SAVE THE HAMSTRINGS
HOW TO KEEP YOUR HAMSTRINGS STRONG, FLEXIBLE, AND ACTIVE TO PREVENT INJURIES AND IMPROVE ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE
When it comes to hamstrings people usually fall into two categories: the ones who believe their hamstrings are too tight, or the ones who think they do not even have muscles in the back of their thighs. Regardless of what category you fall in, it can be frustrating constantly feeling weak in this area and not knowing what to do to improve your conditions. It is estimated our leg muscles spend 7.5 of their daily life inactive (Tikkanen, 2013), increasing our risk of weakness, chronic pain, and future injuries. Now, these can be scary news, but you are not alone! As common as this phenomenon is there are simple things you can do to regain strength in your hamstrings. Below are some easy tips to keep your hamstrings strong, flexible, and active to avoid compensation patterns and prevent you from injuries in your athletic life.
WHY ARE THE HAMSTRINGS SO IMPORTANT?
Inactive or shortened hamstrings may lead to postural deficiencies and deformities. Today hamstring strains account for 12-16% of all injuries in athletes (Moghaddam, 2016). Tight hamstrings can also create tension at its attachment on your pelvis requiring your back muscles to do more work, ultimately resulting in back pain, pelvis instability and knee discomfort.
These long and powerful muscles are responsible for knee flexion and hip extension, both fundamental movements of everyday life and athletic performance such as walking, running, weightlifting, etc. In addition, the hamstrings are key decelerators helping you land from a jump or make a fast change of direction. Even if you don’t find yourself jumping around in your day to day the hamstrings are still active when you have to go downstairs or jump on a bus.
It is important to understand the anatomy to better appreciate the role of the hamstrings. The hamstrings consist of three muscles. They all originate at the ischial tuberosity (sit bones), cross the knee joint, and attach to the tibia or fibula (calf bones). In a standing position, the hamstrings and glutes act to tilt your pelvis backward while the quadriceps and the hip flexors act to balance the hamstring by tilting the pelvis forward. In today’s world, most athletes have overactive hip flexors and quads and underdeveloped hamstrings and glutes (due to sitting for so long), resulting in an imbalance.
HOW DO I KNOW IF MY HAMSTRINGS ARE TOO TIGHT AND WEAK?
The best way to measure your hamstring strength and check if they are active is to see a professional. But self-assessment can be very helpful in telling you if your hamstrings are shortened or not.
Here is a great way to test if your hamstrings are tight.
Active Leg Extension Test:
1. Lay on your back on a flat surface
2. Flex your feet together and straighten your legs out
3. Lift one leg as far as it can while still keeping both legs straight and your hips down
Tip - Download a level app like "iHandy Level App". place your phone in line with your kneecap and thigh, and let iHandy Level tell you what angle of extension you are at (this will only work if your knee is straight)
Diagnosis: If the angle is less than 70-degrees you most likely have tight hamstrings.
What if my legs go past 90-degrees? Bendy you!
WHEN HAMSTRINGS ARE TOO LONG
If you passed the test above you have a great range of motion (ROM), but with more length comes more responsibility! If you have long hamstrings you might be prone to tight hip flexors and weak core muscles causing a forward pelvic tilt that will put a lot of pressure on your lower back! Ouch! Another thing that can happen with overlengthened weak hamstrings is lack of stability on your pelvis leading to chronic pain and compensation patterns. When the body is most efficient, you are able to have a healthy ROM and be strong within that ROM.
IS THE PROBLEM REALLY ALL IN MY HAMSTRINGS?
Just because you cannot touch your toes it does not mean the hamstrings are all at fault.
1. Tight calves – when was the last time you foam roll your calves? Your main calf muscles (gastrocnemius) cross your knee joint and might be preventing you from keeping your knees straight
2. Weak hip extensors and abductors – weak glutes are ineffective glutes. If it is weak, increase flexibility in that area and strengthen the Gluteus Medius, Piriformis, Gluteus Max to have a balanced pelvis
3. Restrictive joints – sometimes the issue is not with the muscles around the joint, but inside the joint. You might feel ankle or knee pain, but the root of the pain might be in your spine. Performing exercises to lengthen and free up the spine can help increase motion down the legs without even having to stretch them.
5 TIPS TO ADDRESS TIGHT HAMSTRINGS
These tips can really apply to any muscle group, but it is especially true for the hamstrings. Use these 5 moves during your warm up or cool down to increase the range of motion in your hamstrings.
