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Hamstring Training

Hamstring training is not usually a top priority at the gym but you certainly do not want to overlook them.

Tall; broad shoulders; ripped abs; bulging hamstrings and nice eyes – which of these stands out as being something a women wouldn’t be looking for in a man? Let’s just say that nice hamstrings aren’t at the top of peoples “sexy” lists. People just don’t really care.

Since the hamstrings get overshadowed by the abs, arms, chest, and about 10 other body parts by those who are training for aesthetics – they’re very undeveloped on most people. Heck, even professional athletes have underdeveloped hamstrings in relation to other body parts.

This imbalance is actually seen quite frequently when athletes are sprinting. When an injury does occur while running at high speeds, most of the time you’ll see the athlete slow down, scream in pain, hop on one foot and grab the back of their leg.

The reason this happens is because the hamstrings are typically weak compared to the quadriceps. When there’s a strength imbalance between opposing muscle groups, you’re more likely to sustain an injury – to the weaker muscle that is.

Like all the other muscle groups, it’s best to review the anatomy of the targeted muscles so you can implement the appropriate exercises. Here’s a brief breakdown of the anatomy of the hamstrings..

Hamstring Anatomy Breakdown

The hamstrings consist of 2 different muscles. Here they are..

Biceps Femoris

Not to be confused with the biceps brachii – which is located on the upper arm – the biceps femoris is located on the back of your upper leg (the lateral aspect) and it consists of both a short and a long head. The long head of the hamstrings crosses two joints – the hip and the knee. Since it crosses both joints, it’s involved in both knee flexion (hamstring curls) and hip extension (straight leg deadlifts) movements.

Semitendinosus and Semimembranosus

Not that you’ll ever remember these names but the S&S (let’s keep it simple) make up the medial aspect of the hamstring muscle group. They each cross both the knee joint and the hip joint and because of that, they also help to flex the knee and extend the hip. The only difference in terms of function between the biceps femoris and the “S&S” is that the biceps femoris rotates the leg outwards (toes pointed out) and the S&S rotates the leg inwards.

The hamstrings naturally have a higher distribution of fast twitch fibers than other muscle groups. Fast twitch muscle fibers are best suited for strength and power while slow twitch fibers are best suited for endurance. Using heavier loads and keeping your reps under 10 is a good way to get a response from these fast twitch fibers.

The hamstrings have a high distribution of "fast twitch" muscle fibers

The hamstrings have a high distribution of fast twitch muscle fibers

Muscle Fiber Distribution of the Hamstrings

Emphasizing eccentric contractions is another great way to exhaust the fast twitch fibers. An eccentric contraction is when the muscle is lengthening against resistance. So, when performing hamstring curls, it’s when your legs are being straightened.

While the hamstrings respond best to heavy loads, it’s sort of a catch 22 because the hamstrings are also more susceptible to injury than other muscle groups. This is due to the fact that they have a higher distribution of nerve end plates which makes them more sensitive.

That being said, just make sure you take your time and progress slowly when training the hamstrings. The last thing you want to do is injure yourself and be unable to train. And speaking of training..

Hamstring Training Techniques

The principal of specificity states that you exercise selection should always mimic both your goals and function of the targeted muscles. The hamstrings – as discussed above – work to flex the knee and extend the hip. Therefore, the exercises that train the hamstrings are yup, you guessed it – exercises that flex the knee and extend the hip.

Good hip extension exercises are straight leg deadlifts, good mornings and back extensions. As for knee flexion movements, performing hamstring curls – either while lying down or standing up – is your best bet. When you’re performing the hamstring curl exercises, you can specifically target certain muscles by altering your foot position.

Rotating the feet inward will draw more recruitment from the medial portion of the hamstrings (Semimembranosus & Semitendinosus)

Rotating the feet inward will draw more recruitment from the medial portion of the hamstrings (Semimembranosus & Semitendinosus)

Rotating the feet outwards will draw more recruitment from the lateral portion of the hamstrings (Biceps Femoris).

Rotating the feet outwards will draw more recruitment from the lateral portion of the hamstrings (Biceps Femoris).

When performing hamstring curls, you can also vary the difficulty by altering your foot position. As discussed in the calf training article, the gastrocnemius – which is the strongest muscle within the calves – has an attachment point above the knee. Because of that, it plays a minor role in flexing the leg. The calf training article also mentions the fact that the gastrocnemius is stronger when it’s in a stretched position.

To stretch out the gastrocnemius, you just need to point your toe upwards. Now, here’s where you can apply that info. Knowing that the gastrocnemius helps to flex the leg and that it’s strongest when in a stretched position, you can alter your foot position when performing hamstring curls. Check it out..

Pointing the toes will minimize the recruitment of the calves

Pointing the toes will minimize the recruitment of the calves

Drawing the toes up towards your knees will recruit the calves to help flex the legs.

Drawing the toes up towards your knees will recruit the calves to help flex the legs.

You can use this to your advantage a couple different ways. The first way is as follows ..

  • Perform as many repetitions as you can with your toes pointed down (this is harder).
  • Once you fatigue, point your toes upwards and continue for a few more repetitions.

Why it works? Pointing your toes upwards will draw additional recruitment from the gastrocnemius – which will help to flex the leg. This will further exhaust the hamstrings – which will lead to better results.

The second way you can use the technique to your advantage is by switching your foot position during each phase of the individual repetitions. For example..

  • Point your toes upwards as you flex (bend) your leg.
  • As you extend (straighten) your leg, you point your toes downwards.

Why it works? The strength potential of our muscles is greater as they are lengthening against resistance as opposed to shortening against resistance. The technical terms for these contractions are “eccentric” and “concentric”.

For this particular method, you’re going to activate your gastrocnemius during the concentric (hamstring shortening) portion of the movement since this phase of the movement is more difficult than the “eccentric” (lengthening phase).

The technique is called “variable resistance” and it’s a great way to get the most out of each repetition. By altering your foot position, you’ll be making each phase of the movement more challenging and thus, you’ll get more out of each and every repetition.

Another good technique that can be applied is to perform the movement using one leg at a time. Studies have shown that even athletes develop strength differences between the hamstrings by as much as 20 percent. Individually isolating each leg is a great way to avoid (and correct) these strength inbalances. Performing single leg repetitions has also been shown to be an effective method to increase the neural drive to the muscle.

Hamstring Flexibility

Hamstring flexibility – as with pretty much every other muscle group – is extremely important and certainly should not be overlooked. As I’m sure you already know, the musculature of the human body functions together as a “kinetic chain”. A “weak link” in the chain will carry over and effect the functionality of your other muscles.

The saying “for every action there’s a reaction” certainly holds true in reference to our kinetic chain. If you neglect your stretches and your hamstrings tighten up, low back pain may follow due to the attachment of the hamstrings on the pelvis. The awkward pull on the pelvis created by the tight hamstrings transfers to the erectai spinai (low back muscle) which also attaches on the pelvis.

Of course, this can all be avoided with some gentle stretching following your leg workouts – don’t be lazy and don’t forget! Now here’s where it gets interesting..

You can actually increase the efficiency of the hamstrings by stretching the quadriceps in between sets. Stretching the quadriceps will help them relax and since they oppose the hamstrings, this will help reduce their inhibitory response – which allows you to get a better workout.

And a last note on hamstring flexibility, the hamstrings are shown to be at their strongest when in a position that creates a stretch at both the hip and the knee joint. Most modern designs of the lying leg curl machine are angled to accomplish this and deliver an optimal training experience.

So there you have it. Now review some of the exercises within the navigation panel to your right and start implementing them into your workouts.