By Paul Parker BSc(Hons) MSc
The hamstring. Why do they even matter? Evidence suggests that in field based sports, hamstring injury accounts for the highest proportion of soft-tissue related injuries, ranging from minor strains causing a loss of training days, to high grade tears and ruptures, which can lead to a much larger stint on the sidelines.
They are a muscle group that have acquired a fair amount of attention when it comes to current sport/medical research, with relationships between peak force, capacity, fascicle length and architectural structure, all being tied to the likelihood of injury risk, the quality of return to play, and the quality of our sprint performance. And yet, despite holding such a fair chunk of academic attention, I still frequently come across athletes that accept sub-standard support when it comes the attention that I believe they require. As much as we want to bulletproof our hamstrings during our physical preparation to ensure we don’t get injured, we also want to consider the power that a strong and robust pair of hammies has on our athletic performance. There is far far much more to hamstring strength & conditioning, then bolting some nordics on to your prehab sessions, or doing some flossing exercises when they’re feeling tight.
This article hopes to crack open this can of worms and get you thinking about the hows, the whys, and the whats when it comes to bulletproof hamstrings. Strap yourself in, it’s a long one.
What the hell are Hammies and what do they do?
The hamstrings are a muscle group located on the back of the thigh, consisting of three major muscles. The Biceps Femoris (BF), the Semitendinosus (ST) (not a dinosaur), and the Semimembranosus (SM) (also not a dinosaur).
The BF is subject to the largest proportion of hamstring strains, and sits centrally on the back of the leg, attaching on the medial side of the knee. It is mostly activated and utilised during the acceleration phase of sprinting, as well as during the “terminal swing” phase when the knee extends and your foot comes out in front of you prior to ground contact.
The ST is attaches on the opposite side of the knee, and demonstrates the largest lengthening velocities when it comes to muscle action. It’s most activated during max velocity sprinting and during actions that require rapid lengthening of the hamstring under load.
The SM acts predominantly as a force producer and is slightly less superficial than it’s aforementioned partners. It is important in absorbing and generating power in both the swing and the stance phase of sprinting and although it accounts for the lowest proportion of hamstring injuries, it’s role is still crucial when it comes to output.
As a whole, they play a massive role in athletic performance, particularly sprinting and running. They are a key player when it comes to absorbing force in braking tasks, and producing force when it’s time for us to hit the gas. The huge bank of injuries accounted for by our hamstrings just go to show what a huge part they play, with footballers pulling up lame on a weekly basis on our televisions, and rarely an olympic event goes by without an elite trained athlete pulling up wincing on the track, grasping the back of their leg in despair.
It is not only hamstring injury however, we also know that the hamstring plays its part in stabilizing the knee during dynamic movement, particularly in female athletes – and so the need to develop, train, and bulletproof our hamstrings should be key for any of us when it comes to performing on our feet. Alongside all of the following training points, arguably most important, we need to train them to meet the demands of our competition. Whether it’s GAA, Track Events, Football, or Badminton, we constantly condition our body by exposing ourselves in training – however, this article aims to bulk up your toolbox to give you more insight into what to do away from the training pitch and away from the spotlight of your sporting arena.
So how do we train them?
SPEED DEVELOPMENT & SPEED EXPOSURE
More often than not, we see these injuries occur during sprinting actions, and so of course one huge area for us to help aid in bulletproofing our hamstrings, is to develop are sprinting capabilities. This doesn’t just mean sprint all the time… We want to develop efficient and effective running patterns that are not only going to reduce the relative cost of all our running, but are going to aid in bursting through the ceiling of where we’d capped our speed potential. We need to develop appropriate lumbar-pelvic control through our sprinting to minimise unnecessary stress on the hamstrings, and we need to develop a well functioning active pull from toe-off to allow a quality cyclical running pattern – as weak and ineffective hamstrings often lead to unnecessary back-side mechanics, and a long “flick” of the foot after toe-off. This then creates a long leg that the body has to drag back to the front for the next ground strike – creating more stress on hip flexors, and making it nigh on impossible to get to a quality front-side position.
