The human body has a multitude of muscle groups of all shapes and sizes, designed to facilitate proper motion. Often times, people who are starting an exercise routine, or people who have been doing a program for a while, may accidentally neglect a certain muscle group. This can happen for a number of reasons. The person my feel as though they don’t have the time to incorporate certain muscles, may be unfamiliar with how to properly exercise a specific muscle group, or may not see the benefits of exercising different areas of their body.
One trend that I have noticed while working at Badger High School and at the Burlington Wellness Center is that some people have a tendency to overemphasis lifts for the front of the legs, and cut short on the exercises for the back of the legs, where the hamstrings are located. This blog entry will focus on the importance of exercising the hamstring muscle group, and offer introductory anatomy of the hamstrings, as well as exercise examples that can be done at home or in the gym.
The hamstring muscle group, located in the posterior thigh, is made up of three main muscles: the biceps femoris, semitendinosus and semimembranosus. All three muscles share a specific origin (starting point) on the ischial tuberosity, which is the bony prominence one feels in their butt when sitting on a hard surface. From there, the biceps femoris attaches to the bony prominence on the outside (lateral) of the knee (fibular head). The semitendinosus and semimembranosus both attach to the inside part of the knee, on the lower leg bone (tibia). Since all three muscles cross the hip and knee joint, they all work to extend the hip backwards and flex the knee.
In addition to flexing the knee and extending the hip, the hamstrings play an important role in many other activities. As with all muscles, the hamstrings work both concentrically (shortening) and eccentrically (lengthening). A concentric contraction of the hamstrings allow for the knee to flex, such as when doing a hamstring curl. An eccentric contraction of the hamstrings is used to cause deceleration of either the leg or trunk. Common examples of when the hamstrings are used eccentrically include proper squatting technique (see Perfect Posture #3 – Perfect Squatting Technique), during the swing phase of running (especially downhill), and during the first half of a Russian Dead-Lift (explained later in the blog). Another example of an eccentric contraction of the hamstrings is during the second half of the hamstring curl, when a person is lowering the weights back down in a slow, controlled rate, and lengthening the hamstrings.
Deceleration of the lower leg during activity (which is facilitated by proper hamstring eccentric strength) is extremely important when trying to prevent injury. Proper deceleration reduces the stress placed on the joint capsule and ligaments that make up the knee joint. Proper hamstring strength also works to stabilize the hips, and as noted in the previous blog entry, stable hips allow for a stable back and core, which leads to perfect posture.
There are many ways to quickly exercise this very important muscle group. One excellent introductory exercise for the hamstrings, which require no equipment, is hamstring bridges. To begin, one must assume the “hook-lying position”, which was instructed in Perfect Posture #2 – Proper Abdominal Stabilization. The hook lying position is also pictured here. After proper abdominal stabilization, to properly use the hamstrings, one must point their toes skyward, and dig their heels into the surface they are laying on (feel free to use a pillow, keep your shoes on, or work on a yoga mat or other flat surface). While driving the heels down, one should try to simultaneously pull their heels toward their butt. If done properly, the heels should not move, and the person should feel a contraction in their gluteals (butt) and hamstrings. To practice this, one should try for two sets of 10 contractions held for three seconds. Once one has excellent control of the hamstrings, they should progress by trying to lift their hips off of the ground while maintaining the hamstring contraction. People who are attempting this exercise need to be pay special attention to the front of their legs (quads), to make certain that they are staying relaxed, which allow the hamstrings and gluteals (butt) to work.
An advanced exercise is the Russian Dead-Lift. This exercise should be done once a person has excellent control of their hamstrings by practicing hamstring bridges. To perform a Russian Dead-Lift, a person must start with feet shoulder width apart, head up and core tight, similar to the starting position for proper squatting (Perfect Posture #3 – Proper Squatting Technique). With a slight bend in the knees, the goal is to bend forward at the hips while maintaining proper spinal curvature in the low back and neck until one feels a stretch over the posterior thigh. Once one feels the stretch, they should focus on tightening their gluteals and hamstrings, which will propel one back to the original starting position (pictured here). It is important that one is not lifting with the low back during this exercise, which can be avoided by maintaining proper spinal curvature and keeping the core tight and knees slightly bent. The Russian Dead-Lift, which focuses on both the concentric and eccentric contraction of the hamstring, can be first practiced with bodyweight, and then advanced with the addition of barbells. A video example can be found here.
Of course, proper squatting is also an excellent way to condition the hamstrings. By increasing the muscular strength of the hamstrings, one will improve their posture, hip stability and knee stability, which will decrease stress over their knees, hips and back.
Follow the Perfect Posture series!
- Part 1: Reposition your health with perfect posture
- Part 2: Strengthen your abs, stabilize your core
- Part 3: Protect your spine with proper squats
Don’t give up the sport — give up the pain! Visit the Aurora Sports Medicine Institute at 13 Wisconsin locations, visit our website, follow us on Facebook, browse our YouTube channel, or call our hotline at 1-800-219-7776.