1. Ease into it– many people tend to stretch past the point still hoping that by forcing the movement their muscles will magically gain inches of length. In fact, the opposite is true. Stretching too forcefully or too quickly causes your muscles to tense up. This is because of a natural automatic reflex and regulation of the muscle spindle and increased nervous system activity. Instead, do this:
a. Focus on steady inhalations and exhalations through your nostrils so you can activate your parasympathetic nervous system in (it helps your body to relax)
b. Move slowly in an out of the stretch several times to warm up your muscles
c. For every 2-3 repetitions hold the stretch a little bit longer. After a minute, you will see progress and feel less strain than before. It is that simple!
2. Bend your knees to start – it is ok to bend your knees, there I said it! As a personal trainer and yoga instructor, I cannot say this enough! Ever since I have learned this was a better way I have found more ease and flexibility. If your hips, calves, or hamstrings are tight, you might not be able to properly stretch your hamstrings unless you bend your knees. Bending your knees in a forward fold allows you to keep your back straight which allows you to actually stretch your hamstrings instead of putting excessive load on your lumbar spine.
3. Stretch anything and everything around the hamstrings – as I mentioned earlier, addressing function in other areas (lower back, glutes, and calves) will facilitate an increase in hamstring ROM.
4. Stretch before and ESPECIALLY AFTER physical activity – do you find yourself skipping your warm up or cool down? Warm-ups are indeed very important in prepping the musculature for physical movement, and you should focus on dynamic stretches (moving in and out of the stretch, as mentioned in step 1) to get your muscles loose and ready to move. But it is during the cool down that researchers have found the most benefit for flexibility gain and muscular rehabilitation. Passive stretching is more indicated during the post-effort recovery period because it aids recovery of ROM, the drainage of metabolic waste products (primary recovery), and the recovery and normalization of tone 2 hours post-exercise (deep recovery) (Pacheco, 2016).
5. Move dynamically – you may get excited about your greater range of motion after a deep stretch session, just to realize the next day everything is gone and tight! Gaining and losing ROM can be frustrating, and can feel like a setback. In order to retain ROM, you need to be active in that new range! That involves performing dynamic movements within that new ROM, such as deep squatting, leg swings, deadlifts, and full range jumps.
5 TIPS TO STRENGTHEN THE HAMSTRINGS
1. Work on mobility – Do steps 1-5 above regularly and you will see a dramatic change in your flexibility
2. Keep moving – the main reason we have tight or inactive hamstrings is that we do not use them ENOUGH during our day. A one-hour workout session a day is no match for the other 23 hours of inactivity. Thus, it is crucial to spend as much of your wake time in “daily nonexercised activities” (Pullinen, 2012) such as walking to work, moving around the house, and taking a stretch break at work. Keeping your body moving will keep your joints lubricated, your muscles in full range of motion, and your body warm.
3. Find your core to find your hamstrings – a weak or disengaged core causes your quads and hip flexors to become more dominant, relying less on your posterior chain (hamstrings and glutes). Connect with your core so you can more easily activate your hamstrings
4. Dedicate time to focus your workout on the posterior chain – this can vary depending on your activity level or training modality. Most lower body workouts emphasize working the front of your legs like squats, leg extensor, and lunges. Find time in your schedule to focus on the hamstrings
These are some of my favorite movements for the hamstrings (I will do a separate post to describe them in more detail)
a. Body weight exercises
- Drinking birds
- Body bridges
- Split squats
- Hamstring curls
b. Weight-bearing movements
- Romanian Deadlift
- Barbell Back Squat
- Split Squats w/ weights
- Hip Thrusters
- Hamstring curls – on physioball or cable
- Kettlebell Swings
5. Be consistent – things do not happen overnight! Be patient and stay headstrong!
If you found this article helpful be sure to share it with three people who cannot touch their toes!
1. Muscle Activity and Inactivity Periods during Normal Daily Life. Tikkanen O., Haakana P, Pesola AJ, Häkkinen K, Rantalainen T, Havu M, Pullinen T, Finni T., 2013 -https://www.researchgate.net/publication/235372036_Muscle_Activity_and_Inactivity_Periods_during_Normal_Daily_Life.
2. Interventions for Prevention and Rehabilitation of Hamstring Injuries. Reza Rahimi Moghaddam, 2016 - https://www.researchgate.net/publication/316923444_Interventions_for_prevention_and_rehabilitation_of_hamstring_injuries
3. Dynamic stretching versus static stretching in gymnastic performance. Cristiana D'Anna, Filippo Gomez Paloma, 2015 - https://www.researchgate.net/publication/291186001_Dynamic_stretching_versus_static_stretching_in_gymnastic_performance.
4. Exercise for fitness does not decrease the muscular inactivity time during normal daily life. Taija Finni, Piia Haakana, Arto J Pesola, Teemu Pullinen, 2012 - https://www.researchgate.net/publication/221894974_Exercise_for_fitness_does_not_decrease_the_muscular_inactivity_time_during_normal_daily_life.