by Joe Giandonato, MS, CSCS
Glute training has grown ragingly popular over the past few years and articles
on how to target the glutes have
hijacked print magazines and internet forums alike. While directly training
the glutes boasts many benefits, glute training tunnel
vision as I call it, often neglects their powerful posterior chain
counterparts to the south – the hamstrings.
The hamstrings consist of distinct parts – the lateral hamstrings, which
include the long and short heads of the biceps femoris, and the
medial hamstrings, which are composed of the semimebranosis and
The fibers of the hamstrings originate from the ischial tuberosity and the
linea aspera of the femur. The fibers fan out and attach at multiple sites.
The biceps femoris attaches to the lateral aspect of the fibular head. The
semimembranosis attaches to the posterior medial tibial condyle.
The semitendinosis attaches to the anterior proximal tibial shaft.
As you can see the biceps femoris extends from the hip, where it crosses the
knee, which allows it to flex the knee. Its attachment
on the fibular head permits it to contribute to lateral rotation of the flexed
knee, which is important in athletic movements such as planting, cutting,
pivoting, and playing an
integral roles in keeping your knees from collapsing during squatting and
providing you the static strength necessary to stabilize your hips and lower
leg when initiating a deadlift.
Given their origin and attachment sites, spanning from the hip to below the
knee, the semimembranosis and semitendinosis are major players in hip
extension. These muscles provide us the
power we need to achieve maximal hip extension which occurs during sprinting
and jumping activities while securing the knees in proper alignment during
Despite their potential for producing power, they are quite susceptible to
Often times, hamstring injuries are precipitated by poorly designed training
programs which feed muscular imbalances.
Novices fall in the trap of only training what they can see.
Intermediate trainees opt for the leg curl machines, unaware of the
biarticular functioning of the hamstrings.
Athletes fall in the trap of profusely stretching their hamstrings, citing
that coaches and athletic trainers always tell them to.
Those who think they’re in the know or suffering from paralysis via analysis
will perform every hip extension exercise imaginable, yet ignore the
hamstrings role in knee flexion.
Oh and one final fatal mistake, many lifters and athletes don’t train them in
the manner they are used in sports — braking.
Our Body’s Brakes
The hamstrings essentially serve as our body’s brakes. They allow us to
decelerate. They absorb force from the ground during the late swing-early
phase of sprinting. A recent study which analyzed the involvement of the
hamstrings during sprinting, revealed that
peak musculotendon force and strain took place at foot strike during sprinting
(1). The absorbed force must be redirected back into
the ground to ensure continuation uninterrupted velocity and direction.
Strains and ruptures pop up when the force asorbption capacity of our
hamstrings cannot meet the forces imposed on them. What good is a Ferrari
without any brakes?
The hamstrings also allow us to land safely, whether our body is descending
back to the hardwood after snatching a rebound or simply landing atop a
plyometric box after a box jump, our hamstrings
allow us to “sit back” and use our muscles instead of our bones and joints to
absorb gravitational forces.
Now that we have some prominent training mistakes in mind, how can we
construct a program that maximizes strength, minimizes injury, and optimizes
1. Train the Backside
For starters, lifters and athletes could incorporate more exercises for their
backside. For each set of a quadriceps exercise, lifters and athletes should
perform two sets of a hamstring exercise.
2. Train the Hamstrings through hip extension and knee flexion
Given their distinct anatomical structure, the hamstrings need to be targeted
via exercises which involve knee flexion and hip extension. While machine leg
curls are a start, more attention should
be devoted to exercises which target the hamstrings in a more functional
manner, such as Romanian Deadlifts (dynamic hip extension and static knee
flexion), Glute Ham Raises (static hip extension and dynamic knee flexion),
Swiss Ball Leg Curls, TRX Leg Curls, and Val Slide Leg Curls. Aside
from the Glute Ham Raises, each exercise can be safely performed bilaterally
or unilaterally, depending on the goals and/or needs of the lifter or
3. Quit Overstretching the Hamstrings!
People love stretching their hamstrings. It’s easy to do and typically feels
good. But stretching doesn’t impact our body on a neural level. It doesn’t
leave a lasting imprint, instead
stretching confers acute relief as in a matter of time, tension will creep
back up and the hamstrings will be tight again. While previous injuries
including strains could affect the tissue quality of the hamstrings,
typically stems from excessive anterior pelvic tilt or neural tension.
Anterior pelvic tilt is caused by an imbalanced force couple relationship at
the hips. Anterior pelvic tilt can be addressed through strengthing the
anterior core and activating the glutes. Strategies such as loosening up,
strengtening, and lengthening the hip flexors
may also pay some postural improvement dividends. You see, tight hamstrings
aren’t the problem, they’re a symptom. Usually a symptom of a weak core and
If you want to “functionally” stretch the hamstrings, do so via eccentric
training protocols. A favorite of mine is the tempoed Romanian Deadlift.
I’ll have athletes set up a bar on hooks in a power rack or power cage at mid
thigh height. I’ll have them assume a shoulder width foot stance and unrack
the bar. They’ll keep the hips locked out and punch the knees forward a bit.
Next, I’ll have them shift their weight to their heels
through their hips, while they exert a vise grip on the bar, keeping their
core tight. They’ll continue to drive their hips back under a slow count just
shy of losing spinal neutrality. Lastly, they’ll be
instructed to forcefully extend the hips by driving through the heels and
finish the movement by squeezing the glutes at the top while keeping the core
Neural tension within the hamstrings typically stems from a trapped or
stretched nerve branch. Overstretching the hamstrings, only tightens the
hamstrings which may compress the nerves further or stretch the nerve branches
4. If you’re training your glutes, don’t forget about your hamstrings
Strong glutes are only good if the muscles below them are strong. Glute
bridges and hip thrusts are fantastic exercises, but you still need to target
your hamstrings with hip extension exercises. Pull throughs, either cable or
banded, and deadlift variations will do the trick.
5. Lastly, make sure that you’re training your hamstrings with proper loading
The hamstrings are largely comprised of fast twitch muscle fibers and respond
favorably with high load low rep training. For compound movements which afford
greater loads to be used, such as RDLs, reps as few as five per set will
suffice, especially if you’re looking to develop maximal strength. Assistance
exercises such as
leg curl variations, pull throughs, and GHRs can be performed up to 12 reps
1. Schache AG, Dorn TW, Blanch PD, et al. Mechanices of the human hamstring
muscles during sprinting. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2012;44(4):647-658.
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