If we do get to a good front side position, then the hamstring acts isometrically to prevent the foot and lower shank from swinging out in front of the knee (the shin reaches a vertical position by the hamstring lengthening, and then requires the hamstring to contract isometrically to hold this position and allow the foot to attack the ground effectively under the hip – poor control here commonly leads to “over-striding” and an early foot-strike)
There’s a taster of the speed question, but I’m not going to delve too much into speed training as a whole, as you can read more about that here.
Former PRPerformance Supported Athlete Luke Hannant
VARYING CONTRACTION SPEEDS
This is absolutely critical during the final phases of a return to play process, as eccentric rate of force development in particular has been shown to be a key player when it comes to minimising re-injury risk.
When it comes to game day on the grass, or out on court, or race day if you’re on the track, then the majority of the competition demands on the hamstring are going to occur at high speeds. This absolutely needs to be reflected in our approach to training and is something that I often think is missed. Nordic curls and their variations absolutely have their value (primarily in my opinion for their changes to the muscle structure architecturally), but what they don’t replicate, is the rate of force development and contraction speed that is required in both concentric, isometric, and eccentric muscle action of sport.
I’d hasten to add that “slow before fast” remains a fairly staple pillar of training progression for new-comers in the weight room, and although there are some pretty hefty examples of progressions that can be made, there are still much more novice friendly alternatives to still develop the ideal adaptation.
The hamstring frequently has to lengthen rapidly under load/tension before either braking isometrically, and/or shortening through concentric action – and this isn’t difficult to replicate in the gym (click here if you want to see some examples that relate to training at various speeds for the hamstring, and here for content pertaining to contraction speed as a whole). If we take the principle of ensuring we train movements, and relevant muscles simultaneously, then it we can break free of the shackles of our traditional RDL’s and Nordics, and instead surf the spectrum of relevant demands to better prepare ourselves for sport. This is absolutely critical during the final phases of a return to play process, as eccentric rate of force development in particular has been shown to be a key player when it comes to minimising re-injury risk.
VARYING CONTRACTION TYPES
I’ve skirted through and around this already, so I’ll keep this brief, but we want to build our tolerance, capacity and ability through all contraction types. This can come in isolation in the first instance, before progressing to a model where we cycle and pair together contraction types as part of a single exercise. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, we can split muscle actions in to three categories: eccentric, isometric, and concentric. And although we can then cut into sub-categories, these generally refer to the lengthening of tissue (eccentric), the static contraction of tissue (isometric), or the action of shortening the tissue (concentric). The impact of training the hamstrings eccentrically, is pretty well accounted for in both the evidence base academically, and amongst practitioners in most weight rooms – nordics, slide board variations, and tempo dictated RDL’s are normally fairly high on the list for most coaches when it comes to hamstring rehab and preparation. Training isometrically and concentrically should of course carry equal, and at times preferential weight. A lot of hamstring issues occur at either the proximal (top) or distal (bottom) end of the tissue, as opposed to just occurring in the muscle belly. At the end of the muscle belly, the muscle attaches to tendon, which in turn attaches to bone and it’s this attachment that ultimately drives movement. Just like the muscle belly, we want to strengthen and bulletproof our tendon structures too. These respond well to isometric actions and loading under tension without muscle lengthening/shortening. The good news about isometric actions is that they come at a relatively low energy and mechanical cost (with muscle damage occurring through the eccentric phase, and larger energy costs associated with concentric action) and they should absolutely be a cornerstone of your training, ensuring that you vary muscle length, and specific demand on the hamstring throughout a spectrum of isometric training.
INCREASE USABLE RANGE
Again, something that I believe is often missed when it comes to hamstring function. I commonly see “strong” hamstrings that can move load through a given range, but lack appropriate and adequate strength and control at more extreme lengths. Use your bicep as an example, you’re strongest in the middle range (elbow at 80-100degrees), but probably considerably weaker when the arm is almost straight, and when the arm is completely bent. The same is true for our hamstring. We want to increase the usable range that we have in the hamstring to best improve the contractile profile and help ensure that we don’t “ping” the hamstring once it’s loaded in more extreme lengths. This characteristic should be developed from two points of view; A) improving control through the use of PAILS, RAILS and ENG variations, in both kneeling (to target the shortest end) and standing/supine (to target the longest end of the curve) positions, and B) Ensuring we load the hamstring in extreme ranges, taking in to account that we need to lengthen and shorten the hamstring “at both ends”. Take a traditional RDL as an example, the hamstring lengthens around the hip as the hip goes into flexion, but remains in the same position at the opposite end with the knee remaining fairly extended, whereas in a nordic hamstring curl, the hamstring lengthens at the knee extends, but remains fairly extended at the hip – assuming appropriate lumbar-pelvic control.
