. Instead, choose exercises that involve the hamstring at both the knee and hip joints. These are the exercises that best mimic the functionality of the hamstring while running, and they will help prevent overloading and tightness at the distal end of the muscle.

Here are my top 3 favorite FAVORITE ways to work the hamstrings eccentrically, at both ends. Consider adding them to your training, prehab, or rehab regimen to strengthen and repair the full length of the muscle.

GHDs can be spendy, but the benefit they provide the hamstrings is well worth it.

GHDs can be spendy, but the benefit they provide the hamstrings is well worth it.

1. Glute-Ham Raise

This is my favorite way to eccentrically train the hamstrings. Its only limitation is the equipment, called a Glute-Ham Developer or GHD, which are hard to find in most gyms. However, if you are a coach with room in the budget for new tools, I HIGHLY recommend the GHD: it can be used to strengthen hamstrings, abdominals, and the muscles of the low-back—and, unlike a back extension machine, it allows athletes to train both the knee flexion and hip extension functions of the hamstrings due to its unique design. (Check out this sweet retro user’s manual to learn the specifics of using a GHD)

Don’t have a spare 700 bucks to spend on a full GHD (here's a selection from Rogue Fitness)? No sweat! You can buy a significantly cheaper partner GHD made of foam for around $200 (this one from Neptune Barbell, for example). It will require someone to spot the athlete during the movement, but it also allows both ends of the hamstrings to be trained—plus, it’s portable! You can also duplicate this partner GHD on a padded mat or BOSU ball (although I find this to be hard on the knees for some), or even try a solo glute-ham raise by hooking your ankles under a sturdy bar or structure. If you’re willing to get creative, you can make glute-ham raises part of your training program in just about any gym!

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2. Single-Leg RDLs

Just thinking about this exercise makes my left hammy hurt. Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts are a fantastic way to eccentrically train the hamstrings while also testing your balance (and your patience). You can perform them with one or two dumbbells or kettlebells, or a barbell. What makes this movement different from a regular deadlift is that an RDL emphasizes the eccentric phase of hamstring contraction: while a deadlift starts from the floor and requires a concentric shortening of the hamstring muscles to extend the hips and raise the barbell, the starting position for an RDL is standing, thus making the first contraction a lengthening of the hamstrings to lower the weight to the ground.

The key to a solid RDL is keeping the hips and feet square. Try doing a few in front of a mirror—you might notice the lifted leg wanting to turn outward. Don’t let it: instead, keep the toes of the lifted foot pointing directly at the floor. It’s harder this way, but better for the standing leg because it trains the hamstrings to work properly to keep your pelvis (and therefore your running gait) straight.

3. Stability Ball Leg Curls

I could eat these for breakfast, I love them so much. Start with two feet and progress to the single-leg version—or, if you’ve got a partner and a death wish, have your partner pull the stability ball away as you actively resist while lengthening your hamstrings. A fun way to build team unity and rock-solid hams at the same time! Stability ball curls may not feel like a two-joint exercise, since only the angle of the knee joint is changing, but because your hips are required to remain in a fully extended position, they are engaged isometrically during the whole movement. Add this exercise to your arsenal of eccentric hamstring work and your posterior chain will be tuned up in no time.

HOW NOT TO PULL A HAMMY DURING ATHLETIC COMPETITION

This rule is simple, but sooo often neglected: never ever ever ever EVER skip your warm-up!!!!!  I used to work at a chiropractic clinic, and there was a patient once who came in because he had gone to the track to do sprints without warming up and TORE HIS HAMSTRING RIGHT OFF THE BONE! Literally ripped it right off his pelvis. Right from his ischial tuberosity. Now, I’m not saying this will 100% for-sure happen to you if you skip your warm-up (to be fair, this patient was over 40 and worked a desk job), but it’s a pretty good reminder to not be dumb about skipping your warm-up. Check out Coach Jace's post on the importance of the warm-up, or this frequently cited study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine that itself cites a whole slew of studies on warm-ups as a preventative mechanism for hamstring injury. You simply must warm up!

We at Volt are big proponents of dynamic warm-ups, composed of exercises that specifically mimic the movements of the game, practice, or workout ahead. Tin soldiers, windmills, reverse lunge + reach-backs, single-leg RDLs with no weight, and straight-leg swings are all good dynamic exercises to warm and activate the muscles of the hamstrings. Combine these with some light pre-activity stretching that focuses on the distal portion of the hamstring (as this part of the muscle tends to be the tightest), and you will significantly decrease your likelihood of mid-activity injury.

Another way to ensure you won’t hurt your hams during gameplay is to improve the mobility and flexibility of your hamstrings on your off days. As always, foam rolling is a great way to work out the fascial “kinks” that can gunk up hamstring muscle fibers—or you can try my favorite new toy and Christmas present from Future Husband, the Rogue Supernova. Bigger than a lacrosse ball and smaller than a traditional foam roller, this myofascial tool is textured to help you access more difficult and sticky areas, like your shoulders and hamstrings. I highly recommend it, although it did not make for a very merry Christmas for my poor left hamstring.

THE TAKEAWAY

Looking back, there's a definite theme to all this talk about hamstrings. It's not that we forget about them entirely, but rather our focus is often on something other. We know we shouldn't sit so much, but it's the best way to work at a desk. We know we should train the hamstrings more frequently, but glute-ham raises aren't as fun—or easy—as squats and lunges. We know we should be diligent about stretching and foam-rolling the hamstrings, but, as a client of mine often says, Good God, Gertie—it hurts! Let's face it: your hamstrings lose out to other muscles when it comes to training and prehab importance...much like our dear friend, Mr. Leonardo DiCaprio loses out to other deserving (but perhaps not AS deserving) actors. It's time for this nonsense to stop. It's time to give our hams—and our Leo—they attention they deserve. Help Leo win an Oscar by taking notice of your hamstrings, training them with the same care and attention you devote to your quads, and lovingly spending the necessary time to undo all the yuck we create by sitting all day. The year of Quadriceps McConaughey is over: this is the year of the Hamstring.


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Christye Estes, CSCS, ACSM-CPT, is one of the regular contributors to the Volt blog. She is a CSCS-certified strength coach, a certified personal trainer through the ACSM, and a Sports Performance Specialist at Volt.
Learn more about Christye and read her other posts | @CoachChristye