Ah, the hamstrings. Talk about a popular muscle group.
The hamstrings are important, annoying, and confusing. If you’re reading this, you could very well feel that your hamstrings are “tight” right now. It’s also possible that you’ve suffered some type of hamstring strain throughout your athletic career. It’s also possible that you don’t train your hamstrings as much as you should or as optimally as you should.
Three specific muscles make up the hamstrings. The biceps femoris (which has a long head and a short head), the semitendinosus, and the semimembranosus. They really are like strings on the back of your thighs. They are also powerful as hell, and that is precisely why you should to train them frequently.
This post is not meant to cover any universally accepted method for hamstring training. This is simply a brief overview of why the hamstrings are important and what I believe are some of the best movements to train them with.
Hip extension and knee flexion are the two primary responsibilities of the hamstrings.
Hip extension occurs when you go from bending over at the waist to standing straight up.
Knee flexion occurs when you kick your butt with your heels.
During hip extension exercises your hamstrings are stretched under load (think about the bottom of an RDL). You then use them to lift your upper body upward and move your hips through the air horizontally. Any exercise that targets hip extension under load will train your hamstrings to handle large eccentric forces and to maintain protective tension.
During knee flexion exercises your hamstrings are working through a shortened range of motion (think about a machine leg curl). You are flexing and extending at the knee, but the hamstrings are not actually resisting much eccentric force. Exercises that focus on knee flexion under load will train the concentric action of the muscles more effectively. The loads used during these exercises will be much lighter.
Training the hamstrings through both hip extension and knee flexion is a great way to build strength through a full range of motion.
The hamstrings are especially involved in resisting massive eccentric forces. Every time you take a step your hamstrings must contract to counteract the rapid lengthening of the muscle.
This action is more extreme when bounding or sprinting. As most of us know, it’s very easy to strain a hammy when we’re running at full speed. Training your hamstrings to handle huge eccentric loads can effectively reduce your chance of straining anything while also helping to stabilize the knee joint.
In order to train your hamstrings optimally you must be able to perform a proper hip hinge. There are plenty of cues to help explain the movement.
- Athletic stance
- Toes pointed out slightly
- Slight knee bend
- Butt back
- Neutral spine
- Ribcage locked down to pelvis
- Double chin
There are quite a few ways to learn to hinge properly, but my favorite exercises for it are the pull through and kettlebell swing.
The pull through done with a cable and rope attachment or a resistance band really forces you to sit back and “load up” the hamstrings. If you don’t dig your heels into the ground and get your butt back, the loading implement is probably going to pull you backwards.
The kettlebell swing is slightly harder to learn than the pull through and offers a much different training stimulus. I like to describe the swing as a loaded bow and arrow being shot off repeatedly. As you sit back into the hinge, the tension on the strings gradually increases before one massive contraction rapidly propels your hips forward. This is similar to pulling back on a bow and arrow and releasing it once a desired amount of tension has been reached.
During both exercises, it’s a good idea to finish each rep with a big glute squeeze. Think about bringing the hips through as if you were humping the air. If you’re recruiting your butt effectively it should take you into slight hip hyperextension and posterior pelvic tilt.
There is no best exercise to hit the hamstrings, but in my experience it’s pretty tough to beat a properly executed romanian deadlift (RDL).
You can load it heavy, it’s easier to learn than a conventional deadlift, and it absolutely murders the posterior chain. There are a few pointers to keep in mind:
- Engage the lats by pulling the bar back into your body and keeping it close the whole time
- Imagine that you’re trying to touch the wall behind you with your butt
- Finish with the glutes by humping the bar
Check out some band resisted RDL’s here focusing on maximum bar acceleration for speed development.
The RDL doesn’t have to be done with a barbell either. If you’re new to the movement it will be easier to start with dumbbells or kettlebells held at the sides.
Another one of my favorites is the glute-ham raise (GHR). It is an advanced exercise that puts more emphasis on knee flexion than hip extension, provided that you keep the body in a straight line throughout each rep.
GHR’s can be loaded with a weight vest or by placing a band around your neck.
I usually train RDL’s in a 4-8 rep range and GHR’s in a 10-15 range, but that’s just me. You can certainly take RDL’s for higher reps or load up GHR’s and go for lower reps.
In fact, a couple of weeks ago I did just one all-out set of RDL’s on a lower body day to switch things up a bit. I was ready for a challenge that day and went with 225 pounds for 20 reps with a double overhand grip and no straps. It was brutal but it was a nice change of pace from my normal tendencies.
A few more things to consider before I wrap this up.
- Soft tissue work – Hamstrings get sore very easily. When things are sore we tend to stretch them with the hopes of alleviating some of the DOMS. It sounds good in theory, but it doesn’t seem to actually do much at all in terms of recovery. Foam rolling the hamstrings feels good, but a standard foam roller will have a tough time putting enough pressure on the muscles, especially if you’re experienced with self-massage. I personally use a PVC pipe or the stick from perform better to work on my hamstrings.
- Stretching – No evidence to back this one up, but throughout my experiences I’ve observed that stretching the hamstrings is somewhat overrated. I’m not going to tell you you shouldn’t stretch them ever, but just don’t go overboard with it. The “tightness” you feel might actually be a good thing and it’s there for a reason. Personally, I like to do a couple of quick hamstring stretches before a workout just to expose myself to the extreme ranges of motion that I’ll be encountering during the workout. You won’t find me holding the stretches for long periods of time, however, as I don’t see much benefit coming from that for myself or most other people.
- Aesthetics – Well developed hamstrings look great. If you train them consistently and intelligently they will even out relationship between quad size and hamstring size, giving your thighs some good shape and definition.
- Hamstring curls before squats? – This is something I actually haven’t tried yet, but I could see it being beneficial. I’ve heard of quite a few lifters experimenting with it and seeing good results. John Meadows wrote an article for T-Nation about it HERE.
So there ya have it. If you’ve been neglecting your hamstrings, stop it right now. Spend some more time addressing your posterior chain strength and good things will always result. Have fun!