The hamstrings are a group of 4 muscles at the back of your thigh, the bicep femoris (long head and short head) on the lateral side and the semitendinosus and semimembranosus on the medial side. They are 2 joint muscle and cross both the hip and the knee joint (with the exception of the short head of bicep femoris which only works over the knee).
Hamstring injuries account for about 12-16% of injuries in team sports and recurrence rates are very high. They are also extremely important in force Production through hip extension, having bigger, stronger and better endurance in your hamstrings is a great way to reduce the risk of injury and also make yourself stronger, faster and more powerful.
The Top 5
The Deadlift is the most traditional exercise on my list and is the daddy of strength development not only in the hamstrings. If you are not doing deadlifts then you are missing out. The problem that a lot of people come across when they start doing deadlifts is that they are not physical prepared in the first place. They lack the appropriate mobility, technique or both which will most likely result in an injury (probably the lower back). If you are new to deadlifting than I would advise a visit to a sports therapist for a mobility assessment and some advice on how to start your deadlifting journey, this might include some mobility work like sports massage, joint mobilisations or maybe you need a gradual introduction to the deadlift technique and some gradual loading of the hip hinge movement. This might consist of a progression like this: 1-kettlebell deadlift from a block, 2- kettlebell deadlift from the floor, 3- rack pulls from knee high, 4- conventional deadlift from floor, 5- conventional deadlift from floor with resistance bands added.
If you are ready to start and don't require any sports therapy or sports massage to get the stiffness worked out of your body here are some common mistakes to watch out for:
1. Don't let your knees move forward as you bend down to pick the bar up. This takes the emphasis away from your hamstrings and almost changes the deadlift from a hip hinge movement to a squat. Keep your Tibia (shin bone) vertical at all times.
2. Ensure your lumbar spine remains in neutral at all times during the lift, most people can tell when they over arch into a kyphosis (hunch back) but I see experienced dead lifters in excessive lumbar extension all the time, the risk of a herniated disc Is not as high in this position as in the kyphosis position but it is detrimental to performance and reduces your ability to engage your core.
2- KETTLEBELL SWING
The kettlebell swing is a dynamic Hamstring exercise and has been shown to increase strength and power when used in long tern training plans. Kettlebell swings are effective for working the hamstrings when done with a hip hinge style and not a squat-swing style. Somewhat surprisingly the people who will benefit most from the kettlebell swing are Athletes and relatively untrained individuals. Here at move freely sports therapy + performance In Edinburgh I like to use kettlebell swings with my Athletes as an aerobic activity as it has been shown that they can increase VO2-MAX and have positive effects on Heart rate response.
3- NORDIC HAMSTRING CURL
The Sports Therapists best friend for hamstring and ACL rehabilitation, I also use these with clients who have a risk of injury to the hamstring as a preventative exercise. The Nordic hamstring curl can be thought of as a rehab exercise but with significant EMG activity shown in the hamstrings particularly the lateral hamstrings (bicep femoris). The one draw-back is that you need a partner to help hold your feet/ankles to the floor as you preform the exercise or alternatively you can use a glute/ham raise machine if you are lucky enough to find one in Edinburgh. The Nordic curl works the hamstrings eccentricity which is particularly helpful during deceleration phase of sprinting when we see so many footballers and rugby players pulling up with hamstring tears.
4- SUPINE HAMSTRING CURL WITH SLIDEZ
This is probably my personal favourite exercise to target the hamstrings. It's a perfect mix between strength training and rehabilitation which in sports therapy terms is gold dust. It challenges your core stability and your hamstring strength through knee flexion. It is very dynamic and requires a lot of stability at the same time. It can be done as a bilateral or unilateral exercise and is extremely easy to progress and with only a £30 investment for some SKLZ Slidez all you will need is enough space to lay on the floor.
5-TRX HAMSTRING CURL
The TRX hamstring curl is very similar to my number 4 pick as it is again done in a supine laying position and is knee dominant. The stability component is very demanding, unfortunately there has not been much research done on the EMG activity of the hamstrings with this exercise but I have a feeling that it would be very high as my hamstring ache for days after doing them. This is an extremely challenging exercise and should be worked up to by doing the Nordic hamstring curl and Slidez curl first.
So now you have an arsenal of 5 hamstring exercises to try at your local gym or sports club you are probably thinking which should I do first? My advice is to do 1 hip dominant and 1 knee dominant exercise in your training plan. The deadlift and kettlebell swings (1 & 2) are hip dominant and great overall strength and fitness developers and the Nordic, eccentric slidez and TRX curls (3,4 & 5) are all Knee dominant and perfect for eccentric contraction of the hamstrings which with help massively with injury prevention. I would programme a conventional deadlift as part of Monday’s training session and the eccentric hamstring curl with slidez on a Thursday training session with my sports therapy clients for about 4 weeks before developing it further.
It's very common to have aches and pains in your hamstrings after doing these exercises especially if you do them well and with heavy weights, so I would recommend having some regular sports massage and foam rolling sessions as part of your plan. I am a big fan of regular sports massage to help keep tissue quality high and hopefully prevent any injuries or poor performances.
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