Hamstring Strengthening

Well folks it’s around that time of year again where thanksgiving is approaching and with it, high school football teams around the country are getting ready to battle on turkey day.  In order for these athletes to perform at their best it is the responsibility of the coach to make sure these athletes undergo proper hamstring strengthening and preparation for their sport

But how?

Well as much as I hate to admit it, it is certainly not an overnight miracle.  This should be of no surprise. 

The real kicker is most of the training programs out there designed to promote hamstring strengthening and prevent hamstring injuries are not getting the job done, or are flat out wrong.

In this post it is my goal to bring to light the proper workings of the hamstrings, how these injuries occur in the first place and how to prevent them. 

Anatomy And Function Of The Hamstrings

The hamstrings originate at the base of the hip girdle (ishium) and they attach on the upper bottom (superior-posterior for you anatomy geeks) part of the tibia.  They consist of three muscles: semitendinosus, semimembranosus and Biceps Femoris.

Hamstring Anatomy 

Together, these three muscles are mainly responsible for KNEE FLEXION and HIP EXTENSION

*Note* There are other functions that the hamstrings perform, but for the sake of space and relevancy, I have decided to omit those in order to give the reader the best experience possible.

How Function (or lack thereof) Leads To Injury

Hamstring injury is one of the most common, but also elusive injuries to date that have still somehow managed to prevent a total treatment and definitive rehabilitation program. 

According to Hui et al. in the Journal of Sport and Health Science, the proposed leading cause of hamstring injuries occurs during eccentric contractions and during very high/fast muscle contractions (2012).  This type of movement occurs during very high speed/near maximal speed running.

Sprinting

There are many proposed theoretical “risk factors” as to how this occurs.  Some include bilateral imbalances, fatigue, poor flexibility and poor hamstring strengthening.

So with that said we will be dealing with the hamstring strengthening issue in this post.  The other issues will probably require a post in and of themselves.  (Probably going to happen in the near future)

For more information on the high speed muscle contractions, I highly recommend you check out the awesome work done by Henk Kraaijenhof.

So let’s get to the strengthening!

Hamstring Strengthening

The hamstrings are a huge muscle group that are vastly undertrained by many athletes and fitness gurus alike.  As mentioned earlier the hamstrings perform BOTH knee flexion and hip extension.  However it seems as if most coaches/trainers have forgotten about one of those functions.

Most exercises you read about online when you google “hamstring exercises” have to deal with knee flexion.

Hamstring Stretching

Hip extension has been unfairly neglected!

WHY!?

The answer is simple, training the hip extension function of the hamstrings is tough.  Not that hip extension itself is difficult, but proper hip extension is difficult. 

What Is Proper Hip Extension?

**Proper hip extension involves a straightening of the hips with a completely neutral spine and full lockout of the hips.**       

Ok, but what does that mean exactly?

It means having a complete lockout of the hips without having any compensation in the lower back or hamstrings.

The typical example of somebody with poor hip extension is the person who has an overarched lower back with a pelvis stuck in anterior pelvic tilt.

Repetitive use of this faulty movement pattern can lead to serious injury in the lower back and hamstrings.  In order to correct this movement pattern we have to train another muscle group that is just as neglected as the hamstrings. 

THE GLUTES!

How The Glutes Play Into Hamstring Strengthening

  • The glutes are the muscle group that is primarily responsible for extending the hips.  Although I mentioned the hamstrings also extend the hips, the glutes should be the major movers. 
  • If the glutes are not functioning properly, then the hamstrings will have to attempt to takeover this function with the lower back.  Thus, over-stressing the muscle.
  • The glutes need to be trained, conditioned and have the proper motor patterns in order to work correctly and prevent any symptoms of pain from occurring.     

**Note** I have written several posts on lower back pain, lower back strengthening and glute training, I highly recommend you give them a read as I have mentioned the glutes in every one of these posts.

Post Glute Therapy

With the glutes re-animated, the real work of hamstring strengthening can officially begin. 

If we recall from earlier sections, the weakest function of the hamstrings is hip extension.  We also learned that the glutes need to be functioning properly.  Once this is the case, the hamstrings and glutes need to learn to work together in order to accomplish effective hip extention. 

Whatever you take from this post, do not let the muscles of the body behave like congress.  Congress is divided, constantly argues, gets nothing done and in the end wonders why their approval ratings are at an all time low.

Eventually there must be a consensus between individuals and muscles as well!

Selection Of Proper Exercises

Once you have made it this far, you have gotten the hardest work done.  Now you just have to maintain your progress and to prevent the problem from ever happening again. 

How do you do that?

With special exercises of course…

These are no ordinary pretty boy hamstring exercises.  These exercises will dramatically improve hamstring strengthening. 

As a bonus, they will also work the hips and lower back as well, which will add mass and strength to those areas too. 

Special Exercises

Now before we begin, I have to address that these are not isolation exercises but are compound multi-joint exercises.  These exercises are not as simple as lying on a bench and performing leg curls (See Next Section For That).  These exercises will help to train the hamstrings for hip extension.

BE SURE TO ACTIVATE AND WARM UP THE GLUTES PRIOR TO ANY OF THESE EXERCISES!

Remember, the goal here is not isolation, but function.  We are trying to get our bodies to work the way they are supposed to work, not in isolation.   

Glute-Ham Raise

The glute-ham raise (GHR) is at the top of my list because I love it so much.  Aside from saving my knees from knee pain and adding pounds to my squat and deadlift, this exercise has worked wonders to increase my overall athleticism. 

GHRs focus on curling up your entire bodyweight using your legs!  Think of them as a pull-up for the lower body. 

