July 9, 2011

Weekend Rant and tip for July 9th 2011

Today I am going to write about your hamstrings. The hamstrings are the three primary muscles on the back of the femur. While one head of one of these muscles only crosses the knee joint, the remaining hamstrings, cross both the knee and hip joints. Because of this, the hamstrings as a group serve two functions. The first is to flex your knee joint. Think of a leg curl. However, if you only perform leg curls for your hamstrings, you are missing out. The second, and in my opinion, more important function, is to perform hip extension. While walking, focus on pulling the planted leg back behind you with each step. By pulling your leg back, while on a planted foot, your torso is propelled forward. That is your hamstrings at work. In order to walk or run with the highest speed and efficiency, you should be focused on your hamstrings more than your quads. How many times have you been told to lift with your legs? In addition to movement, the hamstrings should be one of the primary muscles used to lift heavy objects. Unfortunately the hamstrings get a bit of a raw deal, as they are on the back of your legs and are not as easily seen in a mirror as your quadriceps. While you are likely to step into a gym and see countless patrons spend hours, working away on their chest, arms, abs and other ‘mirror muscles’, the hamstrings should be, along with the glutes, the strongest muscles on your body.

This leads me to what exercises are best to work on your hamstrings. First I will say that it would be irresponsible on my part to describe the lifts in detail without demonstrations. So it is up to you to find a good source to learn proper form. If people want, I can put together some footage of some of these exercises. Ranking the exercises, first and foremost is the squat. If I was told that I was only allowed to perform one exercise for the rest of my life, it would be the squat. Not the shakeweight. Squatting with a barbell works your entire posterior chain. An added benefit of squatting is that it works a large amount of muscle mass and should help boost your metabolism. During one period in my own training, I lost about 15 pounds when the only thing I did differently was squat more frequently. During a squat, your legs are bending at the knees and the hips, which are the two joints that the hamstrings are involved in. Keep in mind when squatting, to get low. If you only perform quarter squats, you will not fully activate your hamstrings.

Other options to consider are deadlifts and variations such as Romanian deadlifts and stiff legged deadlifts. I will also include good mornings, but many of you will probably never need or try these. More great options include pull-throughs, hyperextensions, reverse hyperextensions, and glute-ham raises. Glute-ham raises are an excellent choice, as they utilize both functions of the hamstrings, but they are hard and it may take some time to be able to do them correctly. Some people like to use lunges or split squats. They are also fine choices, but if you are focusing on your hamstrings, remember to keep the front foot relatively far from the back foot. Lunges and split squats with your feet closer together will work the quadriceps more.

Something to consider: Your hamstrings are a large muscle group, so if you have not been working them and then decide to hit them hard, expect to be sore. If you are not sore after the first time, odds are you did not work them very hard. Soreness could last a few days, or even a week is possible. Sometimes the soreness will not start until a day or two has passed. The good news is that once you work them into your schedule, your body will adapt and the length and degree of soreness will be reduced. Consider this your motivation to continue to work them. From my personal experience, as long as I continue to train my legs, I do not get very sore. Also some tricks can be employed to minimize soreness. First of all stretch regularly. Hamstrings are notorious for being tight. An easy way to stretch them is to loop a towel or stretch band around your ankle and slowly pull your leg up while laying on your back. Foam rolling and other soft tissue work is also beneficial. That could be a future post. Another trick is to get in light exercise one or two days after your hard session. This is sometimes called ‘active recovery’. This could include going for a walk or a swim, or squatting with just your bodyweight for a few sets.

I am going to go off on a tangent and use this as an excuse to state why I don’t like treadmills. After turning on the treadmill you lift your foot up and place it in front of you. This uses your hip flexors. The belt moves that leg back and while that happens, you place your other foot in the front and repeat. Unless you make a conscious decision to do so, the treadmill is what is pulling your foot behind you as you walk. It is possible to use a treadmill, and never activate your hamstrings. This could lead to an imbalance from working your hip flexors repeatedly, with little to no hip extension work. You are better off just walking without the treadmill. Note that a manual treadmill, which does not have a motor to turn the belt, is also a better option. Also note that walking outside does not require a gym membership. It’s free and can be done anywhere. A great exercise for any beginner is simply to go out for a walk. Start with a short time and gradually build up the time or add in walking up hills. To be very blunt, if there are no structural injuries present, and walking is too strenuous, you really should not be concerned with other forms of exercise.

Great Post Brian and thanks again for your time and effort!


  1. Hi Jim -
    Great informative post! I have very tight hamstrings and are actually causing me to have lower back pain.

    This has gotten so troublesome that I will be going for an epidural to help release the tension. Once this happens, I will be working out more to help strengthen my core muscles and (hopefully) prevent this in the future.

    Any advice or suggestions?


  2. I LOVED all the information on the hamstrings. I've done weight training for years for my health (although it sure doesn't look it) but I've never had a really good knowledge of the hamstrings. This was wonderful. Thanks so much!

  3. Thanks for the info, JIm. Now I know why all my workout routines have so many squats in them. SO many people think squats cause knee problems and do not do them at all. What I understand, here, is that squats may prevent knee problems. Is that accurate?