BUILD STRENGTH, BUILD DENSITY
This needs to be a factor in your programming, chase stronger and better functioning hamstrings, then build density.
This one applies to almost all facets of training, and the hamstrings are no different. We don’t constantly need to chase PB’s in the sense of more force, more weight on the bar, more newtons on a NordBord (if you have the luxury). Once we have achieved a good level of strength that is holistic and well supported by all of the principles mentioned here, then we can switch to a more density based model.
I’ll take sprinting as an example, unfortunately, we all have a ceiling of how fast we’re going to be able to run (for most of us, this is untapped!). Unless you’re a track athlete once we reach that ceiling, we can’t just keep running faster until we break the 100m record. It then becomes about building density on that PB. So we can not only do it once, but we can repeatedly hit that higher echelon of performance. The same applies for our hamstrings, not only do we want them to be able to produce/resist/absorb huge forces in a given task – we want them to be able to do so repeatedly, again and again and again, across the course of your match or competition. This needs to be a factor in your programming, chase stronger and better functioning hamstrings, then build density.
ISOLATE & INTEGRATE
Relating back to sprinting, jumping, lunging, kicking, punching or whatever it is you’re doing in your sport, the hamstring does not act alone. It has a whole supporting cast that are going to effectively help transmit force throughout the body in what are referred to as kinetic chains. This should be a consideration, especially in return to play and rehab. The ability to co-contract appropriate groups to reduce muscle slack is key to both minimising injury risk, but also improving performance measures. Ensure you incorporate exercise that require great contributions from the surrounding musculature, in particular the supporting cast covered below – as nordics and seated hamstring curls aren’t going to get you to where you want nor need to be.
THE SUPPORTING CAST
I’ll say it again, the hamstring does not act alone. It relies heavily on lumbar pelvic control, calf function, and foot function in particular to translate it’s effectiveness into something tangible. These absolutely need to be trained and is something that is hugely neglected by a large and alarmingly overwhelming majority of people in their physical preparation.
Lumbar pelvic function in particular, plays a massive part on the position that your hamstrings find themselves in, at rest, when jogging, sprinting, and kicking. And yet, most of us neglect it as a training focus because it isn’t sexy and you’re unlikely to post your new pelvic control PB on instagram… Get proper control of the pelvis in the sagital plane, firstly in isolation, and then through gait specific postures, and the impact on your hamstring health will be evident.
Calf function? Again, often neglected, with some (at best) throwing in some calf raises and eccentrics to round off their program. The calf and the hamstring work in sync when sprinting, and in particular during acceleration from more upright postures associated with field sports, as we project horizontal force by pulling the floor underneath us, to throw the hips into forceful extension and minimise the inteference associated with vertical force during this phase. How to train the two together, work on bridge patterns utilising mid-foot pressure and a perpendicular surface if you’re lying down (a wall or a box). There’s flashes of examples over on our instagram page and this will be covered in more detail further down the line.
Foot function? It’s hard to grasp sometimes but the functionality of our feet is absolutely critical when it comes to the health of almost all of our tissue, the hamstring being no different. If we are unable to find appropriate foot position and pressure, then we are likely to place additional and unnecessary stress on structures further up the chain. An excellent starting point in rehab, but getting a handle on foot function and actively working on improving that relationship between the floor and your feet, can have huge knock on effects to your progress, allowing you to translate more force to the ground, before you even have to worry about getting stronger…
Does this article speak to you? Are you sick of pulling up lame time and time again and grasping the back of your leg in frustration? Then don’t just stop with this article. Put the power in the hands of a professional and reach out to PRPerformance for expert guidance on how to get you back better, stronger, and more robust than ever and wave bye-bye to endless physio consultations and assessments.
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