The key thing to remember with the GHR is to make sure the hips are in extension throughout the movement up to the point where you are forced into hip flexion.  This will all vary depending on where you set the foot plate

The secret to accomplish this is to squeeze the glutes as hard as possible throughout the movement.  This ensures effective hamstring strengthening with glute and back work.         

Reverse Hyperextension

Reverse hypers are good not only for the hamstrings but they are also great for lower back health.  I could write a whole article on the reverse hyper machine itself. 

But for the purpose of the hamstrings, they have a special quality.  They allow for a rapid ballistic contraction which will really aid in the prevention of strains.

To do this you will need a machine with the roller attachment on the end so you can lock your feet in.  Then perform rapid hamstring curls for as many reps as possible.  You’re welcome!

Band Pull Throughs

A neat little trick I keep hidden up my sleeve.  Regardless of what type of gym you go to you can take this one with you.  All you need is a heavy resistance band. 

Take a band and wrap it around a sturdy object.  Put the band between your legs and walk forward until you get some resistance.  Then angle the feet outwards (toes out) and screw your feet into the ground (If you don’t know what this means, it is the first step in my deadlift post). 

Now fold at the hips (not knees) and push your butt back until your chest is parallel to the floor.  Now contract the glutes and push your hips forward.  It is like a brutal super gravity version of a kettlebell swing. 

Romanian Deadlifts

A classic strength exercise.  Try to keep your weight on your heels and push your butt back.  Lower only to mid-shin (just below knees) and then stand back up. 

Treat this like any other deadlift, full setup and everything.  If you don’t you are more likely to get injured.  Romanian deadlifts are a terrific assistance exercise for the regular deadlift as well as an awesome hamstring strengthening technique.   

Dimel Deadlifts And Box Deadlifts

I lumped these two together because they are both versions of the Romanian deadlift.  The Dimel deadlift is a rapid fire ballistic version of the RDL for 15-20 reps.  I find this helpful for joint mobility as with each rep you tend to get more range of motion.

The box deadlift is a slower version of the RDL.  You place a box behind your shins and you have to make sure you don’t move the box when you perform this exercise.  This places all of the tension on your hips (especially hamstrings). 

**note** For both of these exercises you want to go LIGHT!  Around 40-50% of 1RM should suffice.  Don’t be a showboat!   

GPP For The Hamstrings

GPP stands for General Physical Preparedness, a form of conditioning for sports training.  Like any other muscle the hamstrings need to have a baseline of conditioning in order to not get injured.

Hamstring Strengthening GPP 

The following exercises are much simpler and less load bearing than the previous section.  However, they are still highly effective for increasing fitness and preventing injury.  Perform at least one of these everyday for hi reps!

Hamstring Curls

Hamstring curls are probably what most people think of in regards to hamstring training.  The only difference is this is not done on a machine.  You can sit on a box and loop a resistance band around your ankles.  Or you can lie down in the prone position with a band as well.  Then just start curling. 

Another effective way to perform this exercise is to attach 10-20 lb ankle weights to your ankles and lie down to perform curls (my personal favorite).

Keep the reps high (~200) and work up to doing them everyday.    

Band Lockout Hip Extension

Another great exercise is to loop a band around a pull-up bar and to perform straight leg hip extension.  Loop a band around your foot and drive your leg straight down into the ground.  Come back up SLOWLY and repeat for reps.

This will not only build some strength for the hamstrings, but it will also develop eccentric strength and also increase flexibility.  A quick win for everybody!

Nordic Curls (Poor Man’s Glute-Ham Raise)

This is the toughest exercise on this list, but it is not as fatiguing as a traditional GHR.  This is due to the fact that You can only go down to about 90 degrees.  Otherwise you will face-plant.

You will need to pin your feet under some piece of equipment or purchase a small device.  The one I have used is from CAP Barbell and you can find it HERE.  It cost around 20 bucks, but it was well worth it. 

The reps will have to stay lower on this one compared to the others.  But you will build an unbelievable level of conditioning for your hamstrings with this exercise.     

Swiss Ball Hamstring Kicks

I don’t really know if anybody has named this exercise, but putting names aside, this is a killer hamstring exercise.  Not only will this exercise condition the hamstrings, but it will also develop the rapid concentric/eccentric motor pattern common to sprinters who strain their hamstrings at max speed.

To perform this, simply take a swill ball and sit on top of it while holding onto a wall.  Then elevate your feet and kick your heels against the ball as fast as possible for as many reps as possible.  This will train the hamstrings for the rapid contractions necessary in max speed running. 

Just doing this for 20-30 seconds will make your hamstrings unusually sore. 

Final Thoughts

The importance of hamstring training is often neglected by many fitness professionals, trainers and coaches alike.  Obviously throughout this post we have come to realize that hamstring training is of vital importance to EVERYBODY who takes their health and performance seriously. 

Simply searching for a few random exercises online does not suffice.  You need to have a smarter approach.  The real secret to victory and success is the amount of caution and planning that you put into your training.  Showing up is surely the road to defeat. 

“The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.”

-Sun Tzu    The Art Of War


Tony G
Tony G

Anthony is a fan of all things gym related. Growing up very overweight and out of shape, Anthony whipped himself into shape and stunned his entire community becoming a "fitness guru". Tony then set his sights on strength sports (Weightlifting/Powerlifting/Strongman) and learned all about body mechanics, mobility work and injury prevention. Tony found his true love in the strength sports, particularly Olympic Weightlifting. He earned a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree from Fitchburg State University in Exercise and Sports Science. He is also a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the NSCA.

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