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All About Hamstrings

I know you’ve heard all the rumors. I’m sure I’ve heard every rumor about hamstrings that there is. They’re the most important muscle in squats, deadlifts, bench press, and seated rows. They’re the most important muscle in sprinting and running in general. Training the hamstrings in knee flexion is super important. Also, you need big hamstrings to squat big. But don’t forget to train them with RDLs. RDLs are the best hamstrings exercise.

But then you hear all this stuff about training the glutes, quads, adductors, and calves too and pretty soon each of your leg days is 12 exercises long and it takes your two hours.

But I’m here to solve your problems for you.

What Are The Hamstrings?

Quick visual of the hamstrings.

The hamstrings are actually a combination of 3 muscles that run from the hip, behind the knee, and to the tibia and fibula. Since they originate at the pelvis and insert all the way down beyond the knee, the hamstrings end up playing a key role in stabilization of the entire region. (Disclaimer: I’m probably also going to mention the adductor magnus at some point.)

As most of you well know, the hamstrings drive knee flexion and oppose the quadriceps as knee extensors. This is important in sprinting, where the hamstrings primary job is not to flex the knees, but to decelerate knee extension as the leg swings forward.

Additionally, the hamstrings group is one of the main hip extensors (along with the gluteals and, to some extent, the adductors). And not only do they contribute to the rotation of the hip on the sacrum, but they also contribute to  medial and lateral rotation of the leg at the knee!

Interestingly enough, Bret Contreras posted a good article the other day about the hamstrings being fast-twitch dominant and it pretty much plays right into where I was going next in this post. You should go read the whole thing, but the big part I wanted to pick out was the statistic on fast-twitch muscle fibers, citing various studies as saying that the hamstrings are 43-67% fast-twitch dominant (making them not fast-twitch dominant).

This is important because it appears that muscles that aren’t fast-twitch dominant take on more of a postural function, whereas muscles that are fast-twitch dominant seem to really control our movements. (This isn’t that important, but the theory certainly helps explain why people with an anterior pelvic tilt have “tight” hamstrings . They’re simply trying to pull you out of APT, preventing damage to the spine and other tissues.)

Anyway, that’s about all you need to know about the hamstrings. This article is about training them.

Three-Dimensional Hamstring Training

So, by now you’re probably wondering where I’m going with this post. You’ve probably predicted that I’m going to take either the hip extension route or the knee flexion route and that if we just hammer one piece of the hamstrings functionality, our hamstrings will grow like Jack’s beanstalk.

A nice children’s story about the merits of stealing.

But that’s not where this is going. I’m going to tell you that not only are the hamstrings important in those sagittal plane movements, but also in transverse plane movements (like internal and external rotation of the lower leg in relation to the femur).

So from here, I’m going to suggest three different ways to annihilate the hamstrings and optimize their functionality!

Hip Extension

There are two distinct ways in which we work the hamstrings and enhance their functionality in the sagittal plane. First, we work the hamstrings with hip extension exercises like deadlifts, single-leg stiff-legged deadlifts (SL RDL, as some of you may know it), kettlebell swings, and Olympic variations like power cleans.

Furthermore, our sprinting and jumping works the hamstrings through full-range hip extension. In my opinion, you should be choosing one hip extension exercise for each station of the speed-strength continuum. This might include sprinting, Olympic work, speed deads, and deadlifts for speed, speed-strength, strength-speed, and strength, respectively.

Or you could throw the Oly lifts under “power,” right in the middle.

Regardless of how you set it up, hip extension is one of the basics of athletic development and it’s important that you do it, not only to become a badass athlete, but to fully develop the hamstrings as they were meant to be used.

However, the hamstrings also have an important postural function in the sagittal plane: preventing anterior pelvic tilt.  So how can we address this? Well, make sure our abdominals and glutes are strong, our hip flexors aren’t too tight, and we aren’t walking like Donald Duck. This will leave the hamstrings at a more optimal length for functioning as stabilizers instead of constantly attempting to neutralize our posture.

Chest out, butt out, toes out.

Knee Flexion

Knee flexion is probably the most popular idea when it comes to hamstrings functionality. The lying leg-curl machine is a staple in many bodybuilding programs and machine-training circuits everywhere.

However, probably the truest example of knee flexion is when the hamstrings function to decelerate knee extension on the forward leg swing during gait (walking, running, or sprinting).

In fact, the lying leg-curl machine really isn’t truly functional because it doesn’t take into account the fact that the hamstrings must act upon the pelvis and leg at the same time. A lying leg-curl only assumes movement at the knee.

To truly functionalize the leg-curl, we should perform them on Valslides, exercise balls, or some other similar object that allows us to flex the knee while maintaining extension at the hip. That also means that performing Valslide leg curls while your butt stays firmly planted on the ground will probably have minimal carryover to actual hamstrings function.

Try performing eccentric-only leg-curls. Especially in the case of athletes, this will better simulate the action of the hamstrings during running/sprinting. Additionally, it will allow for slightly greater loading than the concentric version.

Frontal/Transverse Plane Motion

The other piece of hamstring development is their role in the frontal/transverse plane. Although rotation of the lower leg is traditionally thought of in isolation, it means that the hamstrings play a crucial part in single-leg movements, a role typically given only to the glutes.

When our foot is planted on the ground, such as in Bulgarian split-squat, the lateral hamstrings (biceps femoris and “4th” hamstring, adductor magnus) are tasked with assisting in stabilizing the knee by preventing valgus stress.

Therefore, we can conclude that to optimize hamstring function, we must include single-leg work to make sure that we’re addressing the hamstrings in the transverse plane.

Conclusion

There really isn’t much new here. It pretty much builds on other posts I’ve made about lower body training. We must include hip extension, knee flexion, and single leg exercises in order to optimize our hamstring function. Because not only do we care about hamstring development, but we also care about our hamstrings as rotators and their function in posture.

If we add in a squatting exercise and some kind of anterior/rotational core exercise, we pretty much arrive at a full leg day. It might look like this:

  1. Max effort – front squat
  2. Split squat
  3. RDL
  4. Plank
  5. Valslide leg curls

That will pretty much hammer every muscle in the lower body. Add in some calf work for vanity’s sake.

Furthermore, the hamstrings are a largely postural muscle group, meaning that they work overtime correcting your pelvic position whenever your posture is off. You can help correct this by not sitting so much, doing some dedicated mobility/soft tissue work, and not standing like Donald Duck.

To truly optimize hamstring function, we must first understand how the hamstrings function. They function as hip extensors, knee flexors, and rotators of the lower leg, making them one of the greatest stabilizers of the lower body. And of course, the hamstrings also play a key role in stabilizing the pelvis to prevent sagittal and transverse rotation.

So that’s about it. Watch your posture. Train your hamstrings from multiple angles. And don’t take candy from strangers. This should all ensure that you develop your hamstrings in all of their hamstring-y glory.

Also, read this article about tight hamstrings.

What good is a post about hamstrings without a picture of ham?

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